A photo of 3 men wearing patterned clothes at a fashion show, designed by Bethany Williams

This House Believes... in social justice at the heart of climate action

22 Apr 2020

Curator Karishma Rafferty explores how practitioners are putting social justice at the heart of the fight against the climate crisis as we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

So, this is not quite how we imagined to be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day! At the time of writing, Somerset House is empty and we have no new installations opening due to the global outbreak of Coronavirus. Over the past few years we’ve hosted major installations by international artists in our courtyard for Earth Day, including included John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017, Michael Pinsky’s Pollution Pods in 2018 and Justin Brice Guariglia’s REDUCE SPEED NOW! in 2019. Those artists, and many others, continue to explore the critical issues of our time including importantly the climate and ecological emergency we find ourselves in now.

Pollution Pods by Michael Pinsky at Somerset House for Earth Day 2018 (c) Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House
Pollution Pods by Michael Pinsky at Somerset House

This year we’ve commissioned fashion designer Bethany Williams to lead our Earth Day activities with her new work entitled All Our Children. Kicking off on Earth Day itself with a live Q&A and the first in a series of DIY workshops, Bethany invites everyone to take part in her ongoing research process over the next months which will result in her next fashion collection later in the year. Together we’ll be exploring what it really is that we want to pass on to future generations who, ultimately, will be the worst impacted by climate breakdown. 

Bethany is well known for a socially engaged approach to making clothes and I’ve been fascinated by the systems thinking deeply embedded in her work. She not only conceptually references social and political realities such as the hostile environment, but also works with real people and organisations to do something about it. As part of her All Our Children project she’s been working with The Magpie Project in Newham who support vulnerably housed women and their under-5s.

Bethany’s work might not seem ‘climate themed’ beyond the obvious exclusive uses of recycled/organic/ sustainably sourced materials in the production of her work. However, Bethany’s focus on the most vulnerable in our society is an important takeaway for thinking about climate breakdown overall. Locally and internationally, it is always the most socially and economically vulnerable people who will be worst impacted by any crisis and therefore social justice has to be explored in parallel to action on climate.

As part of our Earth Day programme this year we’re also working with Fashion Revolution, an international campaign started in response to the collapse of the Ranza Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013. Together we’re hosting a Fashion Open Studio as part of our Creative Careers programme, and hearing from different designers all thinking through the environmental and social impact of their work in different ways. The fashion industry itself is the is said to be the second most polluting industry in the world and particularly at the most commercial end of the sector, depends on labour from some of most vulnerable and lowest paid workers globally who are also often on the frontline of environmental destruction. But it is hugely influential culturally, and Bethany together with many others are using their media platform and creative practice not only to create beautiful innovative work, but also lead this creative sector and prototype new ways that can have positive social and environmental impact overall.

I highly recommend using Earth Day 2020 to do some thinking, reading and (most importantly!) conversing around some of these ideas. In these uncertain times it is clearer than ever how connected and interdependent we all are – health wise, economically, socially… We look to artists and creatives of all backgrounds to help us imagine better ways of living, making and thriving post-Covid-19 and crucially post-climate emergency. Let’s all get a bit more creative about our futures together.

Congregation Design fashion workshop
CONGREGATION, courtesy of Fashion revolution

This Earth Day check out:

1. Make a flag for Earth Day - the first in a series of online workshops as part of Bethany Williams' All Our Children project. Raise your flag with us on Earth Day with a message for future generations!
2. Fashion Revolution
3. Get Involved Guide: Citizens
4. Somerset House Residents' thoughts on Earth Day 2020 - Some thoughts and suggested reading from across our creative community this Earth Day
5. Emergency Designer Network - London-based designers Holly Fulton, Bethany Williams and Phoebe English united to form the Emergency Designer Network (EDN). Now, alongside Cozette McCreery, this volunteer-led enterprise is galvanising local production to support hospital stocks of key garments such as scrubs. This is vital armour in the fight against COVID-19.

Karishma Rafferty is a curator at Somerset House.