Fashion Fightback: Ethics and the Environment

Jessie Mathewson 27 November 2015

Heidy Rehman is not what you might expect of the owner of a fashion brand. The founder of Rose & Willard also writes about sustainable fashion for The Huffington Post – but her degree is in maths, and she previously worked as a research analyst in the city. So how do you make the move between two industries that seem at first glance to be poles apart?

“The job that I did in the city was analysing companies – there isn’t a dissociation, you have to have an understanding of companies and economics. In terms of setting up the brand it was a question of identifying a gap in the market.” But Heidy’s interest in the fashion industry is more personal: “It was something that I found personally, that as a professional woman I couldn’t find the clothes that were suitable for my working role. There was nothing in the mid-market section that was appropriate for a professional wardrobe where you could wear something, still wear what you want to wear, but be taken seriously.” 

This personal experience seems to have affected the direction of the brand, which is frequently described as feminist. I want to know if Heidy sees her company as identifying with that label: Is Rose & Willard a feminist label? “Yes, we are, because it is about empowering women. A woman only wears 20% of her wardrobe: that I think is a reflection of the fact that she buys things and she feels uncomfortable in them. We want the fit to be perfect, we want the fabric to be beautiful, because when you wear it you feel a million dollars. And when you feel that good and you’ve got really beautiful fabric next to your skin you’re going to go out and conquer the world. When you feel good generally you achieve.”

Heidy herself is an example of this kind of woman – she’s a successful business owner, and more than that she’s going against the tide in an industry that often shows little concern for ethics or the environment. What was it that made her so aware of the problematic aspects of the fashion industry, and caused her brand to take a stand against them? 

“We were living in Dubai – I was there for four and a half years, and my husband was there for nearly six years  – and you see exploitation there on a daily basis. There’s no other word for it, it is gross exploitation. When you can actually visualise what it looks like on someone’s face it does make you think twice. People buy cheap clothes from Primark, but they don’t see that face, it’s anonymous to them. We’ve seen what that exploitation looks like.” 

Rose & Willard has a clear set of ethical principles. The first relates to interns: “We categorically never will have unpaid interns – that just will not happen. We’d rather do without the staff than have unpaid people working for us. And then we all muck in and that’s quite a nice thing because everyone gets a lot of experience.” Heidy also feels strongly about her business’s carbon footprint: she buys in fabrics, but the rest of the production process – design, pattern cutting, making, retail – all happens in her London studio. 

Waste is also kept to a minimum, and today Heidy is a walking example of that. She wears a tailored suit, in a muted blue, the collar, blazer pockets, and trim of the trousers picked out in a darker fabric which looks at first glance like python. The whole thing is made from leftover fabric – “we don’t waste fabric – on average 15% of fabric is wasted in production. So when you cut a pattern whatever’s left on the outside you just throw it away – that’s actually very valuable fabric if you think about what you can pay per metre buying luxury fabric. It can be really quite economically wasteful, as well as environmentally wasteful. We just collect it all up and put it in bags, and then when we’re designing we think to ourselves 'okay, well what can we do with some of the fabric we’ve got left over', and we use it. It engenders really quite distinctive design because you have to be creative because you’re thinking to yourself well it’s not as though you can create a piece and you’ve got a limitless amount of fabric you’ve actually got a piece of fabric.”

Materials are also important to Rose & Willard – what seemed to be Python trim turns out to be fish leather, a bi-product of the food industry, sourced from Iceland. Fish leather is also produced in Thailand, but the use of exotic fish makes its sustainability questionable. Iceland has built up its fish stock through the use of fishing quotas – now their leftover salmon and cod things go to make this gorgeously textures, suede like fabric. 

The fashion industry needs more intitative like this – shockingly, it’s the world’s second most polluting industry. “If you look at the electricity consumption, if you look at the water consumption – I’m going to talk about the exact number in the presentation – it’s vast and it’s frightening.” 

The ethical problems of sweatshops are another black mark – with textile workers in Madagascar receiving on average just $0.25 per hour, exploitation is rife. And the disaster in — – in 2013, which left — dead and — more injured after a factory collapse demonstartes the appalling conditions in which these workers struggle for a pittance. 

So what exactly can we do? How can students on tight budgets kick their Primark habit and make a positive change? Heidy’s advice is simple – “Don’t buy those three cheap items actually keep that money and buy something that’s one thing that’s good quality and look for the quality. I’m not saying luxury or high price is synonymous with quality because that’s not necessarily the case, I would say go and actually look for decent quality. Something where you can do a stress test on the seam, just check that it’s good quality – is it washable? will it hold? buy that one piece and actually overtime you’ll probably save money.”

What about charity shops – they’re still fed by the same brands we see on the high street? What are the benefits of buying second hand? Heidy can still see the positives: “From an environmental perspective it’s still good and you’re recylcing – only 15% of clothes are actually recycled. 85% end up in landfill and most of landfill is actually incinerated so the environmental damage is actually quite significant. So if you’re buying something from a charity shop and you’re taking it second third fourth or fifth hand, actually you’re probably doing the environment a favour. And actually if you’re getting something that’s pretty old it’s going to be of better quality I imagine because it’s in recent years that the quality has fallen because people want so many cheap cothes so the pressure to deliver that has meant that the quality’s fallen, and standrads have fallen and the conditions of the garment workers have fallen.”

As well as sparking an interest, half the battle is spreading the word – Heidy writes for the Huffington post, but the mainstream fashion press aren’t interested: “They;re totally disinterested – they’re absolutely and categorically not interested it’s about trends it’s about the fashion industry is very kind of it kind of feeds itself in its own way, it’s all about trends, it’s all about celebrities and it’s about current trends and it’s about everything that’d the next ctwalk show the next  it’s just exclusively fashion. And they don’t analyse the industry in the same way that perhaps something like th Huffington post would, because you’d never see something in even Vogue that would look at garment manufacturing for instance. You know we saw with the disaster that there was a spotlight for a short period of time but then everybody forgot about it and thought about what’s the next trend. They’re paid for by the advertisers and that’s not what they want to see.”

But the individual doesn’t need to rely on the press anymore – with social media anyone can ask brands about the origins of their clothes, or spread the word about ethical fashion. Heidy encourages the use of two hashtags – the first lookathelabel encourages people to find out more about the brands that they buy from, and know their ethical and enivronmental record. If enough people ask those questions on social media, companies can’t avoid answering. The second hashtag, wearitagain aims to combat our throwaway culture, and encourages people to post pictures on social media, proudly re-wearing their clothes. As far as Hiedy’s concerned, it’s in the hands of the consumer.