The negative effects of fast fashion have been becoming more and more apparent over the past few years. Countless news stories have uncovered shocking human rights abuses as well as the detrimental effect that fast fashion is having on the environment. With the majority of clothing brands clearly putting profit over people, does it really have to be this way?
We spoke to Harriet Saywood-Bellisario, owner of Saywood, an eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical clothing brand based here in Walthamstow to find out what she's doing differently.
Introduction - What you do? Your background? Why did you start your brand?
I’m Harriet and I am the founder of Saywood, an ethically made, slow fashion brand, born out of a love of colour and unique designs made to last. I’ve worked in fashion for over ten years, for both high end and premium brands, with my background being in womenswear design and development. Having focused my final degree project on sustainability back in 2010, I became aware of the damage fashion was doing to the planet in the way that we were consuming it, and the harmful treatment of many of the workers. Fashion does not, and should not, be this way. So in starting the brand I wanted to prove you could have fun, colourful, fashionable clothing that could be sustainable and ethically made, that was sourced responsibly so as not to deplete the environment it came from. To be fashionable does not mean having to be trend led. Fashion is about inspiring people, about expressing your personality. And this is what is important to me; for the wearers of Saywood clothes to be able to express themselves through what they wear and how they wear it. Saywood is about slow fashion, in that it is about timeless pieces, made special by the colour and the details. Colour is definitely a big part of the collection.
What makes Saywood sustainable?
The pieces are designed to be timeless, to be loved always. They are made in small batches, at ethical factories, paying well above the living wage; and they also aim for zero waste by sending all the factory offcuts for use in mattress paddings for example. The fabrics are sourced from fabric mills that share Saywood’s values; producing ethically, and in a more environmentally friendly way, through water reduction and recycling, low energy use and reduced chemicals. And they ensure their raw materials come from sustainable and ethical sources; our main mills source their cotton from the US to ensure fair wages and good soil health management. No new cloth is woven, we source from stock or deadstock (cloth that has been made but not used), and we use recycled fibres where possible, such as the Edi Shirt in blue. Even the trims are considered; our labels are from recycled materials, and our buttons are eco-friendly too.
What were your biggest challenges starting this brand?
I think the biggest challenge has been navigating my way through what comes after the production. My background is product based, so going from sketch to garment has been fairly straight forward. After that it’s solid learning; learning to build a website, to navigate social media, to understand your sales channels. Covid has limited the face to face selling, I would have liked to have started with a few more pop up shops, but mostly the start of the brand has been online. And the internet is a big place! So getting to grips with this has definitely been a big challenge. As well as all the juggling!… It's just myself for now, so learning to prioritise across all departments is tough.
What is sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion has become a bit of a buzz term in the last year or so, with big brands chomping at the bit to show they are sustainable. What is sustainable fashion? It is really an umbrella term, to cover a multitude of ways that fashion can be more ‘sustainable’. Ultimately, to be sustainable means to be long lasting (and in use!), and to ensure that, both the people who make our clothes can sustain their lives, and that the planet can sustain its health in that we do not take from it more than we should.
It might seem that this combination of requirements is difficult for brands to uphold, but in truth, it's simple. We do need brands to play their part, the advertising agencies to not constantly push products on us, and for more transparency in the industry, but even a simple change in mindset will go a long way, and will, at the same time, continue to put pressure on brands to change, by us simply not buying from those that aren’t making the change.
Can fashion ever be sustainable?
Can fashion ever be sustainable? Yes! First things first; the most sustainable pieces are the ones you already own. It has been estimated that there is approximately £30 million worth of clothing that goes unworn in our collective wardrobes.* And that’s just in the UK! *(https://wrap.org.uk/resources/guide/textiles/clothing)
So we can shop our own wardrobes. And to help us, when shopping, ask those three key questions; can I see myself wearing this in 5 years time? Do I have items in my wardrobe I can wear this with? Do I love it? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes great things are just on trend, but it’s important to look beyond that trend moment. Will that piece still be something you’ll like long beyond that? Making things last is sustainable in itself.
As consumers, this is our part to play. But for brands, they are right at the start of the chain. They have the power to make sure the suppliers they work with are those that are doing right by people and planet: Raw materials, such as cotton, are ethically and sustainably sourced, making sure that soil health and biodiversity is not being depleted, making sure water is not being over consumer, and the harmful pesticides are not used, and not overused full stop. They can choose to use 100% recycled when it comes to polyester, and that they do not create excessive waste that goes to landfill. Brands can ensure that their supply chain is paid fairly, that their garment workers go to work in a safe and healthy environment. And brands can ensure that they do not overproduce.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is certainly the thorn in fashion's side. No one is advocating that fashion should be plain, basic, zero fun. But fast fashion has created a prominent problem. It is based on high volumes, speed and products made cheaply. Cheaper prices mean a consumer can snap up that item, and by default, they don;t need to spend time contemplating their purchase as much. They can have a new outfit for the weekend, and it doesn’t need to outlast their wardrobe, because the next time they want something new, that fast fashion brand will be waiting in the wings to promote the next weekend’s outfit. Fast fashion has a habit of telling us that we need something new. That is how it functions. It’s fast. It is trend based, and trends move on, frequently. (But in terms of a sustainable wardrobe, trends often come back around! So keep hold of your items if you love them!)
One of the biggest problems with fast fashion is the volumes. Too much product is being made and not sold. So much of it ends up in the sale, or overflowing in charity shops, or goes to landfill or gets incinerated because the brands cant continue to hold onto the stock that isn’t selling. Overproduction of garments is happening in order to get cheaper prices. In order to get cheaper prices, higher volumes need to be made, to reduce the make time per item. And this is where ethics come into play. The machinists that make those clothes are skilled workers, but they have high targets to hit each day which means they cannot spend the time they need on the sewing. Brands demand low prices from the factories, which then passes down to the workers - low cost prices means low wages. It takes 4-5 hours to make a shirt, with time to ensure quality. So that should be 4-5 hours worth of, at least, living wages, plus fabrics, buttons and trims, labels, packaging, shipment, brand profit and overheads, taxes. All of these things have to be included in the final price point. So can a shirt from a fast fashion brand really cost £30 at retail and still be sustainable and ethical?! Sadly no. With so many people involved in the supply chain, someone somewhere is getting squeezed.
What should we look out for when shopping ourselves?
If you want to shop more sustainably, look for the brands that are more open to telling you about the product, where it comes from and what it’s made from; natural fibres will always biodegrade and are much easier to recycle. It is often easier to do online, but you can research brands. Ask the sales staff, email the brands. If it’s a small brand or independent there will be a person at the end of that call or email that can answer your questions.
But most importantly, ask yourself before buying, can I see myself wearing this in 5 years time? Do I have items in my wardrobe I can wear this with? Do I love it? And don’t forget, shop your wardrobe first. Make sure you know what you already have, you don’t want to be buying something you already own something really similar too; will you wear them both?
The key is to make your clothes last. Take care of them, keep them in your wardrobe, or in circulation if you no longer wear them; pass them on to someone who will continue to love them afresh. The act of prolonging the life of your clothes is sustainable in itself.
If you are in Walthamstow at the weekend, Saywood are having their first London pop up shop on Sunday 30th May, at Bangs hair salon on Hoe Street, from 11am - 5pm. Head on over to take a look at their first collection.
Browse the Saywood collection: www.saywoodstudio.co.uk