Fashion for Good* is a Dutch initiative to bring together the entire fashion ecosystem through an innovation platform and as a convenor for change. The Fashion for Good South Asia Program was lanched here in Sri Lanka during the Academy of Design & Colombo Innovation Tower – Innovation Day. Ambassador Gonggrijp was there and here is what she had to say on the importance of Fashion for Good and how we can brand Sri Lanka as the sustainable choice in the region.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,
I have a confession to make. I have worked very hard for 4 years to try to make the Dutch fashion and garment industry more sustainable. The confession is not that I did not yet succeed. As you know this is a huge challenge which is far from being in my hands alone. The confession is that I still have clothes in my wardrobe of which I do not have any information on how they were manufactured. And I still buy clothes that I do not really need.
You might want to know why? Or maybe you feel a sense of relief; I am not the only one….
‘You are what you wear’ is an interesting saying in this respect. Yes I am what I wear, I like blue, I like bright colors, I am extravert and enthusiastic. May be a bit classic. I would like to be more progressive, more fashionable, but I am just not the first one to try something different. So yes, I am what I wear.
But also NO. No I am not numb and insensitive to the issue of who made my clothes, under which circumstances and its impact on the environment. As a person, I seek justice and equality and I am not afraid to take a stand when it comes to these topics. I cried quietly when I walked through the slums of Dhaka where most of the garment workers live. And I am deeply concerned about the environment and the impact of climate change on the livelihoods of people and biodiversity. And as a professional I chose to spend all my working hours and much more to try to make a difference and contribute to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.
But as an individual I feel small. I am just one of the so many people who have to make the right choices in order to make things better. Sometimes it is vanity: the dress is perfect, why should I ask the shopkeeper how it is made or google while standing in the small fitting room? And if the shopkeeper and internet do not give me the answers I am looking for, what will I do? Will I not buy this perfect dress to impress? So just this once, I will not ask… Next time I will do so.
And even though I often do make conscious choices when it comes to travelling, food and clothes, I just want to send I clear message: do not expect the consumer to be the driver of change. As research in the Netherlands showed: the civilian finds sustainability very important, the consumer less so. And these are the same persons. So that’s a relief, I turn out to be a normal human being.
But who is then the driver of change, who is the force for good? Let me be clear, there are many forces, but two important ones are here: the educational institutions and companies. I always tell people, if you are looking for change and a more sustainable world, do not look at the government to take the lead. I can say that, because I represent my government. We might take the lead as a country, but the companies together with universities and other educational institutions are the ones that will pioneer, that will invent and innovate. And very importantly, that will educate and shape the future generations.
Innovation is key. We have to change our practices, our way of living. And we need innovation to accompany and lead this process. We need to end highly polluting dying practices, reuse fabrics and use organic alternatives. And we have to make sure that these best practices will be adopted on all levels of the garment industry. Which is a huge challenge. In Pakistan I saw a high tech leather factory, but behind the façade I also visited the small unsafe and polluting tanneries. And the challenge goes beyond that: bad working circumstances and low wages are globally all too often the norm in the garment industry.
So my Sri Lankan colleagues would say: what to do?
Let me shortly tell you how we try to tackle this in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands the garment and fashion industry was indicated as one of the sectors with too many risks in its global value chain. So the government, together with the brands, trade unions and NGOs agreed to work together to make the Dutch garment sector more sustainable. And – sorry and sad to say – but the collapse of Rana Plaza was important to accelerate this process. According to the UN guiding principles and the OECD guidelines our companies are responsible for tackling risks in their supply chain. But we also understand we cannot make an individual company responsible for eradicating child labour in Bangladesh or cleaning the rivers of India. All actors mentioned, have an important role to play in this process. The NGO’s because they have the knowledge on what is happening on the ground and have the network and projects that can improve the social and environmental situation in sourcing countries. And of course they have their activist role to play to keep us focused and on track. As a government we can engage with governments of sourcing countries, ask them to implement the necessary rules and regulations and of course enforce them. We can also support governmental institutions in that task. Trade unions are there to be the voice of the workers but also to find acceptable common ground. And the companies and brands have to change their sourcing practices and do the necessary investments.
Of course all easier said than done, but we have an agreement to work on environmental and social risks, to enhance transparency. And most importantly, we bundle our strength and knowledge. Not agreeing all of the time but accepting each other’s positions. In order to make a real impact we have to take this to the next level, the European.
This development or even movement will have an impact on garment producing countries in Asia. And as I have a little experience in some other countries in the region and I am now ambassador in Sri Lanka, I would like to give Sri Lanka an advice.
I would like to advice Sri Lanka to invest seriously in making the country more sustainable. You are very much aware of how climate change affects your country. You have great initiatives with regard to circularity, which need traction. You have relatively high wages and good working circumstances compared to some other countries in the region. Do not regard that as a disadvantage. No, make this a selling point, because in Europe we start to care, more and more. You have some of the best examples in the region with regard to garment factories. You have the Academy of Design and the Colombo Innovation Tower, which make a point of connecting design and sustainability.
So, Sri Lanka, take the appropriate measures and brand Sri Lanka as the sustainable choice in the region. You have a head start!
And to make this happen. Students, start-ups, Academy of Design: your ideas and power to innovate are necessary to make this happen. Do not underestimate your role to make fashion a joy for everybody. Do not underestimate your role in making fashion a force for good.
* Learn more on the Fashion for good program.