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Alumna Anouk van Oss wants a sustainable fashion industry

Fashion is a common thread running through alumna Anouk van Oss’s life. From a young age, fashion was a way for her to express herself. That was until she discovered how problematic the fashion industry is. She decided to focus on sustainability in her studies and hopes at some point to become a sustainability manager at a big fashion house.

Anouk van Oss grew up in Berghem, a small village on the outskirts of Oss in the province of Noord-Brabant. She felt different from everyone else in the village, not just because she was adopted and had racist comments flung at her but also because she had other interests than her peers. ‘I’ve always loved fashion’, she says. ‘As a teen, I discovered it’s also a way to express yourself. I already felt different and now I could show that with my personal style.’ 

She thought this way of expressing herself was fantastic until she watched the documentary The True Cost. Child labour, exploitation and a disastrous environmental impact are the effects of the fashion industry, especially the fast-fashion industry that we know from Zara, Shein and Primark, for example. ‘When I discovered all the problems with the fashion industry, it really upset me’, says Van Oss. ‘The documentary showed that it's not just the budget chains that engage in harmful practices: the big fashion brands are equally guilty. Fashion is so fabulous it’s sad things have gone so wrong in the industry.’ 

Anouk van Oss during her Leiden studies

From Wageningen to Leiden

Wanting to do something about this, Van Oss focused on sustainability in her studies. She left Berghem to do International Development Studies in Wageningen but felt the political side of the story was missing. ‘How can you carry out a development project if you disregard a country’s politics?’ she wondered. ‘I really missed that part of the puzzle, so I looked for a master’s at another university.’

She found what she was looking for in the Master’s in International Relations in Leiden. ‘It was enlightening to delve into geopolitical relations and study how these develop’, she explains. ‘It was exactly what I’d hoped for. The programme proved to have common ground with the fashion industry, given that many brands outsource work to countries with interesting geopolitical situations. Countries like Myanmar, China and India, for example.’

Work experience

Van Oss deliberately chose to take two years to do her master’s instead of one. ‘That meant I could do an internship’, she says. ‘Luckily I found one that was right up my street: at the office of the Social and Economic Council’s Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile.’ 

Having obtained her master’s, Van Oss moved to Brussels to be with her boyfriend. ‘I had no idea what I’d be doing there but thought I’d what happened. I regularly went to the Holland House, where lots of Dutch people who work for the EU go. They hold jazz nights or lectures and it’s a good place to network anyway. Being active there got me my first job.’ 

Anouk van Oss, '4th of July'  bbq in Leiden with international students
Anouk van Oss, '4th of July' bbq in Leiden with international students

Competitive culture

Things turned out well for Van Oss but she sometimes felt stressed by the competitive culture in Brussels. ‘There are so many people here that want to work at the EU’, she says. ‘They are often young people who speak six languages, have done two master’s and six internships but still can’t find a job. Everyone here has studied so much and has so many skills that you no longer stand out. Luckily it was different for me because I knew I wanted to work in the private sector. Having already done an internship and being open-minded made it a bit easier for me.’ 

Transparency and sustainability

For a few months now, Van Oss has been working at The Rock Group, an organisation that helps companies transition towards a sustainable and responsible business model. She works as a consultant in a young and diverse team. ‘It was good that I already had a strong focus on sustainability so I knew which direction I wanted to take’, she says. ‘I didn’t immediately think of consultancy but it’s a good way to gain insights into lots of different companies. Sometimes I work for clients who want to make their business practices more sustainable, sometimes I help with education on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability, and sometimes I help start-ups develop. And every now and then I go to events on sustainability that are organised here in Brussels by the European Parliament, for instance, or a networking organisation.’ 

One of the things she helps businesses with is due diligence. ‘It’s a process in which businesses increase their focus on sustainability and transparency’, she explains. ‘The first thing they need is a sustainability policy. With a clothing brand, this can state, for example, that they don’t want child or forced labour in the chain. To ensure this, they have to look closely at where their things come from, not just their direct suppliers but also their suppliers and production locations. If they identify risks at one of these production locations, in Bangladesh for example, they have to try to do something about it. And they should communicate openly about this and involve their stakeholders so that the whole chain becomes transparent.’

Long process

More and more companies are serious about sustainability, in both their supply and value chains, but there is still a long way to go. ‘You can see more and more businesses taking action’, Van Oss explains. ‘Brands use organic cotton, for example, and encourage their customers to return old garments for recycling. So they are trying to do their bit to reduce the mountains of textile waste in various African countries. Our “donations” to developing countries generally aren’t worn but are of such bad quality that they end up in landfills.’

Thus far, clothing brands have mainly focused on the environment. Then Rana Plaza, an enormous building in Bangladesh housing, among others, a garment factory, collapsed in 2013 killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring more than 2,500. ‘There has been a bit more attention for people’s working conditions since then’, says Van Oss, ‘but it’s awful that it took a disaster like that for this to happen. Hopefully, there will be a more structural focus on the social aspects of the fashion industry.’ 

In Holland House Brussels

Hope for the future

Although it is a slow and time-consuming process, Van Oss tries to be hopeful about the future. ‘More people are becoming aware of the problems in the clothing industry’, she says, ‘but obviously there are lots of people who can’t afford to consider sustainability. I myself don’t buy new clothes but buy second-hand instead. And I try to make those around me aware of impulse purchases. I was guilty of that when I worked in a clothes shop. It’s better to buy one good quality garment that you really like and will wear regularly than something you’re unsure about and will only wear once.’ 

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