Eco-Styling and Modern Slavery in Fashion with Nina Gbor – Episode 1, Season 2

Photo: Francois Le Nguyen. An abandoned factory in Cambodia for a social mission called Clothing the Loop.

Welcome back and thank you for joining me for Season Two of the PROTECT podcast. I’m so happy to have you here. Now I want to say Happy New Year and Happy 2021, however, I know that not everyone has had a great start to the year. It’s been a blur for so many of uS and I think proof that everything doesn’t instantly change at midnight on January 1.

To name the obvious one COVID-19 is still sweeping the globe, we’ve had the horrendous Capitol Hill riots and here in Australia we’re in the middle of bushfire season and that’s only a very small list of the challenges that we’re experiencing. But I still think it’s important to see it as a new year. One where we can be happy and see our circumstances as prompts or reminders that there is work to do. We need to acknowledge them, accept what we have to and work to repair or prevent what we can.

So, I want to remind everyone, including myself that it’s important to keep moving forward. We need to stay hopeful, but also do the work and know that however small you might think your contribution is, it’s valued and it does make a difference.

So today I have a new guest to help us find a fresh way to do our part for the environment and we’re going into our wardrobes and exploring the fashion industry. I’m speaking to the incredible Nina Gbor, who is the founder of Eco Styles and also Clothes Swap and Style

Nina is an award winning sustainability advocate, ethical fashion speaker, climate activist and educator. She is a proponent for international development and global female empowerment and equality. She coined the phrase, “get off the fashion treadmill,” which means individuality and self esteem should be the premise for consuming clothing, not fashion trends. Nina has a master’s degree in International Development and teaches sustainable fashion short courses at RMIT University. 

Nina is so precise with her knowledge of this extensive industry. She offers such helpful resources today and while you might be initially a little shocked as I was by the climate change statistics the fashion industry is responsible for Nina is here to celebrate fashion and ways we can continue having a wonderful relationship with stall with a light footprint whilst alo accepting and celebrating who we are. I hope you enjoy the episode. 

TRANSCRIPT

Angela: Hi Nina, thank you for joining me on PROTECT today. 

Nina: Oh my gosh, thank you so much for having me. This is so exciting. 

Angela: It’s a delight to have you. Could you please explain what an eco-stylist is and a little bit on your career journey? 

Nina: Sure. So an eco stylist pretty much does what a personal stylist does, you know making people look good and feel good in what they wear except the job of an eco stylist is extra because you’re also an educator, because you know, you’re bringing the element of sustainability, slow fashion, ethical fashion, and the environment, of course into the conversation of clothing. So you’re just basically helping people make the best decisions that are good for the planet and for the people involved in making clothing and apparel. 

Angela: And how did you find yourself as an eco-stylist?

Nina: Sort of a happy accident happenstance situation, but the universe must have orchestrated. So when I was growing up when I was a little girl, my mom and my brothers and I, we used to watch classic movies from like the 40’s and 50’s, and the 60s, of course, and my sort of introduction to style was watching all these screen legends like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly and all these beautiful gowns they used to wear and to me that represented style and it was gorgeous and just amazing. 

So for that reason, I’ve always been into vintage style. Now when I was about 15, I went into an op shop with my mum – I mean, my mum always bought us clothes from second hand stores but I started shopping myself when I was about 15. And I went into an op shop, which is a thrift store, and I saw a vintage dress in real life for the first time and I hadn’t seen one in real life before and it really struck me. And in this store, I was able to take the vintage pieces they had and mix it with contemporary sort of trendy pieces and create my own individual unique style. And that was pretty much the Eureka moment that I guess my sustainable styling career was born. 

Now, this happened to happen in Nigeria, which is in West Africa and those clothes that were in those thrift stores were the clothes that were sent to Nigeria from you know Western countries, the global north that weren’t sold either in stores or in thrift stores here that were then shipped to that place. Now, it was a fantastic experience for me but what I also realised was that the local tailoring industries, the local clothing industries were suffering, because of all these sort of cheap secondhand clothes. So it was a bittersweet sort of experience at first and I also noticed that all those clothes were polluting the environment, because there’s so much of it that it was ending up in like mountains of trash. 

And I remember thinking this is a problem. As much as I love these clothes, this is a problem. So it’s a bit of a dichotomy. So fast forward years later, I continued op shopping and styling, and just through happenstance, the issue of sustainable fashion, climate change, the environment is now very much of the moment the hot ticket item. So it just kind of sort of came through that this is what I needed to do more and more in the last few years. 

Angela: Absolutely. And now I can see the link between your Instagram pictures and your style. 

Nina: Yeah. 

Angela: So I read in one of your articles that 85% of clothing ends up in landfill? 

Nina: Yes. 

Angela: That’s obviously a huge problem. So what is one of the greatest challenges we’re facing in the fashion industry from an environmental perspective?

Nina: Oh, there are so many. So first of all, I think most people are aware that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, that’s fair to say. It’s responsible for about 10% of climate change and about 1.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. But you know, sort of specifically, there’s certain things that make those figures what they are. 

So I talked about greenhouse gases. There’s also things like, you know, water usage. So every year the fashion industry uses approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water and that’s enough to meet the consumption needs of about five million people. So, for example, everyone has jeans, right? Take a pair of jeans. It takes about 3781 litres of water just to make one pair of cotton jeans. That’s a lot of water sitting in your wardrobe. And everyone wears t-shirts, pretty much so for one cotton t-shirt, it takes 2700 litres of water just to make one cotton t-shirt. Now that’s the equivalent of three years worth of drinking water for just one person.

Angela: That’s quite confronting, right. 

Nina: I know it’s insane. And considering we’re in the era of the Anthropocene, you know, with all these climate disasters and things happening, there have been like rivers, lakes and seas that have literally dried up due to farming for cotton immigration, right? Because 40% of fashion garments are made of cotton. So that’s a lot of cotton for so many years and a typical example is the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. It used to be the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, and it was home to about 40,000 fishermen at one time. So I mean, considering water is a life source. imagine all the communities and generations and families and societies that existed in that region, and it now you know, dried up due to cotton farming, it’s pretty much become, you know, a dust bowl. 

So, you know, fresh water is a problem already, right in some parts of the world. So the fact that we’re actually consuming water to make clothes that sometimes are disposable, more often than not, we were one throw away or not at all. It’s just insane. It’s absolutely insane. 

Angela: No one really speaks about water much do they?

Nina: No they don’t, they don’t. I mean, there’s so many competing issues that it’s like, which one do we address? Which one do we face? I mean, another one is chemicals and pesticides and fashion is contributing to breaching one of the planetary boundaries through chemicals and pesticides and nitrogen loading on the soil because you are farming, cotton farming, deforestation and all these other things and we don’t realise that some of these clothes, particularly with fast fashion, a lot of those chemicals and pesticides are still on the clothes when we buy them. And it does get into our skin and it does affect our health, our personal health, you know, so it’s not just like “over there”. In the countries where it’s made, it actually impacts us as well, the consumers. 

Textile waste is another one. In Australia this is a very common statistic, about 6,000 kilos of textile waste goes into landfill roughly every 10 minutes. 

Angela: That’s insane. I spoke to you recently about that on Instagram, and I thought surely that’s a misprint. 

Nina: No, it’s literally 6,000 kilos every 10 minutes. And the thing is, as well as that fashion at the moment contributes heavily to fossil fuel usage because about 72% of clothing is made of synthetic textiles at the moment. And synthetic textiles, most of it comes from fossil fuels, they’re derivatives of petroleum. And it’s pretty much plastic at the end of the day. So again, that’s a problem for the environment because when you wash it, all these microfibers, they end up in the ocean. And microfibers are these teeny tiny pieces of plastic, microscopic almost and when that goes into the ocean, it ends up affecting marine wildlife. And if they went plastic is that it absorbs chemicals around it. So you know, if the sea animals are absorbing this plastic that has all these chemicals, and we are ingesting seafood it’s coming back to us. So there’s just so many issues around, I could go on and on and on. 

Angela: You’ve offered some great stats, and it’s really full circle the damage that it’s creating. 

Nina: Yeah. And deforestation is another issue as well. But yeah. 

Angela: Yes. So if a fashion label says that they’re ethical, what does that mean? And could you also talk about brands that may be greenwashing and how we can avoid them? 

Nina: Sure. So basically, loosely, an ethical fashion brand is one that aims to reduce the negative impacts on people, animals and the planet. So they’re the brands that look at producing clothing or apparel, right from the design stage, through to labour, through to materials, through to distribution, supply chain, and so on. And they are also thinking about disposal, when the product is at the end of its life cycle that will have this minimal damage to the environment as possible. So that’s generally what ethical fashion talks about. 

Angela: Thank you for explaining that so well. And what about greenwashing, what do we need to look out for? 

Nina: So here’s the thing, there’s been a lot of conversation about these big, fast fashion brands like H&M, which I affectionately referred to as one of the founding fathers of fast fashion. So these are like, billion dollar conglomerate companies, right. And they made that much money, literally from damaging the environment and exploiting people. 

Now, these companies, they have a huge, enormous resources at their disposal, in terms of when it comes to like, employing scientists to having a huge, like, literally an army of research and development. I don’t easily let them off the hook whenever they have an initiative.

H&M for years years, they had something called the take back scheme, right? And what it meant was as a customer, you could take the H&M clothes that you bought that you no longer want back to the store and they’ll give you the store credit, so that you can shop in the store even more. Now, nobody knows what’s happening to those clothes that you returned. For all we know they could be burning them. They might claim to recycle them but we know that a lot of those clothes are synthetic textiles. What’s the point of producing clothes – on mass – that damages the environment just so that you can recycle them? It doesn’t make sense. 

If they were really serious about doing things that were better for the environment –  first of all, they would produce less and they would look at using natural textiles and natural fabrics and not synthetic ones. So all these sort of baby step initiatives that people applaud them for taking  – I understand, you know, when a brand is making effort, we should definitely support it. But we’re at a stage where the climate crisis is pretty bad and so we need to take drastic measures and drastic steps to turn things around if we’re going to meet up to the 1.5 degree Celsius, which is set by the Paris Agreement. 

So I think that if brands are serious about with the resources they haven’t, they’re serious about changing things. They’ll do it. But I just don’t buy into you know, using terms like eco friendly and saying things like better for the planet and saying things like eco light or conscious line. All those buzzwords are the words that they use to deceive customers into buying more products, which profits them and makes them look good. So it’s just a PR stunt and a marketing strategy. But it really does nothing for the people that they’ve been exploiting i.e the garment workers or even for the planet. So that’s kind of what greenwashing is all about. 

Angela: Thank you. You’ve actually mentioned a lot of words that I do see online and I’ve always considered recycling as a last resort. So when companies do promote these initiatives, I think that’s not that great. 

Nina: Yeah. I mean, they’re literally the ones creating the problem. 

Angela: Exactly. 

Nina: Then they’re taking baby steps. Very, very tiny baby steps I might add that look like they’re doing something about it. And you know, it’s just really It’s heartening, when you see people who don’t really understand the situation kind of like going, “Yay, they’re ethical now, they’re sustainable” and you’re like, “No, they’re not”. 

So I think a lot more has to be done for people to understand about greenwashing. 

Angela: Yep, definitely. Well, you’ve explained that perfectly. Thank you. So I know, there’s probably a lot of people already listening just based on the water and landfill statistics saying, okay, what can we do to change the way we shop? How can we make better choices on what we buy and what we keep? Where do we start? 

Nina: So as an individual, as a consumer, as a citizen, What we can do is, you know, shift our mindset. And I coined this phrase a few years ago called, “we need to get off the fashion treadmill”, literally, as an individual, you need to step off the fashion treadmill. And that’s because all of our lives, the fashion and beauty industry has made us believe that we’re not enough, we’re not good enough, unless we’re wearing or using latest trends. Right. And it’s this mindset that has literally kept them in millionaire billionaire status, because it’s like, they’ve deceived us into thinking we need to keep buying constantly, which is why it’s reached a fever pitch where we have overconsumption. 

So I think that we need to, first of all, realise that we are enough as we are, we’re beautiful as we are, whatever body shape or anything else, you don’t need the latest trends, we don’t need to keep buying and buying or have this or that, you just need to figure out who you are as a person, what your preferences are, what colours you like, what colours work for your complexion, what colours make you look good, what colours make you glow, what colours don’t, and go inside a little bit, be intuitive about it, what your style is, and and basically your lifestyle is a part of it, what stage of life that you’re in. Those should be the factors that dictate what goes in your wardrobe, and not external trends, and not other people and not anyone else. 

So I call it a personal style formula. You can get a personal stylist to help you with this. Or you can literally just Google my body shape and answer a few simple questions and figure out okay, what body shape you are, first of all, and then what kind of clothing styles work with that. So, you know, figure out your body shape, figure out your colour palettes, and then your lifestyle, are you a mother with three children that you need to play in the grass and run around probably, if you are probably a vintage ball gown is not your best friend. You might have a vintage ball gown for special occasions but you know, you might want to invest in you know, some more casual pieces, but at the same time ones that make you look good, right, and make you feel good. And also go for – shop sustainably. 

So go for a second hand pre-loved. If you’re buying please do your best to buy from ethical clothing brands, because that’s how we can support them and build up that industry. And I think if everybody did that, I think we’d have healthier individuals mentally, but also a healthier fashion industry as well. You know, and I think we’d have less waste because imagine if you did that everything your wardrobe just fit you perfectly. You could just throw anything on without thinking too much about it. You just always look good and always felt good. You would have less of a need to keep shopping. Right? 

Angela: Absolutely. 

Nina: And keep buying new things. So I think the first and foremost, that’s what we need to do. 

Angela: That’s a beautiful message. Thank you, Nina. So for those of us that might go down the route of creating our own little capsule wardrobe or our favourite things. what to do with clothes or footwear that we can’t mend, or we can’t donate to minimise our environmental impact? 

Nina: So there’s several things that you can do. You can donate those shoes, there’s an organisation called – it used to be called Man Rags. It’s now called Upparel, but they specialise in upcycling, secondhand clothing, and now shoes as well. So it depends on what country you’re in, of course, but in Australia, you can send your shoes to them, and they’ll upcycle it. There’s also another organisation I found out called waster.com. Now, I haven’t used their services. Disclaimer, I don’t know too much about them. But they also recycle shoes. And you can send your shoes to them. I’m a bit hazy on the details of the condition of the shoes, but I know that they also take shoes as well. 

So I think sometimes there’s probably more organisations that do this, you just need to probably do a Google search and you might find a few that I don’t know about. 

Angela: We’ll definitely do that. Okay, so something that’s not always highlighted – the very confronting statistics of modern slavery. And the one thing that worried me was that so many Australian organisations are a part of it. So could you please give us an overview of where we stand as a nation in modern slavery. 

Nina: Sure. So Australia, very recently actually has had the world’s first repository of modern slavery statements. So what that means is that the Australian Government has just published the first batch of statements from Australian companies who are outlining their efforts to ensure their supply chains don’t include modern slavery. So that’s really exciting. 

The reports are kind of like the first substantial ones around the Modern Slavery Act that was passed in December 2018. In Australia. And basically, the Modern Slavery Act requires all businesses with an annual turnover of $100 million to publish modern slavery statements every year, so the government is forcing them to be transparent about that, which is absolutely awesome. So businesses have to report on the risks of modern slavery and operations and in their supply chains, and also on the actions that they’ve taken to address them. 

Angela: Excellent. From an international point of view, can you offer us any statistics around that as well? 

Nina: Considering Australia’s ahead, sadly, that means other countries are behind. But you know, you do have the G20 countries and they imported those, I think it’s about $127 billion dollars of fashion garments identified as being at risk products for modern slavery. So it’s not looking good there. Because 40% of all fashion industry, as I mentioned earlier, use cotton. And cotton is a hot ticket item for modern slavery because of what’s called the Oregon region in China, which is known for having a lot of slaves, growing cotton, and other things. 

So, because of that, the US House of Representatives passed a Forced Labour Prevention Act. And it’s a bill created specifically for that region in forced labour saying that any imports that come from that region have to prove that they are not made through forced labour. They’re not made through modern slavery before they can be unpacked onto US soil. So that’s pretty revolutionary. Right? So the fact that the US House of Representatives has passed that bill means that hopefully other countries can follow suit. 

Angela: Great. Well, that’s something and a reassuring step forward. 

Nina: It is something I mean, it’s pretty big, it’s pretty huge, considering you know, the size of the US and the amount of cotton products that would have been imported, particularly now that PPE is such a big thing. You know, a lot of our PPE is made from cotton. And there have been reports that a lot of that cotton has come from that region. 

Angela: You’re right and that’s a whole other area. So, speaking of cotton, is it better to purchase organic cotton? 

Nina: Yes, it is better to purchase organic cotton, for sure because organic cotton, of course, has less chemicals and less pesticides. However, cotton is a very thirsty crop so it still uses a lot of water. If I’m being honest, the state of fashion community is a little bit divided on that, because people who lean heavily towards environmental change and climate change, say that, you know, cotton uses a lot of water, so it’s not. Some people say, well, it’s organic, so it’s still okay, so I guess it’s up to each individual to decide, basically, how they feel about that.

Angela: But still not over consuming if we don’t need to. 

Nina: Yeah, exactly. 

Angela: So how can we as buyers, make sure we’re not contributing to any slavery notions? And what type of responsibility should we be placing on social media influencers to help? Because I see a lot of influencers that I follow, promote a lot of these fast fashion companies promote promo codes, and it really bothers me. And I think, do you know what’s happening behind the scenes there? How can I reach out to them? 

Nina: If it’s in terms of influencers? You know, in the world of the socials, where there’s so much trolling, you always want to be as nice as possible, which I know you are, of course, but you know, if you want to reach out to an influencer, because sometimes they just don’t know. And, you know, you can send a private message, or you can put it in a comments as nicely as possible, not attacking them, but saying, “hey, are you aware that this brand is exploiting women in this country, you know, or is engaging in modern slavery or they’re using these products that are harmful in this particular way?” And what that does, when you put that in the comments is that it allows other people to see that as well. So you’re not only educating the influencer, you’re educating other followers and other people, which is why it’s really important for people to do it as nicely as possible, not in a way that’s accusing anyone blaming an influencer or targeting them just sort of as nice as possible, kind of letting them know that this is going on. 

Angela: So just polite communication. And what about us as individuals?

Nina: In terms of as an individual, there’s several things you can do. I harp on about supporting ethical brands, there’s an organisation called Ethical Clothing Australia, here in Australia, and you can hop onto their website, they have a list of certified ethical brands. So if you want to buy you can always support them, because they’ve been doing the right thing from the very beginning, painstakingly, if I may add. 

You can also follow worker rights consortium organisations like that and organisations like Freedom United PayUp Fashion, Labour Behind The Label 

These are organisations or platforms that literally track brands to see their modern slavery records, and give current updates on what’s going on. And with brands themselves, you can contact the brands publicly, like on their social media, and say, “Hey, I read this report that this is what you’re doing in this particular country or this particular region? What are you doing to change that? Or to stop it or why is this happening?” The more people that do that, they’ll realise that customers demand transparency and customers demand ethics and they’ll be forced to change. But currently, we don’t have enough people doing that. So we want to have a society of people demanding more and more from brands, absolute transparency and their supply chains and then we’ll feel okay to support them and buy from them. 

Angela: Definitely. And I guess, making sure we’re informed before we reach out as well, though, 

Nina: Oh, absolutely. Oh, gosh, yes. Do your homework, definitely do your homework. I mean, always do your research as well. I mean, everything’s available online, you know, particularly through some of these organisations that I mentioned, it’s very easy to know what is and isn’t. And if you don’t know, you you can always ask, there’s a Global Slavery Index as well, that provides a lot of information. So there’s just so many resources that you can find out what’s going on if you’re interested. 

Angela: Fantastic. So, do you personally feel that we’re working towards a better fashion future? 

Nina: Yeah, some of us are. It’s getting better. I mean, when I started this, it was very few people that were talking about these issues. And now look at it, I mean, take something as basic as secondhand fashion. When I was younger, I used to kind of hide the fact that I was wearing secondhand clothes, because it wasn’t cool, when I was much, much younger. But now, it’s a pride to literally step out and be like, yeah, I bought this, at the OP shop at the thrift store, you know, so that message has definitely gotten through to the mainstream. 

Changes are being made, there are more and more brands that are definitely making an effort to be ethical, and even new brands, you know, new designers coming up are now thinking more ethically, in terms of how they can design product. One of the things I’ve been doing is teaching short courses at RMIT. University. And so the fact that universities even it’s now an academia, where they’re looking at sustainability and ethical fashion is a huge, huge step. 

We’re not anywhere near where we want to be yet, but you know, big changes take time and I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction. So hopefully, if we keep pushing and more people are engaged, then we’ll definitely make that happen. 

Angela: Oh, that’s nice and positive. Thank you. This has been such an eye opening conversation. Nina, thank you so much for all your insights. Now, how can people engage with you? 

Nina: So I am on some of the socials, I’m definitely on Instagram. My Instagram is Eco Styles. I have my blog platform website is Eco Styles. Facebook is also Eco Styles I think as well. So yeah, you can contact me through any of those three platforms. 

Angela: Great, and I can vouch that your articles are very informative and well researched. 

Nina: Thank you. 

Angela: Definitely head over to Nina’s blog at Eco Styles. You’ll find a lot of information on her actual website. If you’re looking for more and you can always engage in her services. You provide eco styling services? 

Nina: Yes, I provide eco styling services. But more recently, I’ve been focusing on giving talks and workshops for people, groups of people rather than individuals have spread the impact and also hosting close swaps. 

Angela: Oh, sounds fun. So you’re Melbourne based? 

Nina: Yes, I’m Melbourne based? 

Angela: Okay. so for the Melburnians you might be able to see Nina in person. 

Nina: Yeah, so we absolutely should. 

Nina: Okay. Well, thank you so much, Nina. It’s been such a delight to have you on and everyone that was listening today will already feel a little bit more informed and I guess confident to go forward and make better purchasing decisions or hold on to what they’ve got. 

Nina: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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