The Highs and Lows of Running a Global Ethical Fashion Conference under Lockdown

by Jo Salter, Founder Where Does It Come From?

Clearly a lot of things have had to change due to Covid 19, and rightly so.  For those of us in lockdown but fortunate enough to be healthy, we’ve learned to adapt to our new lives, grateful for the technology that enables us to keep in touch, keep learning and keep collaborating.

That technology enabled the collaboration that was Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution 2020 – an online, week long global conference in April 2020.  We served 62 webinars across a number of ethical and sustainable fashion themes to a wide audience – all at different stages of their journey towards a more values driven clothing lifestyle.

ethical brands for fashion revolution 2020

Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution 2020 – Background

I set up a Facebook group called Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution around four years ago.  Inspired by the amazing ethical fashion movement Fashion Revolution that was encouraging customers to ask their fashion brands ‘who made my clothes?’ I felt that there was a key role for the ethical fashion brands – the ones who already can answer this question.  We can tell our customers not only who made our clothes but also how they did it and all the positive benefits to people, planet and community that come from the clothing productions we run.

For Fashion Revolution 2017 I produced a video in collaboration with 9 ethical fashion brands.  For the next two annual Fashion Revolution weeks, in April 2018 and 2019, I collaborated with Ethical Hour to run live events in London under the banner Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution, featuring up to 30 brands, live panel sessions, demonstrations and workshops.  You can find out more about the history of Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution here.

But this year had to be different.

ethical brand for fashion revolution 2020
Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution 2019

Pre-Lockdown planning and swivel

The Facebook group I started in 2016/7 has grown exponentially and much of that membership was from across the world.  Fashion Revolution itself is a global movement so it felt like the right time look wider than a single London based event.  After initiating discussions within the group we pulled together a number of people and organisations who were either already planning something or wanted to be involved, across around ten different global locations.  It was getting exciting.

But then, Covid 19 happened and each event and plan tumbled as cancellations happened.  There would be no global string of live events for us this year!

In mid-March the idea came to me that we could turn all of this into an online event, and in fact make it not only global but also a week long conference.  At that point I was just thinking of using a software platform like Zoom and having intermittent talks and panel sessions through the week.  I spent a few hours brainstorming myself until I had a draft proposal of what it could be.

I posted the basic idea in the Facebook group where it was met with great enthusiasm.  Even better a team of people volunteered to help me run it – it could start to take shape!

Defining Themes and Creating an Agenda

One of those who offered to be involved was the lifestyle blogger Izzy McLeod, also known as the Quirky Environmentalist.  Izzy had already planned a blogging schedule for the week, with a different theme for each day, with hashtags and blog ideas associated.  These were great and given the timescales it seemed sensible to take them as a starting point.  With Izzy’s permission I used her daily themes to create a high level conference plan, fleshing out each day with my thoughts of content we could have – from pre-recorded videos to live key notes and panels.  It was important to me to have a global reach, including the voice of suppliers and campaigning organisations as well as brands and influencers.  I shared this vision with those who had volunteered to help and we had our first team meeting on Friday 27th March – 5 days after lockdown officially began in the UK. 

Enthusiastic planning ensued and everyone took ownership of areas, based on their skills and the amount of time they were able to commit – amazing given we were in lockdown with our families and trying to juggle our own businesses and organisations too!

The team that came together through the event organisation was amazing – spanning UK, USA and France.  Here they are….

ethical brands for fashion revolution 2020

Team – left to right. Top Row: Roberta Lee, Luisa Kearney, Kamilah Sanders, Jo Salter, Izzy McLeod, Claire Couchman.  Bottom Row: Eleanor Pritchard, Ruth MacGilp, Tze Ching Yeung, Margarida Vasconcelos, Inga Grinko.

And here are the themes that the whole agenda was built around – linking in with Izzy’s blogger programme.

ethical brands for fashion revolution 2020

From Concept to Reality

To get started the first steps were to set up a website and start selling tickets.  I approached Vicky from Make Hay Green Hosting to talk websites.   We use Make Hay for Where Does It Come From? because of their very eco-friendly (windpowered) approach and their excellent customer service.  Vicky very kindly offered to host the website for free! 

Claire Couchman of Couchman Bespoke, took on the ticketing role and soon had the ticket sales up and running with an early bird offer.  I set up the website and we were off!  Tze Ching Yeung of Jake and Maya Kids (soon known as Digital Marketing Queen) created some fabulous event graphics and started driving up awareness and Roberta Lee, the Sustainable Stylist looked into the technology we would need to run the conference, with the help of her tech team at Ethical Brand Directory

The next mammoth task was to contact all the organisations and people that we wanted to take part – this involved a huge number of emails, phone calls and video conferences.  I’ll spare you the detail but you can see the final result in our Conference Agenda.  Suffice to say that I was blown away and humbled by the way people jumped on board and gave of their time and knowledge.  I’ll be forever grateful.

The Dream Team

We aligned ourselves with roles – I pulled together the agenda and the speakers as well as setting up the website.  I also performed a ‘puller together’ role, making sure all the other strands were fitting together as needed to ensure the vision came to pass.  Kamilah helped me by pulling together the sponsorship pack and the speakers profile page on the website.  Inga also worked with me, pulling together the brands for the brands marketplace and getting them all loaded onto the website.  Claire handled ticketing, Tze Ching, with help from Luisa and Eleanor sorted the digital marketing and Roberta looked into the technology that would get this delivered professionally – sorting out a webinar system called Webinar Jam.  Ruth created our press release and Margarida was fabulous at linking us up with people and sharing all the content on social media to help build up the excitement.  Izzy’s blogger programme ran through the week too, raising awareness of Fashion Revolution.

There were also people who stepped in and helped with various sessions – such as Rae Ritchie, Rachel Kan, Sian Conway and Kate Auguste who created pre-recorded interview content.

Sponsorship

Kamilah wrote a wonderful sponsorship pack which we circulated around – sadly no one offered us any financial assistance – a shame as we could have widened our reach through advertising.  But we were extremely grateful to have Make Hay sponsoring the website and Roberta kindly offered sponsorship of the Webinar technology from her brand Ethical Brand Directory.

Highs and Lows

The Highs…

Interviewing Lucy Siegle on her work to show the effects on garment makers of brands cancelling orders due to Covid 19
  1. The speakers: Obviously the biggest, most massive high for me was the amazing people that supported us in our keynotes, panels, live interviews and pre-recorded discussions.  The list is huge – you can find out more about most of them here (a few were shy and didn’t send us their bio!).    I was so grateful for the support of key organisations such as Fashion Revolution, Hubbub, Common Objective, Labour Behind the Label, Fashion Roundtable, Microfinance Opportunities, Extinction Rebellion and so many brands and businesses who are working for positive change.

    Personal highlights were interviewing journalist Lucy Siegle and former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.  It was also fabulous to be able to include global speakers – such as Shailini Sheth Amin, Medha Shah, Kapil Shah and Madhu Vaishnav from India, Kamilah Sanders and Adam Siegel from the USA, Brian Eislin from Switzerland and Tai Ford from Germany.

For me some sessions were a bit like having a chat in the pub with mates, such as the Fibres in my Clothes panel with Jo Godden (Ruby Moon Gym to Swim), Catherine Price Williams (Ted and Bessie Alpaca), Sven Segal (Po-Zu shoes) and Sophie Slater (Birdsong) and the Culture Change Panel with Laura Cave (BAFTS and Just Trade), Georgina Wilson-Powell (Pebble Magazine) and Jen Gale (Sustainable-ish).

1. The Team

As discussed above – the team really were a dream team.  We all gave what we could in terms of time and skills and supported each other.  It shows what you can do when you all have a shared positive goal. Community and collaboration were there in bucketloads and cringey as it sounds I do feel that I have gained lots of new friends and colleagues.

2. Attendees participation

Many of those who ‘came’ to the conference were active in the chat box – asking questions, making comments, linking up with each other and generally giving such a ‘real’ conference feel that it was very uplifting as a host and presenter.  The community spirit was really obvious and made the conference very special.

3. Hidden Gems

Researching for the conference uncovered several speakers and organisations that I was unfamiliar with – speakers that shared such fascinating stories that the audience (as well as me) were enthralled.  For me the ones that spring to mind are Peter Gorse (Golf Refugees) on the chemicals in our clothes, Madhu Vaishnav (Saheli Women) and Guy Stewart and Dani Ortega from Microfinance Opportunities.

Madhu Vaishnav from Saheli Women

4. Supporting key charities

Although this was a conference for learning and inspiration, we wanted to provide concrete help to make change happen too.  The conference was not for profit so we agreed that anything above covering our costs would be donated to the Fashion Revolution Charities.  We’re still finalising our costs but we are hoping that this donation will be around £200.

The Lows…

1. Technology Gremlins    

Whilst being HUGELY grateful for the technologies that made Ethical Brands for Fashion Revolution 2020 possible in the first place, there were a few occasions where tech issues caused palpatations, hair standing on end and cold sweats.

Ethical Brand Directory kindly sponsored our use of their Webinar Jam system (which was awesome!) but the learning curve was steep and quick ie. In the 2 days prior to the conference :-).    Once we were up and running it was superb, and thankfully all was fine by conference launch on Monday morning.  But suffice to say that the Sunday was not a very calm day.

During the week other issues also caused angst – speakers dropping out mid interview/panel due to having low bandwidth,  presenters forgetting to turn their microphones on (ok, I admit this was me on the very first webinar), previously loaded slides disappearing, and much more.  My most hairy moment was when I was chatting to Lucy Siegle prior to going live, pressing the ‘Go’ button, and her audio feed completely disappearing.  She then wisely exited the webinar and came back in again (where it worked fine of course) but the moments when she had disappeared were anxious ones.

2. Exhaustion!

As always I completely underestimated how tiring it would be to run a week long conference – I think we all did.  Now I know why conferences are rarely more than a few days long.  There was a lot going on behind the scenes, both prior to the conference and during the week.  We were all juggling family and business commitments too so it was a huge relief when all was delivered successfully.  In fact our last webinar became a celebration of this and we had a glass of wine and invited some guests (Steve Woody – the marvellous tech guru and Olesya Lane) to come on screen for a live chat! I admit to being a little tipsy…

The last webinar (with wine) Roberta, Jo, Claire and Tze Ching

Follow Up and Futures

It’s almost a month since the conference closed and we have some fabulous ideas for follow up.

The 62 webinars have been downloaded from the webinar software (over 11 Gigabyes!) and we will be making plans for the future, including podcasts, regular webinars and much more.

Finally a huge thank you from me – to the team, the speakers, the sponsors and everyone who joined us and helped to make this conference so amazing. Would I do it again? Hmmmmm well never say never.