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Love Island star Brett Staniland on his surprising fight against fast fashion

Former Love Island contestant and model Brett Staniland joins BetterPod to share his journey to the front line of fast fashion activism.

Many contestants go on Love Island to find a partner. Some admit they want fame, or the chance to bag a lucrative brand deal when they get out. For Brett Staniland, the main reason was to raise awareness about the harmful effects of the fast fashion industry – on people and the environment. 

With its lighthearted atmosphere, Love Island seems like the last place to spark meaningful political conversations, but Staniland was determined to bring something new to viewers when he joined the programme seven weeks into last year’s series. Unfortunately, most of what he wanted to share hit the cutting room floor, and he was kicked off the island after just three days. 

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Still, in that short time, his quirky style made him stand out. As the first islander to turn down free clothing from the series’ fast fashion sponsors, Staniland foreshadowed concerns that would shape this year’s Love Island. This season, producers have ditched their fast fashion sponsors, opting instead to partner up with eBay and dress everyone in “pre-loved” clothes. 

In a win for sustainable fashion campaigners, Love Island executive producer Mark Spencer said they were striving to “be a more eco-friendly production with more focus on ways in which we can visibly show this on screen.”

For his part, Staniland continues to use his platform to raise awareness against fast fashion – even if it means coming into conflict with other former islanders. In February, he hit the headlines when he was photographed outside fellow Love Island star Molly-Mae’s PrettyLittleThing catwalk holding a sign that read: ‘There’s nothing pretty about wage theft’. 

Staniland joined this week’s episode of BetterPod to talk about his journey into activism, why he protested against Molly-Mae’s show, and how all of us can make more ethically sound fashion choices.

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This is an abridged version of the BetterPod conversation. Listen to the full podcast here, or where you normally listen to podcasts. Come back every Wednesday for more, and join in the conversation on social media using #BetterPod

What is the problem with fast fashion?

I think there’s two conversations and they’re intertwined. One is the effect on the planet. We can’t sustain this amount of waste, this amount of production, this amount of use of fossil fuels. And all of the things that contribute to global warming and climate change.

The other one is about people. When you get a fast fashion garment and you turn it inside out and have a look at it, you think: how is it possible that I bought this for £6? And who’s been paid to make it? And what’s their situation?

I watched a really good documentary from Unreported World, on the Citarum river in Indonesia. The people who live on this river work at the textile factories that make all the clothes that we wear, and they are actually polluting their own water source. They’re giving their babies rashes and lots of health conditions, because it’s the only water that they have. They’re not being paid fair living wages; they don’t have a good quality of life. All for one thing: so they can make you a £6 shirt, or a £6 dress.

Why did you decide to go on Love Island?

I’ve dedicated a lot of my adult life to academia and work. So, the situations where I’m open to having a relationship have been quite slim. I’ve been focusing on other things. When the opportunity arose, I was coming to the end of my PhD, so I had a little bit of time. And it was just one of those things – like it’s a situation that’s so unique. You’re around people who are all open minded and looking for a relationship in one way or another.

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How would you respond to critics who wonder why you would go on a show like Love Island, seeing as it promotes a lot of fast fashion?

I get this quite a lot on social media: if I feel so strongly about sustainable fashion, why would I go on the show in the first place?

For me, aside from the primary reasons for doing a show like that, the secondary reasons are to raise awareness. I know the show is heavily propped up by fast fashion sponsors, it creates fast fashion influencers and the whole thing perpetuates this overconsumption and all the things that I’m basically against. So for me, it was a massive opportunity to bring just some something new and something fresh to that viewership.

Obviously, I didn’t accept any of the sponsors’ clothes. They will basically provide you an entire wardrobe if you want one. I didn’t take part in any of the promo for it. The way I look at it is if that if there were more contestants that had done the same as me then the show’s sponsors would have got less exposure.

You’ve tweeted about being disappointed about not being able to share your opinions about fast fashion on the show. Why do you think those conversations weren’t aired?

I mean, ITV has to protect their viewership. The audience is so broad that they don’t want to shut the doors on anyone. If someone comes in with quite strong political opinions, especially with my opinion on the sponsors of the show, they can’t air that because it might affect their sponsorship.

Tell us a little bit about your journey to activism and why these causes have come to mean so much to you.

My interest in looking after things and mending things comes from my dad and my granddad. My dad’s an engineer, my grandfather was a painter. They were both really skilled at what they did. They would buy a pair of shoes and keep them forever, and they’d repair them and care for them and polish them. I love all of that.

My entry point into the fashion industry was halfway through the boom of fast fashion. Seeing clothes that just had no craft at all, that were viewed as disposable… that was a journey I went on through my work, and experiencing it firsthand.

There comes a point in your career where you want to look back and be really proud of that body of work and feel like you have a decent legacy behind you. Rather than just being a nameless model at the front of a campaign, I want to stand for something.

You hit the headlines for your protest outside fellow Love Island star – and fast fashion influencer – Molly-Mae’s PrettyLittleThing catwalk show. Can you tell us about the protests and why you took that stand?

Regardless of whether I was on Love Island or not, I would have still been there. Boohoo [the owners of PrettyLittleThing] are one of the worst brands on the planet for overproduction and the treatment of the labour force. So, this was a big opportunity for us. That audience is the audience that we need to target to try and help educate and show them the actual exploitative practices of the brands that they are buying from.

Campaigner and model Brett Staniland. Photo: PR

A lot of the time when people think about sustainable fashion, they tend to think of charity shops or secondhand clothes. For a lot of people who love fashion that might not seem very appealing. How do you make it seem attractive, and maybe even exciting, to be involved in sustainable fashion?

Yeah, I think when you say “sustainable fashion” people either imagine grubby clothes from charity shops that aren’t appealing, or earthy-toned, really drapey clothing like hippies from the ’80s. That’s definitely something that I’m trying to help change. I think it helps if you come from like a luxury element and trickle it down.

The sustainable fashion spectrum so large. Even just telling people look, you can borrow something from a friend and that is in the conversation of being more sustainable than buying something new.

The first step is literally wearing what you have and understanding that if you wear something twice, none of your friends are going to be like, “Oh my God, you’ve worn that twice.” That doesn’t really ever happen.

A lot of people are struggling and may think they can’t afford to choose sustainable fashion. Can it also be an accessible option?

The classism conversation with sustainable fashion is really, really interesting. People message me and say, “I just can’t afford to shop sustainably. I can’t afford that £80 plain white t shirt.”

There are so many more options to buying something new. Buying something new should actually be the last option after renting and borrowing from friends, and mending and fixing what you have. But people need time after work to even learn the skill of how to knit and sew. So, there’s all those things.

Another important part of this is: rather than asking, “why I can’t afford to shop sustainably?” It’s more, “why isn’t sustainable fashion more affordable?” Or “why is fast fashion so cheap?” The cost of those items doesn’t reflect the true cost of what those items should be.

The people who are living really frugally – they’re not the ones that we’re trying to apply pressure to. If they go and buy something from Primark because that’s all they can afford, and they don’t have time to mend or fix things – that is completely fine. They’re not the ones doing the £200 hauls of items they don’t need.

What do can brands do to be more environmentally friendly?

They shouldn’t be allowed to make anything from virgin materials, whether it be plastic or natural materials. There has to be much more recycled materials included in collections. They also need to be designing not just an item, but the whole lifecycle of the clothing.

Another big one would be Instagram. Social media is such a big player in the fashion industry. And I really believe that you shouldn’t be able to shop on these platforms, because that’s not what they were intended to do. I think you should be at least four or five clicks away from buying something. Watching a story, swiping up and adding to a basket should not even be possible.

Find out more about BetterPod here.

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