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VOICES 2021: Navigating Turmoil in the Wider World

In the first session of BoF’s annual gathering, speakers including Vivienne Westwood and Janaya Future Khan addressed the climate crisis, stakeholder capitalism, an antidote for cultural appropriation, what activism really means and the loneliness epidemic.
Janaya Future Khan at VOICES 2021.
Janaya Future Khan spoke about what real activism looks like at VOICES 2021. (Getty)
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The Business of Fashion’s annual VOICES gathering opened against a backdrop of tightening Covid-19 restrictions and mounting concern about the climate crisis, the focus of frenzied negotiations just weeks earlier at the UN’s COP 26 climate summit. Add to that no shortage of cultural turmoil and the stage was set for something of a reckoning.

Speakers including Dame Vivienne Westwood, McKinsey & Co senior partner Dame Vivian Hunt, indigenous women rights activist, teacher and farmer Seno Tsuha, non-binary activist, storyteller and former international ambassador for Black Lives Matter, Janaya Future Khan and intimacy specialist, podcast host and writer Lila addressed these topics head on.

“The current moment is a major test for the current world order,” BoF founder and chief executive Imran Amed said in his opening remarks. “This moment provided us with the opportunity to change [and] create a more sustainable, equitable kind of society.”

Vivienne Westwood’s Climate SOS

Dame Vivienne Westwood kicked off VOICES 2021 with a passionate call to action that drew on her decades of activism. The iconic British designer pulled no punches in pointing to “capitalism” as the source of the climate crisis, highlighting the need for peace, cooperation and a focus. “Tomorrow is too late,” Westwood said. “SOS.”

The Case for Stakeholder Capitalism

Dame Vivian Hunt made the business case for sustainable fashion in a talk that highlighted both the scale of the challenge facing the industry and the importance of action within the wider context of business’ obligation to play a positive role in society, answerable not just to shareholders but to wider “stakeholders” from workers to the environment.

Fashion is a big polluter and it’s emissions are rising fast, putting it far out of step with international commitments to limit global warming. But it’s also an industry under pressure from supply chain disruptions, rising raw material prices and an uncertain outlook.

“In this context, sustainability may seem like something you can’t quite afford,” the McKinsey & Co partner said, making clear that sustainability would not come cheaply. But there are clear incentives to act now: consumers want sustainable fashion, it’s good for business, and companies can’t afford to ignore it, she said. The key is to simply start. “Perfection is not possible; it’s an elusive goal. But progress is an achievable one,” Hunt said.

An Antidote to Cultural Appropriation

Indigenous women rights activist Seno Tsuha travelled over 40 hours from her home in Nagaland, northeast India, to join social entrepreneur Rebecca Hui on the VOICES stage for a conversation on cultural appropriation that suggested a framework for more mindful cross-cultural borrowing rooted in respect, reciprocity and remuneration

“When it comes to textiles we use, it’s not just a piece of cloth, it has cultural meaning,” said Tsuha. “When we talk about respect, especially in fashion, it’s very important to understand the local context or historical context and also the social meanings, the cultural meanings attached to the piece of cloth. If you understand that, and if you acknowledge that, that’s where respect comes in.”

What Activism Really Means

Everybody is born into a script they didn’t write for themselves. But activists defy that script to rewrite the narrative, non-binary activist, storyteller and former international ambassador for Black Lives Matter, Janaya Future Khan, said in a powerful talk that wove together theory with raw personal experiences, inlcuding a racist encounter on a plane.

Khan was careful to differentiate real activism that drives change from the crescendo of surface-level proclamations, from individuals and brands alike, that have filled social media in recent years.

“If we’re talking about what the work of activism really is, it’s about seeing the world as it is, not as we’re told,” they said. “Our job is to imagine change and make it true.”

‘Pandemic of Loneliness’

In the final talk of the session, Intimacy expert, podcast host and writer Lila addressed the “pandemic of loneliness” that predates but has been worsened by the Covid-19 crisis. “We are simultaneously the most connected and the loneliest we have ever been,” she said, laying out a formula for creating real human intimacy rooted in three concepts: disclosure, resonance and permeability.

VOICES 2021 is made possible in part through our partners McKinsey & Company, Shopify, Clearco, Klarna, Brandlive, Flannels, Snap, Getty Images, Soho House and The Invisible Collection.

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