I had the opportunity to interview two of the women on our Fairforce list of Top Female Sustainable Fashion Innovators in Europe to discuss what it takes to make green clothing a reality. Shalize Nicholas of Madia & Matilda, and Valerie Goode of Kitty Ferreria, both based in the UK, shared some of the benefits and challenges of pioneering sustainable fashion models.
For them, starting sustainable fashion brands was first and foremost about what they could do for the planet, rather than making a lot of money. Shalize explains that being sustainable is the foundation of everything that they do at Madia and Matilda, so whether or not this was a business advantage or not was never on her mind. Valerie expressed similar feelings, saying that her goal was to demonstrate that creating a sustainable fashion brand was possible and that bringing in massive profits was never the intention of the business.
“This is more to do with a moral backbone, ethical codes, and your own personal value system,” Valerie says. “But in the business world, I think it does translate into a much more talked about product at the very least. Of course, you always have to find the right target market to sell to.”
Challenges in sustainable fashion
I asked Shalize about some of the challenges that she has experienced in building her sustainable brand. Since using recycled and upcycled materials is the main strategy of her company, Shalize expressed that “it’s always a challenge to try and repeat what we produce. Because we have such limited amounts of material, it’s always been really challenging to be able to repeat the process. That’s why we tend to do things very minimalistically, because if we have a print, then we only have so much of that print.”
However, one advantage of only using recycled materials for Shalize is that creating affordable garments is easier. Shalize often sources her fabrics from car-boot sales or textile recycling centres where the fabric would have otherwise been scrapped. In this way, Madia & Matilda produces clothes that reduce waste. Calculating the carbon footprint of each garment is something Shalize is currently working on, because she believes it will help to inform consumers of what they are buying and what their impact on the planet is.
Educating the public on the importance of sustainable fashion and how they can live more sustainable lifestyles was a major point that both Shalize and Valerie emphasised. When Shalize first started Madia and Matilda in 2013, many didn’t understand her sustainable approach but were drawn in by her designs.
“That’s where it became useful to become a part of small movements, and do get involved in hack-athons and workshops,” Shalize says, “just to educate people on what could be done and why we’re doing what we’re doing. I think it’s really important to be a part of that. Now we have customers that come to us to have alterations or repairs because they understand they can make their clothes last longer instead of throwing them away. They’re mindset is to do better for the planet and we work with customers like that. They like purchasing our stuff because they know it’s doing something good and it’s not wasteful, and that’s what’s important.”
Shalize’s workshops teach people how to take their old garments and create something new, thereby recycling their clothes and reducing waste.
Valerie too runs workshops, as well as speaking at universities and running a community organisation called Cocoa Collective. Teaching participants practical skills like how to repair their clothes is one aspect of education for Valerie, but she highlights that it’s important to first demonstrate to young people ways that they are already living sustainably.
“When you talk to young people about ethical fashion,” she says, “I think the first thing is to draw out what they are already doing, rather than trying to draw a disparity in what they’re doing. For example, I will say: “I’m sure some of you are already customising clothing, that is a sustainable model. Now imagine if you customise your entire wardrobe over a period of every season, then you are already living out a sustainable fashion.” When you put it like that to them, then they realise it’s not an elitist mindset around ethical fashion, it is actually very accessible because they’re already doing that.”
Honouring cultural heritage is a key element at Cocoa Collective, where people from black and ethnic minority groups come together to discuss sustainability. Valerie explains that many cultures outside of the western world, including the Carribean where her family comes from, already execute sustainable lifestyles through their traditions. Celebrating and harnessing those traditions, rather than perpetuating a false idea that everything outside of the west is inferior, is something Valerie sees as essential for fighting climate change on a global scale.
“We talk about their own traditional techniques for making fabrics and making clothes that I wouldn’t know about because I’ve never been to their country,” Valeria explains. “In Africa there are 54 countries, the Carribean has multiple islands, all of which have their own traditions and approaches to fashion. In the sustainable field, we don’t speak about that because we’re very focused on European viewpoints. So, I just felt that there’s a slight gap there and this is where Cocoa Collective comes in.”
Future of sustainable fashion
I asked both Shalize and Valerie what they think needs to happen for the fashion industry at large to become sustainable.
Shalize noted that since 2013, the number of sustainable brands has increased and awareness about the fashion industry’s impact on the planet is growing.
“So, it’s definitely changing,” she says, “but as a whole it comes down to the consumer as well as the manufacturing process. We need to change our thinking when it comes to shopping. This is why brands like mine need to first educate people on why sustainability is important.”
Valerie agreed that the culture and mindset around fashion needs to change. She described what has been termed the “hippie capitalist” approach, that is, instilling a moral backbone ethical perspective on how we trade with and educate people. But more importantly, Valerie highlighted the need to value traditions and cultures from around the world, explaining that negative perspectives of non-western nations can be detrimental to fighting climate change. First and second generation immigrants in Europe often come to her workshops believing in the inferiority complex that mainstream media still suggests regarding foreigners. The value of their diverse cultural techniques for producing sustainable and ethical clothing is thus emphasised at Cocoa Collective.
“You cannot fight climate change without first dismantling systemic racism,” she says, pointing out that this is something the fashion industry needs to recognise.