“I never want to be anti-fashion – I can only do this because I love fashion. And I have confidence that humans have the potential to be absolutely fantastic.” This positive attitude is one that leads ethical and sustainable fashion advocate Lola Young forward.
Young was honoured as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2001 for services to British black history and was made a life peer in June 2004 with the title Baroness Young of Hornsey, which is in the north London borough of Haringey. As an independent cross bench peer, Young has spearheaded campaigns combating forms of modern slavery, and co-founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion in 2009, bringing together legislators, activists, brands and retailers, which has resulted in vital changes to the fashion industry (CV, below).
When Drapers sits down with Young in Covent Garden to discuss her pioneering work, she has spent the morning going through social services archives as research for an upcoming memoir of her remarkable life. At 72, she still lives in north London – the area in which she was fostered by a woman of whom she speaks with great warmth. Young stayed with her until she was a teenager, before being moved into care homes, where – in stark contrast – she experienced cruelty, neglect and racism. She reflects on this poignantly but without bitterness, going through old letters and photographs from the files, recounting memories of tough times.
Young had a keen interest in fashion as a child, making clothes for her dolls and customising the hand-me-downs given to her by social services. This fed into her decision to shift her focus to the fashion industry when she took up her new position of influence in the House of Lords.
“When you’re writing something like this [memoir], it jogs the memory in a particular way – now I can look back and say I really was interested in fashion from a young age, and I used to make clothes all the time,” Young remembers. “I used to make clothes for my dolls when I was a little girl – I had one of those little kids’ sewing machines. And then because I was in the care system, I’ve got this list from social services, which lists the clothes I had, and in brackets after each item, it says it was handed down from someone: ‘Given to [me] by so-and-so.’
Ethical fashion ought to be the mainstream and this is other [standard fashion week] stuff ought to be on the periphery
“I only had hand-me-downs. Sometimes I wore them as they were, and other times I would cut them up and make them into crazy trousers and things. I would sit drawing and designing fashion. For somebody in my position, there was no way I could buy clothes, and I knew that [a career in fashion design] wasn’t going to happen, although I still had my little dreams and fantasies. Fast forward to when I’m in the House of Lords thinking, ‘Well, what am I going to do here?’”
Young came to her new mission via what she calls a “series of fortuitous coincidences” while she was finding her new political purpose, meeting people such as Dilys Williams – director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, professor of fashion design for sustainability at London College of Fashion and Drapers’ Sustainable Fashion Champion 2020 – and Livia Firth, co-founder and creative director of sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, and having conversations about the role of legislators in ethics and fashion.
She says: “All of these people I regard as my mentors, who gave me a sort of ‘Ladybird [children’s books] guide’ to supply chains and things like that, which I didn’t know anything about.”
She founded the APPG for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion 2009. APPGs are informal cross-party groups run by and for members of the Houses of Commons and Lords to discuss, campaign on and promote a certain issue, many involving external individuals and organisations.
It was put on hold around the time of the general election in 2015, and Young reformed it in 2020 alongside Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green Catherine West. Young and West were co-chairs until February 2022, when John McNally, SNP MP for Falkirk, took over, and both remain members today. The APPG on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion is now a cross-party group of more than 100 MPs and peers, and brings together experts and change makers to explore ways that government can support building a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry in the UK and globally.
Its 2021 Cleaning Up Fashion report addressed the issues of worker exploitation and climate change, and offered solutions to support sector transformation towards net zero and the government’s “levelling up” agenda. A 2020 report produced with environmental charity Hubbub focused on developing sustainable fabrics and boosting fabric recycling.
West tells Drapers Young has done “absolutely crucial work” with the APPG, and that many businesses are more ethical and sustainable because of it, describing her as a “flagbearer for sustainable fashion for many, many years”. She points to the range of initiatives and issues Young has worked on, from redirecting Ocado uniforms destined for landfill into prison social enterprise projects for inmates to upcycle them into items such as tote bags and aprons, providing them with skills and work experience, to organising clothing swaps in the House of Commons, and raising issues of low pay and poor practice in the industry.
Clare Carroll, strategic engagement manager at sustainability campaign group WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) – for which Young is an ambassador – also highlights Young’s ability to bring together people and ideas. She tells Drapers: “Baroness Young has been a key supporter of WRAP’s Textiles 2030 initiative since we launched in April 2021. She holds a unique position with expertise around the key issues in fashion and modern slavery and provides regular input to the team on the direction of the initiative.”
On encountering Estethica – Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola de Castro’s sustainable fashion showcase – at London Fashion Week in the mid-2000s. Young was struck at how the movement was starting to “infiltrate the spaces” of the mainstream industry: “I remember very clearly thinking, ‘This is all wrong. Ethical fashion ought to be the mainstream and this is other [standard fashion week] stuff ought to be on the periphery.’”
When she was first establishing the APPG in 2009, Young says: “People weren’t talking about sustainability encompassing human rights and modern slavery.”
[Young] really led on the Rana Plaza response and has real heart for women in the global south working in fashion every day
Catherine West, Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, and former fo-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group co-founder for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion
The Rana Plaza disaster 10 years ago was a harrowing turning point, when a building housing five clothing factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500. It highlighted the shocking conditions in which many garment workers are forced to toil. Young recalls the founding of Fashion Revolution in the wake of the disaster, noting “the energy, the determination” of co-founders De Castro and Carry Somers. “Often you get that in the immediate aftermath and then it dies down. But it hasn’t at all – they got angrier. They’ve been really, really important. I use them as an example of how an NGO can spring out literally from the ashes and do something very positive and have that impact globally.”
West says: “[Young] really led on the Rana Plaza response and has real heart for women in the global south working in fashion every day.”
Young acknowledges that the tragedy gave new weight and urgency to her arguments for the Modern Slavery Act, which she helped to shape and eventually pass in 2015, obliging retailers to report on modern slavery in their supply chains, by publishing annual statements setting out the steps they take to prevent it. Today, 34,572 businesses have submitted statements to the UK government’s modern slavery statement registry.
But she says: “We mustn’t forget [the Rana Plaza victims and their families].”
Young has also brought brands and retailers such as Next, Asos and River Island into the House of Lords to speak with organisations such as Anti-Slavery International, prompting them to make real-life improvements in their supply chains. “I see myself as a convenor,” Young says.
Convening such conversations have not all been easy, and she acknowledges that environmental sustainability – with its science-based, measurable evidence – is often easier for businesses to discuss and act on than ethics, meaning there are missed opportunities to improve.
“[Businesses] can take mitigation measures to cut carbon emissions and to recycle, and show the figures to prove it. But how are they going to evidence that they’ve really created good working conditions for people, particularly those who aren’t even in this country?” Young ponders. “And how are they going to measure the impact that has on that in those societies?”
This is a human rights issue, as well as being an environmental issue –you cannot separate environmental sustainability from human rights and modern slavery
Young is passionate about linking the environmental to the social – for example, the dumping of clothing from the northern hemisphere into the developing world. She describes the vast, 20 hectare Dantokpa Market in Benin – the largest open-air market in west Africa – with “jeans piled high as the ceiling”, eventually discarded on the beaches and turning the sand blue: “This is a human rights issue, as well as being an environmental issue. For me, putting together these pieces is what has been more important recently – you cannot separate environmental sustainability from human rights and modern slavery because they’re interconnected. And sometimes you have to explain it in very basic terms to people.”
Young notes the rise of fashion rental in the past decade as being a positive shift, but still sees a lot of work to be done, from tackling the returns that stoke over-production and waste, to sustainability messaging targeted at older generations with disposable incomes.
She also wants to see more fashion businesses focus on the “triple bottom line” – a framework that measures a business’s success in three areas: profit, people, and the planet – and have more honest conversations with consumers about the true cost of producing garments. “I’m not putting it on consumers: I certainly don’t want to feel that if you haven’t got any money, you can’t participate in pleasant fripperies like fashion. But by the same token, we have to think about what kind of world we’re making,” she says.
She wants to see the fashion industry tackle its human impact as vigorously its environmental one, better educate consumers and rethink their business models, and will continue to convene conversations and highlight uncomfortable truths to help work towards a brighter future. Baroness Young of Hornsey is characteristically upbeat about driving this change: “We can do this if we put our minds to it.”
Baroness Lola Young’s career at a glance
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