An Interview with Sarah Cooper of The Fableists

Tell us about family background – geography, culture, language, and religion.

I am Canadian, but am married to a Brit, so now make my home in the UK. We have four children between us. The Fableists is a family business.

Tell us about your story – education, prior work, and so on?

I met my husband working in the advertising industry. We still have a business in that area, covering news stories about global advertising and commercial production, as well as connecting people to work on projects.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

We have always tried to buy well, whether it was food, beauty products, or fashion. We are not fans of the disposable, like a bit of provenance and are drawn to vintage items for our home and what we wear. We did not set out on a mission to make ethical and sustainable clothing, we just wanted to make nice clothes that were built to last and that could take all the abuse that children hurl at their clothes. The clothes available to buy for our children all just seemed to have such shoddy craftsmanship. It initially started because we wanted clothes that would last down the line of four children, regardless of gender. When we started to research having clothes made, we came across a lot of information about ethics and sustainability. We could not stand the idea that if we weren’t careful children somewhere could be making clothes for our children.

What seems like the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies? What seems like the importance of fair trade? What seems like the importance of a (relative to the country) living wage?

As far as I’m concerned, fair trade, living wages and sustainability are just how anyone should do business. We wanted to produce a quality product that we would feel good about putting on our own children. I don’t know how anyone could think differently, if I’m honest. Countries like the UK began outsourcing manufacturing to other countries, where things could be made more cheaply. Now Britain has lost those trades altogether, so all the skilled labour is in the so-called Third World Countries. We researched having our clothes made in Britain and everyone advised us to get them made in India because that is where the skill is – not because it’s cheaper. Regardless of laws, or watch dogs, we should just be paying a fair price for a product or service that we simply cannot get at home.

As for the certification that you can apply to have on your products, I’m not a massive fan. The factory that we use in India is certified by Fair Trade and GOTS. They have to pay every year to have these certificates up to date – and it’s expensive. I would rather see the money they spend for their badge being put in to something more valuable but they cannot continue to do the work they do without the badge.

The Fableists have not paid to have our items certified by any organisation but make sure that all of our suppliers have the certification and we have inspected the factories ourselves. We haven’t done that to earn a badge but to make sure that we are working with people that we can trust and therefore make products that we can believe in.

What makes slow fashion better than fast fashion?

On the superficial side, the clothes are better made and more original. Makers who care about quality generally also care about provenance. I applaud all the high street brands adding sustainable lines to their ranges but at the end of the day, anyone making and selling mass quantities of clothing is profiting at the expense of someone else.

What is the importance of animal rights, especially in an ethical and sustainable fashion context?

I think that a lot of people would see it as hypocritical of me to comment because I am a meat eater.

Climate change represents one of the biggest medium- to long-term threats to human survival in reasonable forms. The Government of Canada, NASA, the David Suzuki Foundation, The Royal Society, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and numerous others discuss this. Ethical and sustainable fashion relates to it. The reductions in hydrocarbon production from sustainable materials seem imperative sustain the further deterioration of the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the environment. What seems like the responsibilities of ethical and sustainable fashion companies in the prevention of climate catastrophe?

Everyone has a responsibility to do what they can to prevent climate change, and businesses should be held accountable for any damage that they do to the local environment where they manufacture clothing. Any environmental damage also affects the lives of the people living in the area. We use only organic cotton in our clothing in order to reduce the damage done to the land where the cotton is grown. Cotton requires a lot of water but the cotton we use is grown in monsoon-fed regions of India. The company that makes our t-shirts has been certified Carbon Neutral. These factories and companies were not difficult to find.

The Brundtland Commission Report described the need for sustainability. In that, we, the human species, need to meet the “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” for long-term sustainability. Does this seem correct to you?

One of my favourite chapters in the story of The Fableists is that the cotton we use is grown by a collective of organic farmers. These are small holding, family farms that would not have been able to survive without the collective. Farming in India has a suicide rate that is well-documented. Farmers cannot battle the cycle of debt on their own. They are not getting enough for their crops to sustain their farms. On top of that, they are using harmful chemicals that are being stored close to humans and livestock. The Collective has taught them organic farming principles, so that they can earn a higher rate for their produce. They have taught them to diversity their crops, more efficiently farm the land, and also to care for the land, with rotating crop cycles. The Collective supports the farmers in order to maintain farming in their country.

How can ethical and sustainable fashion contribute to the long-term sustainable future for the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the environment?

I think that consumers don’t want to hear about ethics and sustainability. They are more concerned with how much they have than worrying about what they have. There has to be a sea change in the way that people think and act. So those in ethical and sustainable fashion need to focus on making more approachable and available clothing, rather than statement fashion.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition invented The Higg Index. It assesses some products’ sustainability throughout the products’ lifecycle. The European Outdoor Group and the Outdoor Industry Association developed an index of products’ impacts on the environment throughout their lifecycle, the Eco Index. Large regions with serious attempts to implement standards and quantitative analysis of sustainability of products throughout their lifecycle. Certifications, or standards and labelling, remain important, which associate with analysis. These include Fairtrade International, MADE-BY, the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code, the Soil Association label and the EKOlabel, the Oko-Tex standard 100 mark, and the European Eco-Label for Textile Products, and more. There’s many. Do these help systematize and clarify, or obfuscate and confuse?

I think that they are useful so that consumers know what they are buying but being rated, certified or included is so expensive and there are new standards being created all the time that it just becomes hard work and impossible for the producer. I also think that the vast majority of consumers know nothing of what these are, apart from Fair Trade.

The Ethical Fashion Forum developed the Ethical Policy Framework. An ethical policy framework tool for those devoted to enactment of ethical and sustainable purchases, production, and business decisions. What do services such as these perform for the public, consumers, producers, and businesspeople?

I think the biggest problem is that most consumers have no idea about any of these initiatives, or even that what they are buying could contravene any kind of ethical policies.

What is The Fableists?

Sustainably made clothing for children that is well made and made well. The clothes are built for children to be children in. They are tough and beautiful. They are inspired by vintage workwear. We love the story of OshKosh, who initially made work wear. They decided to do a limited range of their engineer stripe dungarees so that children could ‘dress like dad’. The demand was huge, so they launched an entire range for children. In the creative industry, which is our background, a lot of people dress in clothes that resemble our range. On the day of our photoshoot, my daughter had an outfit assigned to her. When she put it on, we realized that she was wearing exactly what her father was wearing that day.

What inspired the title of the organization?

We tell the story of our clothes. And it’s a story with a moral.

What are some of its feature products?

Artist-designed and limited edition t-shirts and denim shirts, dresses, skirts, jeans and jackets. Super soft cotton tops in classic designs that are reminiscent of our own 1970s childhoods when kids were just allowed to be kids.

What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products?

Organic cotton.

Who grows, harvests, designs, and manufactures the products of The Fableists?

We come up with the designs and then hire someone to make the patterns for us. The samples are tried out by our own children. The cotton is grown and harvested by small hold farmers in India who are part of a collective of organic farmers. The clothes are manufactured by a factory in India that is certified by GOTS and Fair Trade. The factory and the collective have reciprocal ownership in each other’s enterprise in an effort to help bolster their effort to keep high quality, ethical manufacture and sustainable production alive and well (and growing) in India.

Water use in production is an issue. What is the importance of reducing excess water use in the production of fashion?

The farms and factories are all located in monsoon-fed regions of India.

Will the fibres and fabrics for the products from the company biodegrade?

Yes. Of course, this will take time. We have also made sure that our clothes will last. Each item comes with its own ‘passport’ so that children can record their names and the dates that they owned the products. They are meant to be passed on to another child.

What is the customer base – the demographics?

I have no idea! We sell online, so I don’t know who any of the people are but they are mostly in the UK. We also have stockists in The Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and Singapore.

Did someone mentor you?

No. In fact, not seeking more advice from those with the knowledge was our biggest mistake and has cost us immensely.

Have you mentored others?

My husband has worked with the WWF, speaking to the students in their university programmes in France and the UK.

What seems like the importance of mentors in the fashion world for professional and personal development?

It is key. Had we sought advice, we would have done a lot of things differently and our business model would have been completely different. We created this as a passion project more than a business.

The Triple Bottom Line defines three performance dimensions: the social, environmental, and commercial/financial. In contradistinction to the standard commercial/financial analysis alone, the Triple Bottom Line incorporates environmental and social performance too. Why should ethical and sustainable (and other) fashion designers and companies include the Triple Bottom Line analysis in individual and business performance?

We put all of our emphasis on the social and environmental and as such our business has not been profitable! The sustainable fashion world is very closed off, from our experience. There are many experts at the centre of the UK industry but they are very difficult to be in touch with. Having the support of someone from the beginning could really have helped us to get our product off the ground. We have had some unbelievable press and have two lovely films for our company but because we have not been willing or able to pay for membership in many organisations, we have not been able to gain any support. I think this is really the wrong way to promote something as important as sustainable fashion.

Thank you for your time, Sarah.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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