Letter to the future | Orsola de Castro

Inspirational words from an opinion leader in sustainable fashion

To keep spirits high and creativity strong, Polimoda has asked its community of fashion industry experts to write about the future.

Ever since this global nightmare began, we keep hearing how purposeful life will be on the other side. For sure, we can expect heartaches and hardships, but there is hope that we will collectively absorb the lessons this crisis will teach us, and come out of it as better people. I too share the feeling that there is a massive potential for improvement as a direct consequence of these exceptional circumstances, but I am less hopeful that we will amend our ways.

After all, history teaches us that repression and restrictions are often followed by more excesses, and mass consumption will be once again put in front of consumers as the only way to kick start economies worldwide, as a positive action after the breakdown. Goods that have been laying in warehouses semi obsolete will be massively discounted, and a new wave of post Covid-19 hyper-consumerism will rapidly overtake this period of negations. And I fear that we will fall for it, because we’ll want to party - even if so many of us know we need to put an end to this era.

We are already seeing glimpses, “Revenge Buying” is what they are calling it, and just the name feels aggressive, impulsive and utterly mindless.

So despite trying my hardest to focus, to be positive, and to use this difficult period of social distancing to cement my commitment, I am finding it harder than ever to reconcile my fears with my hopes.

It seems quite normal that we should collectively be going through a mindset reset while we all struggle, and while we witness so closely the struggles of others, from family and friends affected by the illness or by the effect of being isolated to the plight of billions of vulnerable people who are losing their jobs, their future opportunities seemingly permanently scarred by the pandemic. It feels great to see the impetus towards celebrating new heroes, like the doctors, nurses and carers who save our lives, and the other public workers who make our current lifestyle possible, as if we have finally realized they are way more important for our wellbeing than the pampered celebrities we shallowly adore. But will this lead to governments heavily investing in our public services in the future? (I doubt it). And how long will these new values last?

One thing is painfully clear: our present system values endless growth over sustained prosperity, and profits over people, and it has never been more distastefully obvious than now. Brands and corporations behaving inhumanely towards their supply chain workers, canceling in excess of £20 billion worth of orders worldwide, evoking ‘force majeur” rather than face their responsibilities. (On a good note, years of incremental public awareness since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 have indeed increased scrutiny and vigilance, and the brands’ accountability - or lack of - on their social and environmental practices, has never been more at the forefront of their customers’ minds).

If people, and I am referring to those who can, those lucky enough to have a home to isolate in, those who have, and will retain, the privilege to buy, could only use this time-lapse to study, and learn, and grasp the real complexities of the fashion supply chain, it could lead to some interesting shifts. If customers spent the same amount of time they spend researching the Corona Virus researching instead say, the benefits of organic cotton vs mainstream cotton, or the shocking truth about fashion waste, or the importance of collective bargaining for all workers, they would become homegrown experts (there are, by the way, some brilliant places for online learning xxx mooc, study hall, more?).

If the people who love clothes would truly consider ‘choice’ for their fashion future, and by choice I don't mean thousands of slightly different cheaply made tops untidily hanging on a high street shop-floor, but responsible, considerate, original and intelligent choices that consider all sorts of other things aside of the final product - such as the way it was made, by whom, where, with what materials, in what conditions, and also what will be its fate once no longer in a position to be worn - and if more people committed to this new buying ethos, maybe we could influence the brands to behave accordingly.

But that does mean that we will need to refrain, redirect and sometimes refuse, to improve on our shopping habits altogether.

What we can do is to remember that some of the things we are forced to consider right now would be of great consequence if carried through indefinitely, voluntarily, albeit not so stringently, because some of the inconveniences that we are experiencing right now are not so inconvenient after all, especially considering how a system based on convenience, a system we believe makes us thrive, is instead eroding human dignity and natural resources.
In this hiatus we can drive some solace in knowing that this pause is having a beneficial effect on our environment: fish and other animals returning to rivers and canals, stars visible at night even from our most polluted cities, the sound of birds singing not deafened by air and road traffic, even looking after and supporting each other and the more vulnerable people in our global communities reunites us with a rightful order that is more in tune with nature than our present, nonaltruistic culture.

I don't believe that this virus is nature’s way of rebelling against us, but I do believe that we have rebelled against nature, and that culturally and historically we have an obligation, not an opportunity, to redress this unbalance.

This article has been adapted from a piece I wrote for the Voice Of Fashion.

Orsola de Castro

Opinion leader in sustainable fashion 

Orsola de Castro is an internationally recognized opinion leader in sustainable fashion. Her career started as a designer with the pioneering upcycling label From Somewhere, which she launched in 1997 until 2014. Her designer collaborations include collections for Jigsaw, Tesco, Speedo, and 4 best selling capsule collections for Topshop from 2012 to 2014. In 2006, she co-founded the British Fashion Council initiative Estethica at London Fashion Week, which she curated until 2014. In 2013, with Carry Somers, she founded Fashion Revolution, a global campaign with participation in over 100 countries around the world. Orsola is a regular key note speaker and mentor, Associate Lecturer at UAL, as well as Central Saint Martins Visiting Fellow.