Can Sustainable Clothing Help Global Equality?

Not many people think about the journey their clothes take before they’re worn for the first time. Those clothes have to be made by a person (sometimes this is the same person wearing the clothes, though for the vast majority of people it isn’t), and the fabric those clothes are made out of has to be produced somehow, by farming and in factories. There’s an awful lot of people in the supply chain of clothing and fabrics that aren’t generally seen and so unfortunately, people are often exploited, land and water supplies are often polluted and a lot of people work hard all day, every day, to earn just pennies. However, there’s an answer to all of this: sustainable clothing.

To learn more about how sustainable clothing can help look after the people in fashion’s supply chains as well as the environment, I recently had the pleasure of chatting to Karen Adams, founder of Kaia Clothing.

Karen Adams, from a photoshoot for Kaia Clothing’s first collection

There was no question in my mind of doing anything other than a sustainable brand, because I’m aware that the planet is in danger. Mother Earth has given me so much – and if I can do something to protect it, then I’ll do that.

Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background – when did you set up Kaia and what inspired you to create your own clothing brand?

My journey is quite a long one. Going way back, I grew up in a home where my mother made us clothes, because it was that era. She made us pyjamas and things and I was always fascinated to watch a flat piece of fabric turn into a 3D thing that I could wear – and I grew up with a black Singer sewing machine in the house, which I later pounded to death making my own clothes! I made my first outfit at the age of – I think I was seven. I cut this little halter neck out on the dirt in my back garden and wore it to my local park, which was literally metres away, and everyone seemed to be impressed. I couldn’t understand why it was gaping, I didn’t know how to shape it obviously at that age. But fast forward, throughout my adolescent years I have always sewn – I made some of my school dresses, my summer dresses, and at 19 I went to a fabric warehouse and made a little collection and sold it to my friends. I didn’t stay with that, it was too sort of unwieldy really for me at that age with no money.

I did return to fashion design a few years later and studied fashion design and did some part time courses at St Martin’s School of Art, which is one of Britain’s most high profile art colleges – a lot of famous designers have come out of there. For me fashion design has popped up, it’s reared its head at various stages throughout, but my main career took me in the direction of corporate retail. Supply chain management, forecasting, all that sort of analytical, logistical work. So that was really where my main career was.

Sustainable clothing comes in many forms - vintage sewing machines like this Singer are used around the world to make garments, often uing little or no power in the process
Many garment makers around the world rely on vintage Singer sewing machines, or have learned to sew with one

I mean, the thing about me is I’m more than one thing and it’s always been something I’ve struggled with. I’ve always been good at a number of different things and it’s been difficult to decide which one to go for, because I don’t want to deny all of the other aspects of myself by just plowing headlong into just one thing. So, I’ve tried to spin these plates of my various passions throughout my life and even though I’ve had my main career, I’ve had side hobbies and made clothes on the side and designed on the side and so on. So these loves have never gone away but I’ve never been able to indulge them really, so they seem to sort of come and go in terms of taking a prime place.

And so Kaia Clothing has come to the fore, so this passion that has come and gone over the years has resurfaced. And I’ve realised how much I’ve missed it and how much it really is a big part of me, and my creative expression. I always said to myself, “one day, when I’ve done all of this mundane work, I’ll put out a little collection” and I saved it as a sort of little reward and a treat for when all the mundane work was done. But my circumstances changed and post-divorce I re-evaluated how I would parent, how I would earn money, how I would roll in life and I made the decision to return to this earlier love of mine. So I decided to launch a clothing collection, and I imagined that I would just start small. And I have started small; I decided to do this in the late stages of 2019, so I had a small crowdfunding campaign which was really successful, I closed that quickly. I got my fabric and started to put content out on Instagram of the journey – you know even when things would happen like a roll of fabric turned up I’d put a photo up with the caption “what’s this?!” and it created a little bit of intrigue I think!

And then lockdown happened, which threw me into a tailspin, as it did everybody, and I had to sort of reformat and rethink. But that’s really a summary of the journey and how I’ve arrived at Kaia clothing, so it’s me pulling an old love back into the priority position.

Some of the clothing from Kaia’s Spring/Summer 21 collection

Why did you decide to only use sustainable materials in your clothing collection?

I’ve always, always loved natural fabrics. I’ve always made clothes from the finest wools, silks and linens and blends and so on because they’re just more harmonious to wear with our bodies. They cool us when we need it, they warm us when we need it and our skin can breathe through them. The plant properties and the natural properties I’ve always adored. So moving to be truly sustainable, I could take that knowledge and that love of natural fibres with me – but there was no question in my mind of doing anything other than a sustainable brand, because I’m aware that the planet is in danger. I have a love of nature and all things natural, I look to plants and food for my vitamin sources and for healing, you know I just think that nature has so much to offer and we always seem to go for synthetic as a first port of call, where I’ve always been inclined to go to nature first. I kind of was a bit of an “Earth Girl”, so it wasn’t really hard for me to make that commitment to the planet. Because, you know, Mother Earth has given me so much and if I can do something to protect it, then I’ll do that. That’s how I felt.

I like that term, Earth Girl, I think it’s brilliant. I think you’re right, a lot of the sustainable brands that I know of all have this engrained love of nature and a sort of common aim to help live more harmoniously, back how we used to.

Exactly. The thought of it feels soothing, to just try and reset and rebalance our relationship with nature.

So what is it that you look for, credential wise, from the materials and the companies who produce them when you’re choosing your fabrics?

I look for the fibre: what is the fibre? Where was it devised? Is it a plant fibre, does it come from an animal? What are the processes involved? To be honest, it’s quite narrow, the range of fabrics I’m looking at now is very narrow. Now I know that there’s a lot of new innovation and creation of new fabrics all the time, from different sources and so on – like mushroom leather and pineapple leather, and even pineapple viscose. But for my collection for spring, linen, bamboo and organic cotton are the three that feature.

So I look for certification, because what I decided early on was I need to be credible, I need to be able to verify. I don’t want to be a green washer, I’m not interested in that, so if I’m calling myself a sustainable brand I need to be transparent and show the certificates on my website and declare how the fabrics are made.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certificate is a surefire way to know that you're buying sustainable clothing.
The Global Organic Textile Standard certificate is one which can be easily recognised and trusted by consumers

So my cotton and bamboo are GOTS certified, so that’s an organic certification and that’s a very rigorous certification. It looks not just at the manufacturing process, it looks at the water consumption and it guarantees that the cotton doesn’t guzzle tens of thousands of gallons of water in its manufacture. It looks at employees and wages and living standards and ensures protection for them, and it looks at pesticides and ensures that land isn’t being poisoned or burnt with excessive pesticide use, that waterways aren’t being poisoned. So there’s a lot of assurances that go into a GOTS certificate. So when I display that, that’s pretty well assured of what’s going on away from the consumer side. They know they can trust that there are no slaves and no one’s dying, factories aren’t collapsing around people because of this garment.

For linen, I’ve got a supplier in Northern Ireland who weaves the most beautiful linen. I mean, I adore them! I love a fine quality fabric, which actually has pushed me into the luxury end – it wasn’t where I wanted to pitch, I wanted to have a brand that was accessible to many people so that we can change as many habits as possible. Over time, I think I can introduce more pieces that are more affordable that people can buy, but for starters I think I’ve just got to enter the market here and see how we go.

Linen is a great material for making sustainable clothign from - it's hardy and fast growing, plus it's great for wildlife while being naturally pest repellent.
Linen is made from flax, a plant which is very hardy, quick growing and generally wonderful for biodiversity on farms

So back to the manufacturers, they are members of The Guild of Manufacturers of Linen and the EU Flax association and the Guild of EU Linen Manufacturers or Weavers. They’ve got three certificates – again, that’s assurance of water use, soil preservation and quality of manufacturing. Linen is such a sustainable fabric because it doesn’t need irrigation – and neither does the bamboo that I use. It doesn’t use irrigation, it uses rainwater, and flax grows in 100 days, so about three months. So from seed in the ground to pulling up, three months and you’re done. No pesticides are used – it doesn’t need it because it’s a rapidly growing, hardy plant. There’s just so much to love about it really. So there’s a certificate around that, how the linen is manufactured and processed. So this all helps with what’s needed to capture the carbon footprint of the manufacturing, to get a sense of the CO2 emissions.

I won’t use any fabric that I can’t display a certificate for. It shoots your credibility in the foot if you are enticed and seduced by the many beautiful fabrics out there that are a bit suspect in terms of how they’re produced. There’s so many fabrics that I’ve seen and that I absolutely adore and could have a field day designing with, but really I’ve got to absolutely button down to my commitments. Because ultimately, that’s going to be what my brand is built on and I can’t waiver on that.

I don’t necessarily think it’s wavering, I think it’s empowering in a sense to say “no, these are my principals and I’m going to stick to them”.

There’s a piece of mind that comes with that. If I were to cut corners and to sneak something in that wasn’t quite right, hoping that someone won’t uncover it, that would just give me anxiety! I’d have no peace! It would be horrible! So there is a freedom that comes from just going all in.

So we’ve talked about how the certifications are important to your business, and I think they’re important in terms of how workers are treated in the supply chain as well, earning fair wages and everything’s a healthier process.

Yes, so I use Organic Textiles cotton in Wales – I do a lot of toileing, so toileing is when you shape the garment on a mannequin to get the shape and everything, so I use calico organic cotton for that. There’s a family or a community in India that weave that. And they’ve got a GOTS certification, an organic certification, so they use rainwater and it also helps to build up and allow that community to prosper. So that’s the complete opposite of buying really cheap cotton from a place that weaves and manufactures with child labour, for example.

Handwoven cloth from India is often a wonderful fabric for making sustainable clothing from, especially when the community producing it is certified organic
India has a long and rich history of weving and textile creation, with many different weaving styles and traditional techniques still in use today

Also, I’m very mindful of the United Nations Sustainability Goals; there’s 17 of them and they each have a different focus, so water consumption and CO2 emissions and women’s health and education, these are all the different aspects that are looked at. My business model will donate 10% of each item sold, 10% of the retail price will go to a domestic abuse charity, so I’m building in help for women from the outset. I didn’t want to build a company and then do philanthropy right at the end, I wanted to build in protection for the planet and help for women from the outset. So that’s a conscious decision that I made.

I think that helps you stand out as well. It’s not just your clothes that stand out, it’s the core principals behind your business.

These are things that meant something to me and I just put it out there. And I think people like to know what that was for in clear terms – and that you stand for something. I mean, social media is full of people putting out content, or just pouting into the camera and not really having anything to say!

Do you think sustainable fashion can help bring about fairer working conditions for everyone involved in the production of fabrics and garments? I’d like to see it, I don’t know whether you think it’s possible?

I think it is possible, absolutely. These certificates of GOTS and the Soil Association – any certificate that’s going to increase transparency and increase accountability is going to protect people. And as a brand becomes more sustainable, you’re going to see more of those certificates, so it will help to protect people. But at the moment, even though we are in the last throes of this climate emergency and in a very dangerous place, we still rely on the companies to just volunteer to change their practices. They’re not forced into it, there’s no accountability, there’s no reward from government for becoming more sustainable through tax breaks. So as long as we’re in this sort of “do it if you feel like it” phase, I think the impact will remain relatively small. But as the climate emergency becomes more pressing, which it will do in the next few years, I think there will be more legislation.

There will come a time where we’ll have to clamp down and we’ll have to stop a lot of what we’re doing in the fashion industry. I am a member of Fashion Roundtable, which is an all-party parliamentary group, and I wanted my seat at the table because I wanted to lend a voice but also listen to what people are discussing. We look at things like in China, the Uighur are incarcerated, it’s like a concentration camp, and some brands apparently are having their clothes made by Uighur slaves. We can prevent all of this by increasing accountability. So I think sustainability is the answer, but we can’t do it on a laissez-faire sort of basis, I think governments have to step in at some point and push it along. When that point will be…

Workers in garment and fabric factories are often forgotten about when looking into the health of a supply chain, but sustainable clothing puts their health, wages and working conditions at the heart of the conversation

I think human life is not equally valued, and the lid has been blown off all of this by the pandemic. It’s revealed the deep inequalities across societies. I just wonder whether the climate emergency, when it gets really critical – I mean it’s critical now, but when it gets undeniably critical, when it’s on our doorstep – that could be the thing that forces our hand and forces life to just change, across the board. Because having such inequity poses a risk to everybody, as we’ve seen with the pandemic, and it will continue to pose risks. Unequal healthcare – we will all, in the end, at some point, be impacted by it. It’s a bleak time in many ways, but I deep down feel a sense of optimism, because change must come now, it must come. And I love change – I’ve always loved change, it excites me because I think “ooh, it’s thrown everything up in the air, I wonder what’s coming next?!” With change, there’s possibility and the possibility for better. It is daunting, but I do feel an excitement for the world on the cusp of its new self.

What would you like to see from the fashion industry as a whole in the next five years – if you could ask them to do anything, what would it be?

In its most simple terms, I would like to see the fashion industry cease and desist with the destruction. Destruction of the planet by CO2 emissions, poisoning of waterways, drying up of waterways by guzzling millions of gallons of water to produce fabric. I’d like to see it stop slavery, I’d like to see it shift towards organic and sustainable fabrics and manufacturing methods, whilst still creating its excitement and buzz and creativity. It’s a challenge, but I would like to see a real abrupt about-turn in the fashion industry and for the industry to shift from being the worst polluter – worse than shipping and aviation combined – I’d like to see it pivot very quickly away from being that to being one of the global leaders, a leading industry for change. That’s what I’d like to see the fashion industry do.

Fashion is the industry that’s forward looking, it prides itself on spotting trends and being the future. But at the moment, fashion is not the future. It’s a big challenge, but I’m pretty sure fashion won’t be able to resist!

You can check out Kaia Clothing’s current collection at www.kaiaclothing.co.uk and follow Karen’s journey on Instagram.

If more people were inspired to begin their own sustainable clothing brands – or even just challenge the current status quo in the fashion industry – I think we’ll be well on our way to having a fairer, healthier and more equal global society.