Extinction Rebellion: Cancel Fashion Week And Let’s Talk

On the 26th of July 2019, environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion (XR), together with Maria Chenoweth, CEO of UK charity Traid, and Safia Minney MBE, Founder of leading fair trade fashion brand People Tree, delivered a letter to the British Fashion Council (BFC), calling on them to cancel London Fashion Week

They are asking the BFC to convene a People’s Assembly instead to discuss how fashion can tackle the climate emergency. The request comes hot on the heels of The Swedish Fashion Council’s announcement in July that it is cancelling Stockholm fashion week to allow time to develop a new format focused on innovation and sustainability. 

At Common Objective we believe in the power of collaboration, of coming together as an industry to solve the challenges of our times.” says Tamsin Lejeune, Common Objective, CEO. 

Extinction Rebellion aim to disrupt the movement of press and buyers between shows and will be holding a ceremonial funeral procession as part of their LFW RIP campaign. 

XR disrupt the opening of London Fashion Week / Image Gareth Morris

We speak to Clare Farrell, co-founder of the campaign group to find what XR is hoping to achieve by disrupting fashion week and get her response to some of the criticisms levelled at XR by the industry.  

Why target London Fashion Week and not any of the other international fashion weeks?

“XR (Extinction Rebellion) are not in charge of groups in any other countries as XR is a decentralised set-up. Other XR affinity groups (civil disobedience support groups) are interested it in but XR UK is much further developed.

“We have quite a large number of people with a fashion background who have come on board. And similarly with architects. Which is interesting as both are design led industries which are using a tremendous amount of resources and having a massive impact. So I think the people that work within them...if they care about this and they’re paying attention, feel compromised and they can’t do their work without feeling guilty. 

"The other thing is that fashion week is a major cultural event and is related to an industry that has great cultural influence. And, that is an obvious place to go to start to have these kinds of conversations."

But hasn’t the idea of convening large groups of industry professionals to help tackle these problems been tried before and yet the issues remain? How would this People’s Assembly be any different?

"The meetings that happen are about doing business as usual, but tweaking it a bit; how to make the system a bit less bad, bit cleaner, a bit better, a bit more efficient.

"By the end of the century it is likely that the planet could be unliveable in. I don’t think people have come to terms yet with the seriousness of the situation. 

"What we hope for is a convening of industry that includes some incredible creatives, incredible communicators, brilliant designers. Everyone who has got the skills and the capacity to think about how we deal with the future that is coming, we think, should be applying themselves to thinking about that. 

"This is a total emergency. It is difficult because it is unprecedented. So it is a huge challenge. So we need to organise ourselves in a way that prepares us for the things that are to come and recognises the impacts, and works to make all of our systems and communities more prepared, more resilient and at the same time do everything that is possible in terms of mitigation.

"The UN have been shouting at the world for the last year or so, saying ‘guys, guys, guys...come on’. And yet, business is going on as usual. Carbon emissions are still going up, they went up last year and the year before and they will go up again this year. 

"Something has to stop, doesn’t it? Some stuff has to stop happening. And that’s a difficult conversation to have but people need to talk very seriously about how we can achieve it together."

Read Can Fashion Stop Climate Change on CO

How do you respond to criticism from within the sustainable fashion community about the proposed actions, claiming that it will unfairly harm emerging designers many of whom are sustainable fashion pioneers? 

“XR is not in the business of sustainability. And I think that is important that we all think about that because this is a total emergency and does not require a sustainability focused response. What we’ve actually asked fashion week to do is convene an emergency meeting to work out how to move forward.

"We think if the industry were to be able to hold this kind of conversation that people might be able to think of things that can happen so that can move things towards a better future. 

"What [sustainability] work usually means is very incremental change. And what we’re saying is there is no time for that because we should have been doing it much more and for at least the last 30 years. And, as I’m sure you know, the industry has not changed, despite lots of us trying to change it.

Does cancelling LFW not take away a vital platform for sustainable designers, British designer Bethany Williams for example, to get their message across?

Bethany Williams AW19, recycled plastic

"I know Bethany has found it difficult to have her needs met as part of fashion week because it is hard not to have any single use plastic, or it is hard not to have anyone attend who has flown on an airplane to get there. For someone who wants to run a sustainable show it is not very easy to do so under the conditions that are there.

"If fashion week were to be reopened in a different way then everything needs to be rethought and then the space would be less compromising for [sustainable designers]."

Isn’t London Fashion Week a soft target? Unlike the other major fashion weeks which are dominated by large luxury conglomerates, London is known for showcasing the work of emerging designers who have the most to lose? 

"It has not been our choice to disrupt fashion week in London because it is the most deserving of the disruptions, we know it has got most of the emerging, forwarding thinking directional talent because it always has done. 

"The question is...a fashion week like London, that is often at the vanguard of creativity...is it able to lead the field towards doing things differently?  And really asking the big questions. I would argue that LFW is much better placed to do that than New York Fashion Week or Paris.”

"The BFC have been really kind to meet with us and talk to us. They are listening." 

Extinction Rebellion protests in London | source Extinction Rebellion

Can design not play an important role in both creating more sustainable products and also shifting public opinion and galvanising change?

"There is a great radical history of design. At the moment it feels like everybody is just gagged by this concept of moral neutrality. “I don’t agree with the company that I’m working for but I don’t have a choice in that so I’m just liberated to do my job because that’s not my fault, I’m just little me in this little creative job in this company.

"But as designers and creatives you can shape what people think, you can get people to do things. People are in a great position of power and not in the way they were told, 10 or 15 or 20 years ago like all the impact of a garment is decided in design. That part I think was a bit of a distraction.

"Can you explain what you mean when you say focusing on the impact of a garment design is a distraction?

"We’ve tried to bring people’s attention to the bigger picture. We are not going to shop our way or design our way out of it by designing a line of dresses to fix this. It's a systemic problem and all of the ways we socially organise ourselves."

What about the impact that cancelling fashion week could have on jobs? 

"The jobs issues in interesting because it is a constant obstruction to having a conversation about changing things. Economic threat always receives a push back when people ask for radical change.

"I don’t want to put anyone out of business that make good products with good people, in London or anywhere. But I know for sure that while we focus on rebutting that question about jobs we stop talking about what we need to do to achieve what we need to achieve."

Header image: Gareth Morris

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Melanie Plank

Head of Content at Common Objective

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