A Conversation About The Ethics Of Fashion With Sigrid McCarthy of Intent Journal
Sigrid McCarthy founded Intent Journal in Melbourne, Australia, in 2015. Her ground-breaking ethical fashion online publication clearly succeeds in bringing substance to style and is a real inspiration.
Working by day as the Media and Communications Coordinator at Ethical Clothing Australia, and as the editor-in-chief of Intent Journal by night, Sigrid has an in-depth understanding of the ethical side of fashion which informs and runs through her publishing work. At Intent Journal, long-form Q&A’s with industry professionals, challenging the current system and offering new, responsible solutions, sit alongside fabulous fashion stories that illustrate how we can change the world through the simple act of dressing. We had the pleasure to meet Sigrid for an insightful coffee conversation about how we can slow down, think more and transform the industry.
Dörte: Could you tell me a bit about your background and what inspired you to start Intent Journal?
Sigrid: I studied international relations at university, with a strong focus on human rights and the environment. Throughout my life I have always been interested in fashion; however, I never engaged with the fast paced fashion calendar nor understood its fixation on fleeting trends. While I enjoyed expressing myself through personal style, I didn’t consider myself ‘fashionable’ or on-trend. My interests in social justice and fashion eventually merged when I began to learn more about the systemic issues — I then identified a gap in fashion media and launched Intent Journal as a way of offering more in-depth analysis.
As technology has advanced, the way we experience fashion has also evolved: we now have live video streams of fashion shows and instant access to photographic coverage. With this in mind the traditional role of the fashion journalist, which previously focused on aesthetic and design, is no longer as relevant. Why aren’t journalists covering where the fabric is from, or the journey a garment has been on prior to reaching the runway? I am interested in the origin; the craft; the impact a garment is having on workers and the environment. All of those aspects contribute to a garment’s beauty yet are often lost by the time a garment reaches the end user.
There is so much to explore within the fashion system; I wanted Intent to be a platform that allowed deeper enquiry and differing perspectives. Intent acknowledges that there isn’t one overarching definition of ‘ethical fashion’ and that people’s readings are shaped by their personal values. What I view as ethical, you may not. It’s the psychology behind this discourse that interests me.
When I launched Intent Journal, I was very conscious of it being a design-led publication that didn’t reinforce the stigma around ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’ fashion. I didn’t want it to visually say “Intent cares” but it did need to have a strong undertone and message that people could engage with, if they wanted to. I like to think we’ve created a beautiful magazine about intelligent and mature people, that focuses solely on the fashion system and inspires positive change.
What is your personal definition of sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion is as an umbrella term that has various layers and nuances sitting underneath. It’s too complicated a term to define succinctly and, to be honest, my understanding of the term is forever evolving. I don’t believe that buying sustainably is as simple as buying something made out of organic cotton. While this is a positive first step, it can be damaging to only consider one aspect of a garment’s sustainability credentials. It is so important to take into account the durability and overall life cycle of a product: how long will it last and what will happen to it once it is discarded?
My personal approach to sustainability is quite holistic and I am far from a purist. I have tried to develop a curated, cohesive wardrobe that reflects my values. When I buy a garment, I not only consider its social and environmental impact, but also how it can serve me in life: Will it suit any other garments I own? Does it complement my ‘personal uniform’? Do I actually need it?
I believe consignment stores and buying second hand provide a lovely opportunity to extend the sustainability of a garment. I like the idea that you can bring a preloved garment into your life, wear it with care and respect, and then someone else can breathe new life into it once you no longer have need for it.
How are respect and mindfulness linked to shopping ethically?
At the end of the day, if you buy something new then you are going to have some degree of impact. Contrary to popular belief, garments do not just magically appear in a store! No shirt is simply a shirt; it is a shirt that has touched the lives of so many people — someone has picked the cotton from the field, stitched on the collar, been responsible for the shirt’s transportation.. This realisation will help you develop a greater respect for your purchases; items become a lot more beautiful when you can pay respect to the people involved in the process. You also start to redefine your sense of value and what garments are worth.
Taking the time to identify what you care about and where your values lie inevitably leads you to improving your impact. Instead of buying a poorly made tee shirt that has immediate appeal yet built-in obsolescence, you will look to its lifecycle and how it may fit into a more curated and high-quality wardrobe.
At Intent Journal, we try to amplify this respect and gratitude. We are not trying to guilt you into buying better. Rather, we are interested in helping you to reconnect with the making process as well as the whole ecosystem.
In addition to your role at Intent Journal, you work for Ethical Clothing Australia. How has your role at ECA shaped your worldview?
Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) is an accreditation body that protects the rights and safety of Australian garment workers. Throughout my five years at ECA, I have gained great insight into the fashion system and how it operates. I have also become aware of the significant issues inherent to unregulated outsourcing. Without this experience I wouldn’t have been confident enough to build a publication that was both credible and informed. In my opinion muddying the waters by spreading misinformation can be worse than not engaging at all, so it’s incredibly important to me that Intent Journal be a reliable platform.
ECA has helped shape my worldview as well as my understanding of supply chains, labour rights and the importance of workers’ voice. It has been a privilege being able to work for an accreditation program during the day, and then come home and work on a publication that helps facilitate a conversation with a wider community.
Do you have any favourite sustainable fashion brands that you think are great role models?
There’s a beautiful local brand called A.BCH whose garments are fully biodegradable. Courtney Holm, the brand’s founder and designer, won’t use anything if she doesn’t know exactly where it’s from and who made it. Likewise with another great local brand called Arnsdorf — I have a huge amount of respect for Jade Sarita Arnott who has chosen to open her own factory to ensure a close working relationship with her makers. She is also fully transparent in her breakdowns and tells you how much it costs to make something and where that money is then distributed.
I also have a lot of respect for Patagonia, because they are so genuine in their pursuit for a healthier planet and this is reflected in everything they do as a business. When I interviewed Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway for Intent Journal, he was so incredibly passionate. He would have answered the same questions over the years, yet still spoke with such enthusiasm. It was refreshing to see someone so open to educating and inspiring others; I came away feeling equally enthusiastic about the industry’s opportunities and solutions, and about my potential to contribute to a more balanced system.
But equally, he was very honest. He told me that at Patagonia they would sometimes opt for a fibre that was more initially harmful on the environment if it meant that the end garment lasted longer. For them as a brand, durability is of key importance. As is collaboration and open source technology. They’ve created a wetsuit made from natural rubber that reduces CO2 emission, and instead of hanging onto the IP, they’ve opened it up to other brands. By doing this they are essentially saying: “We want to protect our natural world and continue enjoying the outdoors. In order for us to do that, we need to collaborate with our competitors.”
Do you think there’s a dilemma in living in a 21st-century consumer society and wanting to live sustainably? How do you reason with this contradiction?
I recently read an article in The Guardian that made an interesting distinction between consumerism and materialism. Whilst consumerism is the love of the purchase, and how that purchase makes you feel, materialism is the love of the object itself. If you are a materialist, you take care of your possessions, because you have a genuine love for them and want them in your life.
I think we have shifted from materialism to consumerism without realising the distinction. Shopping has become more of a hobby than anything else, and we now often shop for the thrill of the purchase as opposed to the love of the object.
It has also become a way for people fill voids in their lives, whether that’s being dissatisfied with their appearance, unhappy in their relationships, or simply bored. But shopping should never be something we do to try and improve our emotional health and wellness. We should know by now that owning more doesn’t lead to feeling better, not in the way it counts anyhow.
While it can of course be fun and frivolous, we can’t forget that every purchase is an act of voting. Every time we buy something, we are cementing how we want the world to operate.
What do you wish we talked more about today when it comes to fashion and consumption?
I really struggle with the fast-fashion business model. Today, fast fashion companies have so much scope and resources to transform the industry in a meaningful way. Just imagine if they chose to invest in developing countries by setting up their own factories, or deciding to build long term, stable and fair working relationships with their suppliers. Instead, they are jumping from factory to factory, moving from Ethiopia to Myanmar to Bangladesh, to wherever is cheapest and most unregulated. The whole model is broken.
There are certain fast-fashion businesses that are trying to engage in the issues by investing in innovation and technology, and by helping educate people. But at the end of the day, they are still following the same business model that is based on wildly unsustainable volume and rates of consumption. A model that reaffirms all the root issues by encouraging humans to fill a void in their lives with large amounts of “stuff”.
What is the fashion industry going to look like in ten or twenty years time? When we may no longer have enough water to produce cotton or enough viable land to grow fibre plants; when we’re struggling with overpopulation and the effects of climate change.. If the industry is really going to change, we need to challenge the fast-fashion business model and the intentions behind it. Fast-fashion companies need to adopt a radically transformed business model in order to create systemic change whereby the environment can be truly safeguarded and the people involved can lead healthy, dignified lives.