Baroness Lola Young is a truly inspirational figure. Awarded an OBE in 2001, and appointed as a life peer in the House of Lords in 2004, Baroness Young is also an artist, author and cultural ambassador, and held the position of Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority from 2001 to 2004. She is also the ambassador for the Ethical Fashion Forum and Made-By, organisations that work with major brands ‘wishing to develop their ethical and sustainable standards’. Over the last three years, her involvement as an ambassador for the promotion of ethical and sustainable fashion practices has been instrumental in placing the issue on the Government’s agenda.
Baroness Young identifies the motivation for her work around this area: ‘For me, the intersection of human rights, social justice and arts and creativity have been important for a long time. I had also begun to think about the close links between those areas and environmental issues. The revelation was how all of this is integral to our consumption of fashion and clothing.’ She has also actively changed her shopping practices as a result of her work, by trying to ‘buy less, and think of my purchases as investments rather than disposable after a short period’.
On 3 March this year, Baroness Young opened a debate in the House of Lords to ask the Government about their plans to support and promote the ethical and sustainable fashion and clothing industry. Some of the issues raised in the debate included the ‘provision of tax breaks for green fashion businesses’, and ‘the power of the Government’s procurement processes’. She identified the Government among ‘the largest non-retail purchasers of clothing and textiles, spending over £1.186bn per year’.
The debate was important, as ‘These issues are now on the record, and it’s vital that those who care about ethical and sustainable clothing keep up the pressure on Government to support and promote this area of work. Incidentally, several peers have apparently enquired about replacing the ermine on their robes with a synthetic material
Baroness Young is candid about how much she has learned on her particular journey. She makes it known that she is not trying by any means to demonise the fashion industry, and acknowledges those brands and retailers that are trying to be more aware and responsible in their practices. But she believes that we, as consumers and politicians alike, have to take responsibility for our actions, or lack of them.
In terms of getting people to purchase more responsibly, Baroness Young believes that the goal of the ethical fashion forums will be ‘to develop short- , medium- and long-term strategies for changing consumer attitudes and behaviour. We can approach this in several different ways, and acknowledge the fun and pleasure people derive from planning outfits and choosing something to wear.
There is no doubt that the constant changing of fashion trends has had a major influence on consumer attitudes to disposable fashion. Yet Baroness Young is positive about the changes she has seen during her involvement with this issue.
'People seem more receptive to the idea of sustainability in fashion – even in the short time I’ve been involved, I’ve noticed that the subject is moving closer towards being the mainstream. And the squeeze on people’s finances may mean that this presents us with an opportunity. Already it’s clear that more people are going to charity shops, and vintage clothing is having something of a boom time. With high-profile support from models, designers and major stores, I feel we can make further inroads over the coming years. ’It is of the utmost importance that consumers realise that some of the responsibility for promoting ethical and sustainable practices in the fashion industry is theirs. Our attitude to shopping and our shopping practices support a multibillion-pound industry.'
A change in attitude means ‘abandoning the idea of trying to emulate the celebrity styles by buying lots of cheap versions of what they wear. Think of an article of clothing as an investment in creativity – buy something classic that will last, and learn how to change it by adding embellishments, changing the hemline, shortening sleeves, and so on.
‘I heard recently that we buy two million tonnes of clothing a year, and throw away one million. What sense does that make, with textiles accounting for approximately one third of landfill?’