Sustainability and the fashion industry with Elfy Scott and Meg Wilcher

Sustainability and the fashion industry with Elfy Scott and Meg Wilcher

I’m Elfy Scott, I’m a journalist and author and, having worked in the fashion industry for about six years before I ever entered a newsroom, I’m really passionate about talking about sustainability and alternative models when it comes to fashion production.

I wanted to speak with Meg Wilcher, the founder of Nu Form Movement to not only get a sense of the brand but to get a deeper understanding of the complexities of creating a sustainable fashion label in general. I think when we approach fashion from the perspective of consumers who are conscious of ethical and environmental issues in the industry, it can be a bit of a minefield to navigate. There is consistent greenwashing which makes it next to impossible to make truly informed choices about where we’re spending our cash.

I don’t believe this is a coincidence, either. Obfuscation of industrial practices clearly benefits some of fashion’s biggest players and in a world where legal oversight and certification of ethical fashion lags so far behind – how can we know if the people who say they’re doing the right thing really are? And further to that, how can we know about the obstacles and complexities that exist on the path to ethical fashion if nobody talks honestly about any 
of this?

I wanted to sit down with Meg to get a better sense of what she knows about fashion and why brands like Nu Form Movement are so far and few between.

Elfy: I want to start off by asking you a little bit about yourself and how you actually came to create Nu Form Movement and how you perceive your position in the fashion industry.

Meg: I’ve been interested in clothing and design since I was a little girl. I always used to draw designs for my dad and my mum who would give me little product briefs of where I was going and I would design an outfit accordingly. I would just draw things that I loved and outfits I thought would make people feel really powerful. I started there. I didn’t really know too much about caring for the environment and how much my industry could impact that. At the age of five I was just in love with clothing and design and the way you could create a world for people to feel like they’re a part of it.

Elfy: Where did being a fashion designer actually start for you? Where did you learn the fundamentals of what that meant?

Meg: I had a few options to choose between and figure out where I wanted to study fashion. There was TAFE which was super practical but fashion wasn’t offered as a degree where I grew up, so I would have to move to Newcastle or Sydney or Melbourne to study. Then there were private colleges like Billy Blue and the Whitehouse Institute of Design. They were exciting and super enticing to me but really expensive so TAFE was the route I decided to go down. I moved to Newcastle and studied fashion for two years and for the first year of my course
there was a lot of funding but that was eventually cut to the whole creative sector so hex debts were introduced. I studied there for two years and worked really hard for my degree. I also had to work two jobs to make sure that I could afford to live and buy these beautiful fabrics that I needed to access to bring my design dreams to life.


Elfy: Were you learning about sustainability at all in your fashion education?

Meg: It wasn’t really anything we were taught when I was studying so it was something that I had to explore and navigate on my own and understand how to integrate into my personal creative practice. It was something I was really interested in because I feel really tied to nature. I think real reform within the industry will start with creating policy and legislation change and starting with making changes on a community level and equipping people with understanding and knowledge of how they can support slow and positive industry overhaul. I think it’s really easy in today’s society to become a bit bogged down by the anxieties of things and how harsh the world can feel sometimes. I appreciate people who support and empower others with the tools or actions they could take to create change, rather than having the ‘it’s too hard, climate change doesn’t exist’ mentality.

Elfy wears Movement Full Length Flare (S) - Cream Plaid

Elfy: So how did you actually find your feet working in the fashion industry?

Meg: Back in 2012, there was a really cool brand that I begged to take me on as an intern. I kept annoying them until they would take me on. So, eventually they gave in and it was an unpaid internship in located in Sydney. I was living and studying in Newcastle, so I had to travel back and forth to do that. I worked really hard when I was there and when it came to a close and I had to say goodbye, the owner called me two days after I left and asked if I wanted to be their assistant designer. They said that they knew I was going to work really hard and they knew this was my first job in the industry but something inside of them was just saying they had to give me that opportunity. My starting salary was $35,000 PA inclusive of super to live and work in Sydney and the expectation of work hours was anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. I worked really hard in that job and I quickly gained trust and proved myself over time. By the end of it, it was a really different situation. I spent three years working there and I was travelling to China and Bali and India working with manufacturers and travelling to the U.S. to do trade shows and working with distribution agents who sold the brand in their countries as well. There were a lot of jobs I was taking on that weren’t “the designer’s job” but that was the nature of the industry and I was a ‘yes’ person.

Elfy: Do you feel like that experience of feeling exploited in the fashion industry formed some of your ethical values around it? Did it solidify feelings that everyone needs to be treated fairly, especially when you consider that you were initially being paid below the minimum wage?

Meg: Yes, absolutely. We had a meeting at the end of that time when I was about to leave, when a lot of compromising things were happening that I didn’t agree with and I knew that if I didn’t stand up for myself and walk away at that point, then I was joining in on the problem. I needed to stand up for myself and say – excuse the language – “Fuck this, this is not okay.” It was really hard but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to support or be a part of the culture of that kind of workplace nor work for a brand that didn’t encompass environmental responsibility as a non-negotiable. Even though it was an incredible experience, it was something that I just could not live with anymore.

Elfy: While you were travelling overseas and working in that capacity for the brand, did you get a sense of practices that disturbed you? Was it alarming to see the way production and distribution chain worked and was that setting any alarm bells off for you?

Meg: There was a lot of over-production on the design end. The brand was very disconnected with their customer base and what they needed and were asking for so a lot of stuff just went to waste. About 50% of the sampling usually wouldn’t go ahead into bulk production, so that’s a huge waste of everybody’s time, a huge waste of resources and money and things that I knew could be allocated elsewhere. There wasn’t much environmental understanding or care for fabrication choice, finishing choice, dyes or washes. There’s also not much legislation or policy holding people accountable for the claims that they’re making about the products they’re creating. So, I figured I couldn’t keep working the way that I was.


Elfy: So, this was a bigger company, right? Was there any ethical oversight whatsoever about how their clothes were actually being produced?

Meg: The factories we worked with were amazing, they were all accredited and certified and had the BSCI certification, meaning that workers’ rights were protected, they got paid a fair wage and sick leave and holidays, all of the minimum essential things. So, that was good and we did have a strong working relationship but because this was such a huge company that I was working for, sometimes these companies have been created a long time ago without other ethical or environmental considerations in mind. When they’re an existing large scale brand, it’s really hard to reconfigure company procedures. Caring for the environment is a costly choice, it eats into company profits and therefore price points need to increase at a customer level. It’s a really costly change. They couldn’t re-educate their entire customer base on why prices were almost doubling if they did change their approach to be more “sustainable”.


Elfy: If it is so hard for big businesses to pivot towards more ethical practices, what would be your suggestion for those companies? Is it a case of downsizing or do these companies just have to be built from the ground up again with these values in mind?

Meg: It’s so difficult because a lot of these bigger brands need cash flow of millions of dollars every time they put a production run into the works. So, a lot of them have shareholders, which means that they’re publicly listed and liable to everybody else who has invested in the business or the brand. So, you have to create a really strong argument as to why you’re creating a business model that’s already making them money and why it’s going to cost investors more. I think that’s part of the limitations of having a really big business. It’s monumentally difficult to change and it also requires taking on more people for roles to lead and implement those changes. These adjustments can take years and years to ever reach the consumer because if you’re doing it correctly, it takes a long time to implement from the back end to the front. There’s also the issue that when the business is so disproportionately huge, it’s really hard to stay involved in the community of consumers and understand what customers want to see from them and how they can implement change. They spend all of their time putting
out fires, so you never get to the core problems at the heart of the consumer base.


Elfy: So, you think having smaller brands or companies is the solution?

Meg: It’s hard but I think it’s good to have the conversation. The smaller the brand, the bigger the challenge but it’s also easier to create the right ethical parameters from its birth.


Elfy: If big, fast-fashion companies are the issue, should we all be turning back to op-shopping and picking up recycled clothing instead? I notice that there are a lot more outlets and apps available now for people to be selling clothes back to one another online, is that something that you support?

Meg: There are a lot of businesses being birthed at the moment that I believe in but also…don’t believe in. A lot of them are platforms to resell fashion that is of a certain quality or from a certain brand that have got a high level of make and a high price point attached. They concern me because maybe a while ago those clothes would have been given to, say, the Salvation Army and put into op shops for people who don’t have the disposable income to spend on clothing and shoes.

I think that can perpetuate a class problem because these really high-quality items aren’t accessible for people who can’t usually access them anymore, so it’s furthering this cycle of this product not being accessible for people. I try to be aware of it myself if I ever want to resell an item rather than donating it – do I really need this money or does somebody else need this garment more than I do? Because I want to give somebody else the opportunity to live in something that has high quality that can serve them for a longer time.


Elfy: Are there any brands that you personally look to as the ideal of ethical fashion? Brands that encompass all of the values that you’re trying to push as a designer?

Meg: I don’t think they really exist, to be honest. Perfect brands can’t exist. They can be as environmentally-honouring as possible but no matter what, they’re still going to create a carbon footprint. We’re offsetting that footprint but I still don’t totally believe in creating something for the point of creation – it can be beautiful and I get that but I also think it’s important as a creative person to check in with yourself. Are you creating for ego or are you creating because you think that there’s an important gift of value or thing you can bring to the table that will fill a legitimate gap in the market? There’s a contradiction in our industry where you can’t call yourself a truly sustainable brand because it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what you’re creating, you’re always going to have a footprint associated with you whenever you’re creating a product. Whilst everybody can strive towards becoming a more responsible version of themselves, there’s really no such thing as that. I think Ganni, which is a brand based in Denmark do amazing work because they acknowledge that and they publish a yearly report on what they’re trying to do to do better across a range of things, including intersectional stuff like gender inclusivity, workers’ rights, sizing, recycled fabrication, certified fabrication and things like that. I’m happy to support the brand because I know that their morals and values are invested in the things that are aligned with my morals and values.


Elfy: But how can you really tell, as a consumer who wants to buy responsibly, the
difference between somebody who is making genuine promises and somebody who’s just selling buzzwords?

Meg: From a customer point of view, you can ask brands if their factories have accreditations that are well-recognised? The sort of accreditations that are put in place that address social compliance ethics and environmental standards and have certain levels of adherence they must comply with in order to get the certification. Those are things like BSCI certifications. Then there are certifications for certain fabrics and finishes, things like global recycled standards (GRS) that look at the procurement of the fabric and the fibre, how it was grown, the chemicals used to cultivate the crops and things like that.


Elfy: Is it more feasible for brands to create ethically if say, they produce locally? Does bringing production onshore make it easier to have oversight over these really complicated lines of resourcing and production?

Meg: Here in Australia, we have our own set of certifications in factories but the ability for small brands to grow here is completely void and limited because they are working within the parameters of ‘Australian-made’ and their profit margins are so small that they cannot actually ever grow. Or their price points are so high that a lot of people can’t access their product. The solution in my mind is bringing everything to community and onshore eventually but that’s a very far, far, far away concept because we don’t have the resources, our wages are so high here, if we did have it on shore, it would need to be a huge group of people taking it on and committing to the cause otherwise it won’t be a feasible operation. I’m trying to become a part of legislative bodies and team up with people who are in positions of power with much bigger brands with investment teams so that we can have conversations to try and tackle these issues with producing in Australia. But ultimately, I think that if clothing production was here, in community, and it was impacting our lives, our lifestyles, the environments next to us and we were more attached to it all, then I think we would all care more.


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