Cork-based ethical fashion designer on why we need to 'join the revolution'...

Ethical fashion designer Sarah O’Neill talks to EMMA CONNOLLY about the fashion revolution, Second Hand September and the Global Climate Strike
Cork-based ethical fashion designer on why we need to 'join the revolution'...
Designs by Sarah O'Neill, Cork-based fashion designer.

A CORK-based ethical fashion designer wants people to realise that if a garment seems like a bargain, it usually means someone else is paying for it.

Sarah O’Neill, who describes herself as an ‘activist in the fashion revolution’ said: “The true cost results in poor wages and bad working conditions for someone else.”

Speaking during Second Hand September, she is urging us all to invest in vintage and second-hand stores to reduce the millions of garments sent to landfills every single week.

As a designer she’s committed to reclaiming and repurposing garments and textiles, and working with pieces that have the lowest carbon footprint. And as a consumer she doesn’t buy into fast fashion.

The idea for Second Hand September came from the charity Oxfam in a bid to discourage throwaway fashion.

“Every week, 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill — but many of them are still wearable or could be used to create something new.

According to the charity, two tonnes of clothing are bought each minute in the UK. That amount produces nearly 50 tonnes of carbon emissions.

“Oxfam is encouraging people to take a 30-day pledge to only buy second-hand items, from charity shops, auction sites, online marketplaces or wherever you can find them. The only rule is someone else needs to have owned them first.

“I would encourage everyone to get involved in this campaign it’s never too late to start and you might not think you are making a difference but I promise you, you are. Nothing is waste until it is wasted,” said Sarah.

It was while studying at Limerick School of Art and Design that Sarah became exposed to ethical fashion concepts and in turn, involved in the zero waste movement.

“Encouraged by this, I adapted my practise and approach to sustainability through zero waste pattern cutting, repurposing existing garments and using anthotype print methods.

“Currently I’m working on my next collection, a follow on from my graduate collection, which is challenging me to be more innovative with my approach to sustainability.

“In addition, I work for Whistles in Brown Thomas as a Sales Specialist, where I also have the opportunity to support the store’s sustainability policies and targets.”

Sarah is also keen to build more transparency in the fashion industry: “This would require companies to know who makes their clothes; from who stitched them right through to who dyed the fabric, who farmed the cotton and under what conditions. Crucially, it requires brands to share this information publicly.”

She interned in London with the ethical brand Faustine Steinmetz.

“It was there that I realised we can drive this necessary change in the industry on a global scale.

Cork based ethical designer Sarah O'Neill.
Cork based ethical designer Sarah O'Neill.

“Faustine has always rallied against the fashion industry’s reliance on mass-production. But while I was there she was appointed Balenciaga’s creative director for their denim wear — a fantastic opportunity with the world’s biggest fashion brand at the moment.

“At first, I interpreted this as a conflict with Faustine’s beliefs and ethos, but now I believe it is crucial to include these global conglomerates in the conversation on eco-fashion and not just dismiss them as the antagonist. These companies are the people making the most impact, so they are the people that need the most help in changing their policies to enable a more positive effect.

“We need to put the pressure on them to create and facilitate the right change from within.”

Sarah predominately buys from vintage and second hand stores: “I won’t buy anything new that has synthetic fibres in it. I will check if it’s ethically sourced and how many green product and sustainability labels on it, all of which you can find on

“But even the greenest garment uses resources for production, so ultimately we need to reduce consumer demand to stop over production in the fashion industry.

“The change has to come from shifting our mentality towards how we buy our clothes.”

Sarah’s next step is to complete a masters in Textiles Development, researching how we can produce textiles out of waste — especially food waste. “Being able to convert food waste and bacteria into sustainable textiles, would tackle two of the biggest industries producing the most waste sent to landfill at the moment.”

She’s also urged people to join the Global Climate Strike on September 20 which she feels ‘ is set to be the biggest climate mobilisation in history.’

Ultimately, she says we can’t ignore the contribution the apparel industry is making to the environmental crisis: “I’m making a conscious effort to reverse this trend so that future generations do not inherit an irreversible disaster.”

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