LONDON, United Kingdom — The events of the last six months have underscored the far-reaching implications of how the fashion industry does business. Forest fires in Australia made the climate crisis an unavoidable reality, not just a distant problem. The coronavirus pandemic unleashed an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, calling into question fashion's commitment to fair labour and vulnerable business models. Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police have laid bare the underrepresentation and mistreatment of black people in the industry. Like the rest of the world, fashion has significant work to do to dismantle systemic racism.
On June 17, BoF sought to address these issues and more at the inaugural BoF Professional Summit, presented by Shopify Plus, through a range of presentations, panel discussions and workshops featuring industry voices from around the world. Speakers included slow-fashion heavyweights Eileen Fisher and Gabriela Hearst; Levi Strauss & Co.’s Chief Executive Chip Bergh; Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity; Fashion Revolution Global Policy Director Sarah Ditty; Aniyia Williams of Black & Brown Founders and Zebras Unite and more.
Across the talks and panels, a recurring theme emerged: recent events — including the pandemic and the anti-racism protests — have sped up changes that were already underway but long overdue.
“We find ourselves now in the midst of another global crisis and at an inflection point that can really spur global change,” said Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “The moment presents us with such a unique opportunity to rebuild the industry better than it was before.”
Responsible Business Leadership
Traditionally, companies have pursued maximum profit and shareholder value at the expense of other stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, consumers, local communities and even the planet. “Being a CEO today is no longer about shareholder capitalism; it’s about stakeholder capitalism,” Bergh said.
Building or scaling a business to serve the interests of all stakeholders while addressing sweeping environmental and social injustices can be overwhelming, which is why Shopify Plus Head of EMEA Shimona Mehta recommended clearly defining your mission first. “Start with something most relevant to you where you feel your brand can move the needle, or you feel passionately about,” she said, citing Shopify clients Mara Hoffman, who shifted away from selling to stores that didn’t align with her values, and Kotn, which sources its cotton from family-run farms in the Nile Delta.
Defining a brand’s values is all the more important in times of adversity. “Every crisis and every world-changing event provides an obligation for introspection as a brand and to ask yourself about your role and responsibility in this situation,” said August Bard-Bringéus, co-founder of Swedish menswear label Asket. “You need to consider your why: why are you doing what you are doing, what’s your raison d'être, why do you exist?”
For entrepreneurs, Bergh shared two key pieces of advice. "Number one: decide what your moral compass is and write it down, be concrete about it," he said. "Values are the thing, when you’re in the grey area when you have a tough decision to make, that can guide you to do the right thing."
"The second thing is, it’s one thing to write it down and say it. It’s another thing to actually live it," he added. "You have to live your values and be consistent with them once you declare them."
Tackling Institutional Racism
The growing prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement has forced fashion companies to take stock of their own role in perpetuating racism and focus on making structural changes in addition to one-off donations and public statements of solidarity.
“Racism is this country’s biggest sin and greatest crime — it’s been going on not for the last couple of months, but for four centuries,” said Bergh. “When you look at the brutal facts, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and I have to be honest: I feel like I’ve failed... I feel like I’ve let the black community down.”
But racism is a global issue, manifesting itself in the way businesses across the industry operate, both internally and externally.
We find ourselves now in the midst of another global crisis and at an inflection point that can really spur global change. The moment presents us with such a unique opportunity to rebuild the industry better than it was before.
“We are experiencing a reckoning right now, and something has got to give,” said Aniyia Williams, founder and director of Black & Brown Founders, a resource and education network for black and Latinx entrepreneurs, as she delivered a talk on how to confront and dismantle systemic racism in the workplace and wider world of business.
Williams said it’s crucial for those in positions of power and privilege to step outside their comfort zones and challenge preconceptions that perpetuate of white supremacy, such as defensiveness and fear of open conflict, valuing civility over uncomfortable truths, the myth of objectivity and binary thinking, and the culture of individualism in business, which “creates a lack of accountability… [and a] willingness to engage with the consequences of the decisions that we’re making.”
While the need for positive change should be underpinned by a sense of urgency, Williams said that dismantling structural racism is always a work in progress. “The biggest commitment you can make is a lifetime of practice,” said Williams. “Be curious, be open, be flexible, and be willing to admit when you’re wrong. You’re not going to get things right every time. None of us do.”
The Sustainability Imperative
The sheer volume of product created on a seasonal basis — or, in the case of fast fashion, even more frequently — shows that the fashion industry is a wholly “linear” economy, where the majority of items are bought and end up in landfill, with little or no effort to squeeze as much value as possible out of the product.
“The whole notion of a circular economy, buying quality that’s going to last, is going to become much more important from a consumer standpoint,” said Levi’s Bergh.
Though they don’t always vote with their wallets, consumers are putting mounting pressure on brands to be more transparent and environmentally friendly in their business practices. However, the ambiguous language and misinformation surrounding sustainable fashion further complicates the ethos of responsible consumption. “There’s a lot of claims to things being 100 percent sustainable,” said Bard-Bringéus of Asket. “A product always has an impact and a footprint so how can that be 100 percent sustainable and what do you mean?”
Even for well-established players in the sustainable fashion space, comprehending the full scope of what it means to operate sustainably is “a never-ending journey,” said Hearst, who founded her namesake luxury label in 2015. Fisher, who started her brand in the 1980s, had a similar experience. “It took me a while to understand that… materials, just because they are natural, [aren’t] necessarily made sustainably,” she said. Sustainability commitments today, compared to when she started her business over three decades ago “also [mean] thinking about our product in a circular way.”
However, responsible production isn’t always as simple as making less. A sustainable value chain also protects the rights and livelihoods of garment workers.
The biggest commitment you can make is a lifetime of practice. Be curious, be open, be flexible, and be willing to admit when you’re wrong. You’re not going to get things right every time. None of us do.
“The way that the industry is designed really incentivises short-term thinking and places profits above all else, and that means profits above people's lives and the health of our living planet,“ said Fashion Revolution’s Ditty in a conversation with Akter and BoF Senior Correspondent Sarah Kent.
Already in vulnerable and precarious situations, those working in garment factories — many of which are situated in the global South — have borne the brunt of the economic fallout of Covid-19. In Bangladesh alone, where clothing makes up 80 percent of the country’s exports, there have been an estimated $3 billion of cancelled or delayed orders as retailers braced themselves for plummeting consumer demand due to the coronavirus and consequent economic recession.
As a result, said Akter, some 1.6 million workers will lose their jobs. “[Women] who just started learning what economic freedom is, who just wanted to understand what [female] empowerment is,” she said.“This will push them back to the pavilion where they started their journey. All their dreams will be broken and they’ll be starving, and will put them in other crises like domestic violence, trafficking. Many [bad] things are coming.”
“Manufacturers who have been doing this business for three decades, they couldn’t take responsibility for three months for our workers,” Akter continued. “When they made [a] profit, they didn't share it with our workers. Why do our workers have to take responsibility for their losses?”
Akter’s advice on how to enact change starts with consumers, who can put pressure on brands to treat their garment workers with dignity. But she also believes in high-level regulatory changes and enforcement, such as France’s due diligence legislation that prevents multinationals from allowing human rights abuses in their supply chains. “If we don’t learn from this pandemic,” she said, “we can’t make any changes in the future.”