issue #18: whatever it takes
1. You are, together with Victor Santiago and Silvia Giovanardi, the founder of WRÅD, an innovative company and design studio “motivated by the current environmental crisis and inspired by contemporary social needs”. One of his phrases that has stuck with me the most is: “change must happen, and we can lead it”. Where, on a personal level, does this approach that places action as a tool for resolution come from?
Ever since I was a child, I have been strongly oriented towards winning everything I wanted. My “credo” – also matured through various experiences in life – is a mix of optimism, ambition, motivation, a bit of luck, and a lot of experience. I worked for several years for large companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which, in hindsight, I could also call “the evil”. I say this with great serenity, because if I hadn’t gone through that path I wouldn’t have understood so many things… What made me act was first and foremost fear, the fear that I had made the biggest mistake of my life to be part of a system, in so many ways disrespectful, that distances you from the person you want to be. At work I was doing things that were beautiful and profitable in a lot of ways, but absolutely not in line with who, ethically, I wanted to be when I grew up. I looked in the mirror and asked myself, “So… what do I do? Where do I start?” Because it is one thing to realise that there is a problem, it is quite another to be aware of the magnitude of that problem, its extent and complexity. At the age of 27, fear turned to anger when I asked myself “Why has this brand never seriously addressed the negative impact it causes?!” The real point is that, at that time, no one was asking this question… and it only took a little bit of soul-searching to realise that the “impact” was not just a problem of the brand I was working for, but was a macro-systemic problem: hardly anyone in the fashion industry cared about the real implications of the productions of a pair of jeans or a single t-shirt… We were so isolated, individualistic and egocentric and it had become a “brand-centric” cosmology, in which so many brands represent so many small isolated solar systems, no one was talking to each other and each one was only aiming at the constant growth of its own galaxy.
It was then that I realised that if I wanted to change something, that something would have to start by first questioning my personal status quo. So I plucked up the courage to say “tomorrow I quit my job and go do something else”. It was going to be something unknown, without a business plan, without investors… I received a proposal from a fund to open a sustainable clothing brand, but it was not what I wanted to do when I grew up. I started studying again, and by studying I dispelled that fear that threatened to block me: “What do I do? Where do I start?” The answer came when I looked at all those objects that interact with our skin on a daily basis: I realised that there would have to be a change of direction and that the question of environmental impact would become crucial. And it was then that the energy I had years before, fresh out of university, made up of pure adrenalin, fear, and the desire to get involved, sparked in my head. I convinced Victor Santiago and Silvia Giovanardi; from two we became three, then six, then ten… Change starts with us: this conviction made me particularly strong.
2. In affirming this principle and transforming it, along your career path, into an entrepreneurial project, where did you encounter the most resistance? What explanation did you give yourself?
It seems unbelievable, but in 2016, none or very few of the leaders of the fashion industry thought that the topic of environmental impact would be relevant in the near future, so the resistance was enormous… Starting from the beginning, we first had to convince our interlocutors that the fashion industry had an impact. And this was no easy feat, not least because there was always that half-smile on the face as if to say “yeah well, the activists have arrived to do something out of the air!”. In our being WRÅD we were a bit of aliens (happily aliens), always the outsiders within the room we were in. It’s undeniable: there was resistance at all levels, whether it was in the lecture hall of a high school – where the ground was more fertile anyway – or in more buttoned-down contexts, such as industrial, political, institutional or academic. Speaking of companies, the topic of sustainability became widely “interesting” when investors perceived the possibility of increasing their turnover and taking over a market that was evidently beginning to show an interest in the subject. A somewhat stark view, but a realistic one. Of course, even before, there were some – isolated – cases of enlightened entrepreneurs who, a bit like in the early years of Italian industrial history, particularly cared about the welfare of their workers and the desire to restore well-being… But these were rare cultural exceptions. Now things are different: visionary qualities are no longer needed, because things are known and therefore there are no longer any excuses.
3. One of the pillars of its commitment is Responsibility, and there is no doubt that the fashion industry has to deal with Responsibility. In fact, it is estimated (Harvard Business School) that the global clothing industry produces around 92 million tonnes of textile waste every year. Can you suggest a key to understanding the extent of this phenomenon?
Let us imagine that we are in Kantamanto, Ghana, in what is called the “salvage market” of fashion companies: a place, out of sight, where everything that remains unsold and cannot be routed through any other distribution channel is delivered. Imagine we look out our window and see 15 million used clothes arriving every week from the western world [a bit like adding up the entire population of Portugal and Ireland]. 300 tonnes per year of used clothes being donated by those in the West who think they are doing a good deed. Let’s take a step back and reflect. What is happening? What has brought us to the Kantamanto scenario? I think there are two reasons.
The first is the de-valorisation of the product, both qualitative and emotional. We are treating our clothes as if they were disposable… They cost so little that we don’t mind throwing them away after only a few uses (according to statistics, only seven uses on average). The depreciation of the garment has been devalued qualitatively and emotionally, so we get rid of it without much qualms… Perhaps donating it to someone who we believe needs it. But, at this point, the real question is: how many people today need our discarded clothes? At Kantamanto, when our “gifts” arrive, the vast majority end up in landfills, for two reasons: they have no use for garments so shoddy that they cannot even be resold; they cannot recycle them because they are often made from a mix of materials that prevent them from being recycled. And this is how they end up in landfills, taking up to 400 years to degrade if made with synthetic ﬁbre.
The second is overproduction: a fashion brand, today, in order to survive and obtain positive balance sheets, recognition and financial rewards, is dependent on the imperative of structural growth. And the model used so far to grow has been quantitative: produce more and more, at lower and lower prices (to increase margins) and, bring faster and faster collections to the market. Whether luxury brands or fast fashion. Today, we produce an average of 52 collections per year, which will result in 102 million textile wastes between 2030 and 2050. The fashion industry has for too long focused only on quantitative growth and not on qualitative growth, and therefore today brands economically need this overproduction, otherwise they cannot earn “enough to grow”: this is precisely the problem.
4. But another question arises at this point: how did they manage to convince so many people to buy so many (useless) items?
Back in the day, King Louis XIV came up with a law imposing “two compulsory seasons” to force the nobles to buy more… In today’s world, it would be unthinkable (thankfully!) for the ruler to make a law forcing people “to change their clothes every week”, so marketing theories came to the rescue. Big brands in the 1960s started to follow Mr. Freud’s theories, which his nephew Bernays applied to the marketing and communication industry to create growing demand. He also wrote a book called Manipulation of Collective Knowledge, from which the word PR (Public Relations) was born: the evolution of the word “propaganda”, which was scary in those years, i.e. to inculcate in people’s heads the desire to possess something they had absolutely no need of. This is how we arrive at the issue we talked about earlier: we are faced with a problem of titanic proportions.
However, I would like to say one last thing: I attribute to fashion the ability to be an unparalleled instrument of mass activation because it is capable of awakening the emotional part before the rational one: it “just” has to figure out how to channel all this emotion in the right direction.
5. This waste is often blamed on cheap, low-quality clothing that has made what we wear “disposable”. However, it is also true that luxury brands place orders for fabrics in large quantities to cut costs by exploiting economies of scale, resulting in a build-up of unused material. In this fabric court, what has been the role of the consumer so far? And what concrete actions should each of us take today and tomorrow to redress the balance?
In this fabric court there are several defendants… What often happens in luxury brands is this: the creative director, before the fashion show, changes his mind, and a hundred thousand euros worth of fabrics are thrown away. I do not doubt the sacrosanct creative vision of a creative director, but in the world we live in today, a kind of “ethical practice” should prevail. What is the difference between a piece of bread and a piece of fabric? None. Both require energy, land, water, air, soil, people… Only the former feeds 8 billion people, while the latter is for dreaming. It remains that we do not live on textiles, even though one person recently wrote to me on Instagram: “look, honestly, I live on clothes”.
Let us then move on to fabric buyers, who have a very important role to play: they should first and foremost focus on the qualitative and not quantitative value of what they are buying, because the choices made upstream can both reduce waste and facilitate the reintroduction of the product downstream, when one day we will invent functional structures for recovering and recycling clothes. Let’s think about it: the vast majority of what we are producing from the 2000s to today is of poor quality, and will therefore be incapable of becoming vintage again.
Finally, there is us, then the customers, who should adopt the same principles. This simplistic statement, however, fails to reckon with two factors (and I say this myself!): people’s purchasing power, and the lack of textile culture.
Talking about the first factor, today no one can afford a high-quality product any more, because a sustainable premium sweatshirt can almost exclusively be found at luxury brands and now costs between 800 and 3000€. The space for the “middle brands” – those that in the 2000s sold you a t-shirt for €40 – has shrunk a lot because they have an incredible struggle to survive as they do not have interesting margins for investors. And so the alternative remains a sweatshirt from Uniqlo, H&M or Primark, disguised as sustainable.
Regarding the second factor, it must be made clear that fabric alone does not do everything, and does not determine the sustainability of a product. Looking at the fabric is crucial because it acts as a second skin and interacts with our body… But how many people pay attention to it? A 15-year-old boy or girl, when buying a new garment, will inevitably testify as to whether the material of which a product is made will have a negative impact on his or her health… We should be able to understand this, just as when we go to the grocery store and buy an apple, choosing it according to its quality or otherwise. I hate the narrative that only blames the ﬁnal consumer because it is undeniable that for so many years we sold the idea that those products “were OK”, and suddenly we are pointing the finger at those kids, born in the 2000s, who grew up with the idea that t-shirts cost €2.99 and who never saw those middle brands that we did.
6. On Black Friday 2011, Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Times saying “Don’t buy this jacket”, encouraging conscious consumption and waste reduction. What role does marketing play in the process of change?
Marketing can and must play its part… With its mad power to influence people, it could lead them to behave more responsibly. I believe that a brand today has at least three weapons at its disposal:
The first is transparency: clear and direct communication, using the right terminology, avoiding exaggerated or vague statements. For example, “T-shirts with organic green sustainable cotton” means absolutely nothing… The presence of organic cotton does not exclude that there are other substances, for example toxic substances.
The second is honesty: that is, having the courage to be sincere, and perhaps say “I am not sustainable, never will be, but I am trying to make a path in this direction”. Showing a vulnerable side is often appreciated by clients….
Third rule: don’t just rely on communication. You can tell all the things you want, in the best way in the world, but if there is no real, concrete development plan behind it, based on data and actions, the knots will eventually come undone. Of course, if there is such a large marketing budget behind the communication that it is able to overcome any objective truth, things get complicated… And at that point government institutions should intervene to prevent these brands from creating their own truth around the word sustainability, creating crazy damage.
7. Social media allow her to convey the messages that guide her work, first and foremost “Sustainability is a thing to be, not a thing to do”. How are they, if at all, a useful means to fight your R-evolution? Now for a provocation: can they replace the dear old activist road marches?
Social media can do so much because, in a way, it allows us to effectively protest against situations of injustice that arise… Suppose one or more brands do something unfair and unjust: it would be utopian to think that we would all take a plane to their HQs to protest, but today, thanks to social media, with a simple post or comment we can unleash a seismic wave that is bursting diﬃcilly. I have done it myself more than once: for instance when Ikea launched its ‘streetwear’ collection last autumn. I asked my community to go to their page and write, underneath a post, #WhoMadeMyClothes to request more information about who made those clothes. It went so viral that they started blocking comments and their press office contacted me….
There is a though. The big difference between digital protest and street protest is that social, as opposed to live confrontation, tends to lock the energy in you and isolate you… Protesting live, on the other hand, causes a flywheel of “contagious” energy that amplifies the potential, and future dissemination, of the message. All this digital also has another implication, which has nothing to do with the demonstration: we are now disconnected from the product we are wearing, from the physical, from the thing we are really fighting for…
8. What is one project, outside of WRÅD, that you are working on that you are particularly passionate about?
I am never still, so I struggle to answer this question by singling out one activity. I am very close to animal rights causes, there are literally animals suffering and that breaks my heart. I am also getting closer and closer to the world of design and architecture, discovering in the writings of great philosophers, designers and architects of the 1970s and 1980s many useful insights into the contemporary world. I’m thinking of course of Sottsass, of all the radical designer movements in the 1970s… It’s crazy: it’s a context that is in many ways similar to the one we have today, which gives us food for thought for what we are looking for today, to use other words.
9. You have a very strong bond with art, which is often a valuable ally in conveying your messages (I am thinking of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags). Where does this passion come from? If it were a lens through which to reread, backwards, your life, what interpretation would it contribute?
A few years ago we created a project to support the neonatal intensive care unit of Vicenza hospital: we created special suits for babies born prematurely, capable of reducing bacterial proliferation and thus limiting the number of deaths caused precisely by bacterial infections. A seemingly trivial thing, but it allowed me to understand that my “high purpose” is to find a way to put my passions at the service of people, in order to solve their problems and improve their lives.
This is a bit like what Michelangelo Pistoletto did with his “Third Paradise” [a symbol that is the reconfiguration of the mathematical sign of infinity, composed of three consecutive circles: the two outer circles represent all the diversities and antinomies, while the central one is the interpenetration between the opposite circles and represents the generative womb of the new humanity]. Its symbol provided me with an explanation of what I have been doing all my life: searching for the synthesis between a thesis and an antithesis, that is, devising an intermediate solution – perhaps not the perfect one – that would serve as a starting point for creating something new. That is what the Third Paradise is for me: a kind of ‘creation formula’, as he puts it. I spent my whole life trying to create better solutions, both for myself and for those around me – a bit like being a politician – and this symbol rationalised it for me. When I met Michelangelo Pistoletto last year I had goose bumps… He is a bit like art: he opens your eyes to things and suggests a key to interpretation.
10. What is an object in your home that you would never go without? What is the memory attached to it? Would you send us a photo taken by you?
The first painting my mother gave me: it is a magical object for me because it was made with materials that came from my grandfather’s discarded works. I would never give it up and I literally took it from house to house around the world. There is also a little red box, which holds my little mementos that I have carried around with me since I was a child, including a silver mistletoe sprig that Liana, my godmother’s mother at my christening, gave me. It has been my good luck charm throughout my studies and adventures. I also own an earmuff in the shape of a hamburger, I treasure it!