Rethinking fashion - RSA

Rethinking Fashion


  • Circular economy
  • Design

Why and how we are working with pioneering creatives to make fashion circular. 

At the RSA we have just launched Rethink Fashion: a 4-month learning journey with 12 creative ventures to accelerate the transition to a circular future for fashion. Here we explain some of the nuts and bolts of what we are doing and why. Look out for future blogs which will share more about our approach and emerging learnings.

Who's involved and why?

The learning journey is hosted by the RSA in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as part of their Make Fashion Circular initiative. Our collaboration aims to engage the design community in accelerating the transition towards a circular economy for fashion and is supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Fund.

In the first year of the partnership we challenged the next generation to design for a circular economy through our RSA Student Design Awards competition. Now, from autumn 2020 to spring 2021, we are working with a cohort of 12 pioneering creative leaders who already use circular design within their practice, to support them to have greater impact in their work both as individuals and as a collective.

The 12 individuals taking part in the Rethink Fashion learning programme come from a diverse range of skillsets and parts of the fashion system: manufacturing, marketing, textile design, material development, journalism and more. They are all innovators working on initiatives which tackle the extractive and linear status quo in the fashion system, but their interventions do that in very different ways, from creating new supply chains with greater transparency to platforms that connect customers with local seamstresses.

For innovators working at the smaller scale in a global and fast-moving system it can be challenging to create cut-through at two levels simultaneously - ensuring that their venture flourishes, but that it also helps to bring about the new, circular system that they hope to see in fashion. The pooling of expertise and experience in this programme is designed to break down silos that might make it hard for these innovators to connect with one another and provide a space to enable cross-pollination of insights and ideas.

This graphic created in the kick-off session earlier this month shows the breadth of expertise and change initiatives within the group:

What do we mean by rethinking fashion?

Fashion is a highly complex and global system. It is also perhaps one of the best – or in this case worst – examples of the damage that a linear economy does to both the economy and people, creating huge volumes of waste, polluting waterways and exploiting low-cost labour.

It is a system which needs radically rethinking in order to make it fit for a future in which we address the challenges of climate change, environmental degradation and inequality.

Circular economy principles and regenerative practice offer ways to enable this change, and creative pioneers are key amongst those who can envision and bring to life a better future for fashion.

Embarking on this journey as emerging creative leaders is not only about understanding the challenges of the current system and the opportunities of a different future, but nurturing the mindset, approaches and skills that will enable us to get there. This means working at multiple levels: looking inwards, at our own practices, mindsets, biases and assumptions; looking at the way we set up and run our organisations, the culture we create and the wider field we operate within; as well as engaging more broadly with the behaviours and structures within wider society. Rethinking is required at all levels if we are to accelerate the transition to a circular and regenerative future.

Why a learning journey?

The Rethink Fashion approach is rooted in bringing people with a mix of perspectives and experiences together to learn with and from each other through the RSA’s Living Change approach.

We’ve called this a learning journey for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s about collective exploration over time and it’s not didactic. The process combines practitioner-led elements with peer-led and self-directed learning, and we’re committed to adapting and responding to group needs and opportunities that emerge along the way. Secondly, it’s about more than building skills and capabilities (which tends to be the assumption when we use the ‘training’ label), it’s also about digging into mindsets and more complex aspects of learning and development. And thirdly, we’re not just focusing on individual venture success (which tends to be the focus of incubators and accelerators) – we’re intentionally reflecting on our aligned missions yet different roles within the system, surfacing connections, and building relationships to grow the potential for collaboration and collective impact.

The Living Change approach which underpins the design of the journey helps us to understand the systemic challenges of our time – in this case the extractive, linear fashion system – whilst also finding impactful ways to intervene in the here and now. At the RSA we often talk about an artful blend of two mindsets that enable changemakers to collaborate on complex challenges: ‘thinking like a system’ whilst also ‘acting like an entrepreneur’, and the flow of the Rethink Fashion journey is structured around these two broad phases. 

What's the path ahead?

Between now and March 2021 we will be working together through a series of online and in-person sessions (Covid permitting!), following the RSA’s Living Change approach.

For the first half of the programme, we will focus on ‘thinking systemically’ about the fashion system and its complexities, including changing dynamics over time and at different levels; how small businesses can use the nature of change to create wider systems impact; and the kind of mindsets that might help unlock new ways to work within a circular and regenerative system. We will be exploring a range of frameworks, perspectives and theories to reveal the system and its challenges and opportunities.

In the spring we’ll shift to taking entrepreneurial action through ‘designing systemic interventions’, with each group member drawing on the learning so far to hone in on a challenge, and then develop and test an idea to move forward with their work and impact. Alongside the RSA and Ellen MacArthur Foundation practitioners we are welcoming guest contributors from fashion and systems innovation.

The journey will culminate with a sharing event in March – watch this space for more on our approach and learnings as the journey unfolds

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