5 Things & 1 Big Lesson I Learned at the #UnveilingFashion Conference

DC Sustainable Fashion Collective‘s Unveiling Fashion event in September. But those notes, in most ways, don’t tell the story of what I actually learned.

That’s because the event, for me, was more about tangible energy, impressions, quiet conversations, and knowing applause. It was about occupying physical space.

It was about living, breathing, tangible people. Ahhh! (That’s a sigh of relief.) After years cooped up in my internet hole, I was finally set free at the dog park.

When you’re sitting in your robe and mismatched socks (ethical influencer Benita Robledo, who I met at the conference, calls it her “bird lady” outfit) gazing out at your overcrowded, paper strewn kitchen table in a moment of distraction between responding to emails and writing blog posts, it can be very easy to forget what it feels like to be a functioning human. Identity-building is traditionally about navigating your place in community, but when you’re living that out largely within online forums and social media feeds, identity-building tends to evolve into something resembling those eyeless cave fish .Like, you’re alive but you’re forced to adapt in ways that make you less able to enter the daylight again.

What I really mean is that online spaces tend to be eruptive rather than creative, isolating rather than immersive. Whereas when you’re in a room with a hundred people interested in solutions, the atoms in the air feel as though they’re positively ricocheting with goodwill, grace, and collaborative enthusiasm. The Unveiling Fashion event made me realize that the people I may be inclined to turn up my nose at online due to their use of outdated, politically incorrect jargon; lack of knowledge on the latest innovations in the industry; or perceived pride are people I actually enjoy being in the room with. The stakes are not as high when you can see people’s body language.

And that makes the world feel safer and more hopeful, before you’ve even start talking about the issues.

That being said, the issues matter, too, and there were a lot of amazing industry professionals in attendance. I was most excited for the first panel – The Economics of Fashion – because it was full of people working on large scale solutions in the current supply chain. And though I love innovative, small scale solutions, I knew I needed to learn more about what it looks like to work with the GAPs and ZARAs of the world. Below, my 5 big, knowledge-based takeaways from the conference.

5 Things I Learned at the #UnveilingFashion Conference

1 | The big brands are making big moves when it comes to supply chain ethics and transparency.

Brands like GAP, Zara, Target, and H&M are working with rigorous, on-the-ground certification agencies like the Better Work Foundation to improve supply chain transparency and worker conditions. Both Sabine Hertveldt of Better Work and Colleen Scott of GoodWeave emphasized that we shouldn’t be so quick to “count these brands out,” because the positive effect of reform within brands of this size is astronomical.

2 | In Bangladesh, factory owners use sexual assault as a threat to keep female garment workers from joining unions.

While conditions are beginning to improve for workers in Bangladesh, local governments, factory owners, and managers continue to oppose and discourage labor unions. Opening speaker (and new friend) Whitney Bauck of Fashionista pointed out that the Kavanaugh hearings (which occurred that week), Times Up, and the #metoo movement are intimately tied to the garment industry because of continued marginalization of women workers.

Ethical fashion is a feminist issue.

3 | When considering all cost factors, organic cotton is more profitable to grow than conventional cotton.

Marci Zaroff, founder of MetaWear – and the woman who coined the term eco fashion! – consults with cotton farmers around the world to work through supply costs and convince them to switch to organic cotton. The reason conventional cotton farming is so expensive? “Suicide seeds” and lack of knowledge around harvesting seeds for re-planting means that farmers have to buy new raw materials every year. Not so with organic farming, where all components from seed to final product are owned by the farmer. Marci is also developing infrastructure to encourage more organic farming in the US, as we are already one of the largest producers of cotton in the world.

4 | While a living wage is the end goal, industry professionals agree that incremental change approved by all community stakeholders in a given garment sector is the best way forward.

You can’t raise wages without at least some community buy-in, which is why experts like Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at Georgetown University, are in favor of gradual wage increases rather than sudden jumps.

She also cautioned that rising wages could encourage companies to buy more “sewbots” in order to automate their systems, which require production to move to places with higher concentrations of tech professionals, like the US, Japan, and Germany. This would be devastating to countries who rely on the garment sector to employ their citizens and generate tax dollars.

5 | The counterfeit goods industry is closely linked to slavery.

Allie Gardner of Free the Slaves discussed a recent report that correlates the international counterfeit goods industry with higher rates of slavery. Counterfeit products can feel like “sticking it to the man,” but they’re actually more harmful to garment workers than their authentic counterparts.


There isn’t one. And that might sound trite or sad from where you’re sitting. But I don’t feel sad at all, because attending the conference drove home for me that this movement needs lots of people using their skills in productive ways to leave no stone unturned.

We are not all doing the same thing – interests ran the gamut from textiles recycling, policy work, development, and technology to farming, labor rights, and advocacy – but we can learn from each other. And our big snowball of working hands and active brains is doing something. Truly.

We are not supposed to be individual, distinct role models of industry change. Because this work doesn’t need a hero, it needs collective attention.

So do the thing you’re doing, but pay attention to the why.

If it’s about perfection, you will not get there. If it’s about identity, step outside your echo chamber. Because this is, it has to be, about us, not me.

If one long day in a room with living, breathing people could teach me this, imagine what a life like that could accomplish?

Learn more about the DC Sustainable Fashion Collective here

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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