Where do you turn to for advice on how to bring about change? Kellie Dalton is a sustainability strategist and responsible fashion advisor helping brands redefine well made clothing. Fashion is under pressure to reduce its social and environmental impact and it can be overwhelming, this is where the wealth of knowledge Kellie has acquired throughout her career comes in, helping brands navigate better ways of doing things.
D: Where in Ireland did you grow up Kellie? Also did you have any childhood fashion influences?
K: I grew up in Dublin. A grey estate on the northside of the city. There was a lot of creative inspiration around though which I wasn’t overly aware of at the time.
My Mam was an incredible dressmaker, knitter and crocheter. What we call craft was just how things were done at home. Clothes were made for us. Vogue patterns came through the door, ideas were shared, wool was everywhere, jumpers were pulled over our heads for fittings. My Mam always tried to go for quality over quantity when things were bought. Hand-me-downs were a staple in 80’s Ireland.
Industry-wise, I have standout memories of her knitting for Irish designers. Beautiful, intricate pieces. At the time it suited her lifestyle, she had small kids at home and was using her talent.
It quickly became clear that it wasn’t worth it. Literally. Pieces were selling for hundreds of pounds and she’d see a fraction of it, being paid a lot less than minimum wage an hour. I remember thinking, how messed up that was. It was my first introduction to ‘home-working’ and the disconnect between how much we revere designers and brands yet undervalue people who make products.
She eventually went on to start a knitting café with her equally as talented twin sister, where they taught locals how to knit and crochet.
D: What a great idea.
K: It was a burst of colour in the middle of our estate - pink, purple, gingham tablecloths, kitsch China tea sets.
Older women from our neighbourhood would drop in to swap stories and skills. I loved hearing about ‘back in the day’, making lace by penny candlelight and beading their own wedding dresses. All those wonderful skills have mostly gone from Ireland now. It’s a real shame.
D: It was lost when making moved to the global South, the skills went there too.
K: I’m always thinking about how our textile skills and manufacturing heritage can live on. I have a bit of a pipe dream to re-shore manufacturing back to Ireland. I know there is still a bit in Northern Ireland but I wonder how will we ever have ‘sustainability’ if we’re not self-sufficient as a country. Right now, we cannot provide the basic necessity of clothing for ourselves.
D: Did you go to university?
K: I had that fashion influence growing up, I didn't make the connection that there was an industry I could go and work in until much later. I started a business degree with no real direction then had a bit of an awakening in my final year when I was introduced to Naomi Klein's ‘No Logo’.
I started to connect the dots between how my Mam had been working, the wider industry, hype culture and the politics that kept it all churning. The system started to make sense.
I was shifting to a PhD track when I noticed small, sustainable fashion brands pop-up. Ali Hewson and Bono’s Edun, Katharine E Hamnett, People Tree, The Hemp Trading Company, Veja.
I wrote letters to them all hoping to get in the door somehow and Katharine got back to me. A combination of luck and timing. I happened to catch her when she was restarting her brand with Roxanne Houshmand-Howell to do everything as ethically and environmentally as possible, around 2006.
I knew the opportunity I’d been given. Katharine was a fashion legend and had been a lone voice for environmental and social justice in the industry for years. I had a sofa to stay on and not much money, but it was a no-brainer to go and get stuck in.
D: You must have learned a lot.
K: An unbelievable amount. Hands down my favourite job to this day. In small brands you get to do everything. I was helping pick colourways for collections, writing reports on renewable energy, meeting scientists, academics and activists, sweeping the floor, making tea, dealing with customers, researching sustainable development, going to parties, travelling to industry conferences with Katharine… I worked hard and took it all in.
I was under pressure to get back to Ireland to finish my PhD, I made the choice to ditch it instead. A turning point that raised a few eyebrows but looking back, the experience I got with Katharine shaped my career. I wouldn’t change any of it. I loved being hands on. I felt useful in the face of mounting social and environmental exploitation caused by the industry.
Plus, the energy in London was something else so I was happy to stay. I did work in Ireland after that, but all roads led back to London.
I spent time at Business in the Community to understand how corporates work. I spent time at New Look to understand how fast fashion works. I spent time at Burberry to understand how sustainability in luxury fashion works. Then I went to Futerra to bring it all together and guide big brands through their sustainability journeys. In my first week, I was thrown in on the sustainability strategy for The North Face and never looked back.
I have always taken the same approach: work hard, be nice, go after what you want and see what happens. I’ve kept my head down and been incredibly lucky.
There was a white privilege that needs to be acknowledged in sustainability professions though. Doors were opened by people who looked like me, to work with more people who looked like me. Yet I was in one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, in an industry that wouldn’t exist without the skills and creativity of black and brown people globally.
I understand now what I need to do to support real, equitable change. I didn’t really at the time.
D: Tell us about the work your consultancy does.
I help brands to understand their responsibility beyond making a profit and create strategic plans to take action on their social, environmental, economic and cultural impacts.
We work through a process of understanding the big picture and the brand’s place in it. Then we map out the step-by-step of how they can shift from having a negative impact to working with nature and improving the prosperity of people connected to their brand, in the fullest sense.
From there, it depends. Sometimes I stick around and help to implement plans with an amazing network of technical experts I’ve been lucky to meet along the way. Sometimes I leave brands to it and check-in down the line.
Then a bit of everything in-between: advisory for senior teams, policy recommendations, an ear for designers, introductions to partners, campaigning for legislative change. I’m open to whatever pushes the industry forward.
What I’m most interested in though is honesty and action. At this stage, we need everyone to ‘find their place’ and do something. The time for making the ‘business case’ has passed. I’m not interested in convincing industry people anymore. Everyday news is the business case. I only want to work with those who are open and willing to give it a good go.
Brands that want to find a way through are energising. Vivienne Westwood is a big favourite of mine. The team are super engaged, they really care. House of Hackney is another. Their deep connection to ecology and wellbeing is inspiring.
D: When you initially go into businesses how are you met? Is it with open arms or is it with a bit of trepidation?
K: It’s a mixed bag. I’m there because someone gets it enough to want me there or at least know they need my expertise. People are always welcoming. Many are concerned and confused. They want to make sense of sustainability.
It’s overwhelming for anyone to take a step back and acknowledge all of your social and environmental impacts in one go. Especially if your brand was set up as a more traditional business, valuing profit above all else.
Slowly we work through it together and you can see people’s mindset shift. That nervousness about the enormity of the challenge, visibly changes to clarity and confidence.
In general, I think people get swept away in the never-ending flow of information about carbon this, sustainable materials and greenwashing that. We’re not really taught about the economic and political workings of the big fashion system. At a basic level, my aim is to steady people and help them focus.
D: How has
that move to freelance been?
K: I’ve grown so much professionally and personally being freelance. There’s more time for creativity and figuring out what impact you can have with your career. For me, it's always about being useful. What’s the most useful thing I can do with my experience, given the size and scale of the industry problems we face.
It’s hard to feel like you’re ever doing enough. I’m not talking about relentless productivity. What I mean is good quality work that will add to the momentum for change.
Lately I’ve been campaigning with Good Clothes Fair Pay to bring about a new piece of EU legislation that could require fashion brands to ensure garment workers are paid properly. When just 2% of garment workers earn a living wage globally, that feels like a good use of my time. It’s something I’m very proud to support.
D: What inspires what you do? What keeps you going?
K: The people I meet through work inspire me every day. Nasreen Sheikh and the OR Foundation team have had the biggest impact on me in the last few years. Their accounts of what’s happening on the ground in supply chain communities are something you can never unknow.
And others: Nazma Akter, Aja Barber, Céline Semaan, Janelle Hanna, Sophie Slater, Brigitta Danka, Dio Kurazawa, Christian Smith, Ayshea Barenblat, Valeria Meliado, the Vivienne Westwood team, the House of Hackney team, the Right Project. The list goes on and on. There are so many people working for a thriving, just fashion industry we can all be proud of.
What keeps me going is what other choice do we have? You need a lot of resilience to work in sustainability. Every year you see fashion consumption go up, while faced with the stark reality that it brings: modern slavery, biodiversity loss, water shortages, poverty wages, textile landfills in the global south, child labour. As hard as it is to absorb that information day-to-day, I know enough now to point people in the direction of solutions. So, I do that.
D: What do you think will bring real systemic change? What needs to be done?
K: You mean aside from radically overhauling our economic and fashion system? What we need is legislation and to seriously address unit volume production. The industry cannot continue to grow and grow.
Apparel consumption is set to hit 102 million tonnes annually by 2030. That’s the equivalent of 500 billion t-shirts being put onto the earth every year with no large-scale solution in place to deal with when they end up as waste.
SDG12: Responsible Consumption and Production is one of two SDG’s that we are going backwards on since 2015. Better made product won’t solve that anytime soon. Overproduction has got to be addressed and legislated for.
The industry talks endlessly about sustainability on one hand and on the other, we cling to ways of working that are at odds with the survival of humankind. We’re living a contradiction every day. It’s a lot to get your head around.
D: We need a different marketing strategy for reaching people, we can’t buy our way out of this.
K: More time needs to be given to understanding why people shop the way they do. It's not as simple as, we overconsume fast fashion so stop. How we shop is informed by our identity, cultural signifiers of wealth, economic circumstances, lifestyle, education, geography and so many more factors linked together. It’s complicated.
Consumers get hammered with messages to buy, less and buy better. A sentiment I fully support but we haven’t managed to slow mainstream consumption yet. Even with the rise of resale, rental and repair. I don’t really have an answer for it, consumer culture is a big stumbling block. I’m seeing more fashion psychologists coming into the sustainability space now which gives some hope.
One thing I do know is that fast fashion has put us in opposition to each other. We are being forced to choose between the value of one person’s life over another. Those people are usually women.
The affordability debate really drives this home. How are any of us empowered by a business model that relies on exploiting women making clothes in one country to supply women in another with an endless amount of cheap trend-driven fashion?
How do we benefit from a business model that takes little to no responsibility for millions of its products being dumped in Chile, Ghana, Uganda, Pakistan after being used, donated and or just discarded? Given all we know now, I cannot comprehend how people profit from that with a clear conscience. I struggle with it a lot.
I would love for everyone working in fashion to know they have the power to bring about change. The smallest actions matter. The momentum of working together from farms to shop floors, second-hand clothing landfills and everywhere in between can carry us to a new, more equitable, more creative, just and thriving industry.
I would like women working in fashion all over the UK to know they can be part of it. That we need them to be.
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