By Kevin Boon


REAL attended the Aspen webinar “The Future of Fashion” on International Women’s Day (IWD), 8 March 2021. The Aspen Institute is an international organisation. Aspen UK  is a charity which helps bridge the stark divides in the country by bringing together leaders to help them consider their own leadership values and learn from each other.  The event was introduced by Penny Richards head of Aspen UK and facilitated by Jamal Majid, senior lecturer on fashion business at Manchester Fashion Institute. The panelists were

Cathy Hackl – founder of Future Intelligence, Vice President of Avatar Dimensions

Wayne Hemmingway – co-founder of Red or Dead, urban designer

Safia Minney – founder of People Tree and activist with Business Declares


The discussion opened with reference to IWD. Safia talked about the huge social and environmental challenges facing the industry referring to the 43 million enslaved workers and that only a handful of companies have included supply chain (scope 3) emissions in their transition plans to reach net-zero. What’s needed is the political will to drive legislation and transparency. Safia is excited by initiatives such as BCorporation, World Fair Trade Organisation and Science Based Targets. But she stressed that we have already exceeded planetary boundaries and need to be looking at a new business model that puts people and planet first. Cathy talked about sustainability from a tech perspective. She referred to the change from selling clothes to selling technology and the revolution happening with virtual fashion.

Wayne compared the lack of change, in terms of sustainability, in the fashion industry to the change that was seen in the beauty sector in response to The Body Shop or that’s happening in the food industry. His view is that human vanity is holding back change in fashion. Safia believes that transparency would be a game-changer and that legislation is needed to identify to consumers which products are slavery-free and their impact in terms of carbon emissions, pollution etc. Business needs to put pressure on governments to bring about this transparency and create a level playing field. Safia also mentioned the importance of the ESG (environmental, social and governance) approach starting to be seen in the finance sector and influencing investment in fashion. She talked about the importance of initiatives such as the Better Business Act and CEE Bill.

In terms of the challenge of achieving change in the fashion industry, Wayne suggested that the outsourcing of supply chains to the global south means that western consumers don’t see the social and environmental impacts of their purchases. He compares this to the transition to electric vehicles where the public are familiar with the health impacts of combustion engine emissions. As such there is greater acceptance of the need to change. In terms of making sustainable fashion more accessible to consumers, Wayne identified the primary issue to be price. To overcome this, there needs to be a level playing field. Safia indicated that the fundamental problem is a dysfunctional system based on silo thinking rather than system thinking. Cathy pointed out that attitudes are changing and that we may see a revolution in fashion as Generation Z and Generation Alpha call for better, more sustainable products.

In terms of tracking a garment’s impacts, Cathy suggested that Blockchain maybe a useful technology although there is debate about Blockchain’s sustainability. She indicated that there are Blockchain companies entering the fashion world trying to make a difference.

There was a discussion about the role designers can play in improving sustainability. Wayne suggested that designers are aware of the issues from their training but that ultimately the response is down to the brand and its pricing point. Although some change is happening in the more upmarket brands, progress is not being made in the mass market sector. He believes if change was going to happen here, it would have happened by now. Safia talked about the need to change the critical paths in fashion whether it’s commitments to new materials or supporting farmers with their next harvest of fabric.


Safia proposed that the first agenda item for brands to be more sustainable is to develop rental models. There have been lots of re-use initiatives during COVID-19. She referred to Kate Fletcher’s Earth Logic and the need to reduce fashion production by 70%. To offset the impact to workers’ livelihoods, we need to add value through traditional skills such as hand weaving and block print.

Wayne, who now works in urban design, stressed the need to change the perception, especially amongst local authority planners, of charity shops which are great proponents of the circular economy.  He mentioned a very successful development in Kings Cross where a Shelter store is the anchor tenant. He referred to the terrible waste associated with fashion referring to a Traid study that found that 23% of Londoners’ clothes do not get worn.  This is absurd both in terms of people’s personal finances and in the unnecessary production impacts.

Cathy talked about what she calls the direct to avatar economy where people dress their avatars exemplified by youngsters spending money to look good in the virtual space such as in gaming. A part of this is through non-fundable tokens (NFTs). Cathy sees exciting opportunities here and mentioned artists and musicians starting to sell their creations through NFTs many of whom have sustainability as a priority.


In response to a question about the loss of physical stores to online, Safia talked about the importance of high streets as part of the local community and also how physical stores allow consumers to appreciate products more by being able to handle items and try them on.

Wayne believes that taxation could be used as a driver for change in fashion as it has been in other areas. However, he sees a significant challenge in that impacts are almost entirely taking place in developing countries and there is currently a tendency in the UK for people to be very inward looking. Safia commented that the technology is there to bring about change and what is lacking is the political will.

Safia was asked about progress in achieving a living wage for supply-chain workers.  Her view was that progress is not being made observing that over half of garment factory workers still didn’t earn the minimum wage although she noted the progress in building safety and regulation made since the Rana Plaza tragedy.

Wayne talked about the challenge of educating the public on the impact of the fashion industry. He would like to see more investigative reporting by individuals to which people can relate mentioning Stacey Dooley as an example. But he thinks change will be slow because the impacts of fashion are less tangible than, for example, those of plastics as seen on Blue Planet.

Cathy believes that virtual fashion could help reduce the impact of fast fashion. She gave a figure that by 2025 the virtual goods economy (not just fashion) could be worth USD 400 billion.

Safia responded to a question about the role of women in the fashion industry. She referred to a Korn Ferry study which showed that women outperform men in 11 of 12 emotional and social intelligence categories. She argued of the importance of parity in terms of women on boards at a time when we really need a creative, innovative and collaborative approach to the challenges facing humankind.

Wayne talked of the need for the fashion industry to have a purpose in the way that the oil sector is transitioning to renewables. Safia suggested this purpose will be the need to feed people in fashion’s supply chains. She noted that the transition needs new retail models such as rental and upcycling.

In terms of inclusion and bias, Cathy believes technology can lead to progress for example through holograms. This led to Safia suggesting the idea that purchasing a digital product could be directly linked to supporting a positive project in the global south such as providing a well.

The webinar can be downloaded via this link.