THERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU’LL NEVER FORGET.. and I wouldn't want to.
I was an environmental landscape photographer in a past life and I’ve taken lots of photos. But even though I didn’t take a photo of what I’m about to tell you, I can still remember every single detail. I was in the middle of a remote town in North Queensland on a scorching hot day. I could taste the dust in the air as a cattle truck had just driven past me, billowing dust behind it. Ahead of me, I could see children playing soccer in a dust cloud of their own. The scene was beautiful and the photographer in me was saying “take the photo”....But something felt off. So I started walking closer.
With just shorts, no shoes or shirts, the children were playing soccer but not the way you see on TV. They were really struggling to even get to the ball.They were using shop windows and awning poles to support themselves. And as the dust settled, I saw...they had deformed limbs.
I was in this town because I wanted to create a photographic series about industrial pollution. The person showing me around, to help me find the best spots to photograph (they thought I was more like a tourist) tried to usher me away. But I wouldn’t go. I needed to know why they had such terrible deformities.
“Basically, their mothers got lead poisoning while they were pregnant!. But it’s okay! Most of the children are deformed and they get along just fine! They have each other!!” As you can imagine, I just stared at my guide, gob-smacked. “It’s okay? They get along? They have each other? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!”
I was so heartbroken, I couldn’t even take a photo and almost dropped my camera. Tears welled in my eyes and I started to choke on dust, this couldn't be true? could it ? It was true and the businesses responsible knew it and were still operating. These children were paying the price for our consumption and our choices. And honestly… they were paying the price for MY consumption and MY choices. Realising that hurt on so many levels, and it still does. I couldn’t change their situation but how could I change this or prevent this, what was the solution? What could I do?
I took my environmental photos and exhibited them here and overseas but no-one was listening. How could I make a difference when no one wanted to know the truth and do something about it? The sad thing was, during my exhibitions they were looking at the truth and not doing anything at all and the galleries, wanting to make a profit, wanted to sell them to the very people I was fighting against. I made a very unpopular decision, I turned down what would have been a career making deal by saying no to an oil company. I didn’t want my work taken out of context and I didn't want to continue photographing such terrible scenes, standing on the sidelines thinking that my photos would be enough to change the world. My photos weren't changing anything. What I was doing wasn’t good enough.
I had to find another way, I had to change careers and start a business that directly tackled all of the biggest problems in industry, and the world. I looked at the hierarchy of polluters and at the time, surprisingly at number 2 position, was the fashion industry. I had spent much of my career in and around the fashion industry and thought I would be able to do something that meant my life's work was worth something.
I was met head on by some of the biggest problems in fashion. Consultants set in their ways, with 'this is how it's done' mentality. Suppliers that wouldn’t tell me exactly what the fabrics were made of, telling me 'you don't need to know - just put 'this' on the label'. Manufacturers wouldn’t tell me or show me what their factories or working conditions were like and I even had fabric samples arrive that smelt like toxic fumes, that made me question, where on earth did these come from? (I finally found out and it was another toxic factory 7500km away)
I searched for answers and asked more questions than anyone cared to answer. I had doors slammed in my face and almost pushed down a tiny staircase, that led to a room of women working in appalling conditions who looked absolutely terrified to see me. It seemed no one wanted things to change and they certainly didn't want to let go of their sweat shops and profit margins. In the end, I was so disgusted with what I saw that I decided to start from scratch and do things the right way, or at least the best way I could with what I had. I sold all my photographic gear and ended up learning the hard way.
That was March 2013. Now, after seven years in the business and working my tail off, I am the proud owner of a 100% transparent, traceable and sustainable business that is setting new benchmarks within the fashion industry. Building a business of purpose is a lot of hard work and I can safely say with my hand on my heart, that there is no other fashion business that does what I do and there's still so much more I want to achieve!
I might only be making a difference one garment at a time, but for me, that's one step further than any of those children will ever get the chance to take. If sewing till 2am and planting trees on weekends means that's a reality and I'm helping others to make a difference too, than that's my legacy and worth fighting for.
Anna-Louise Howard, founder of sustainable ethical fashion brand “Farm to Hanger” built her brand after a 25 year career as an environmental landscape photographer. Through her photography she witnessed the huge environmental damage caused by many different industries. After exhibiting her work domestically and internationally, Anna-Louise looked at the environmental damage happening globally and focused in on finding an industry where she could make a difference. With qualifications in Applied Fashion and Design, and the knowledge that the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental damage, she knew this was where change could be possible.
Today, Anna-Louise is the proud owner of a 100% transparent, traceable and sustainable business that is setting new benchmarks within the fashion industry. As a visionary, she is pushing the boundaries of what it is to be building a business of purpose and extending her reach of what is means to run and own a sustainable business. In that light, she is building Australia’s 1st 100% sustainable off-grid apparel factory with the hope of being a beacon for other fashion businesses to follow.