In the wake of the presidential election results, New York University’s panel discussion “Changing the Game of Fast Fashion” largely centered on apprehension over what’s to come for an industry reliant on free trade and international business relationships. The event was part of Reynold’s Program speaker series, which presents talks focused on social entrepreneurship topics.
Speakers included designer Eileen Fisher, Lucky Brand chief executive officer Carlos Alberini, Gwen Floyd of jewelry line Soko and Maxine Bédat of e-commerce site Zady. Though subjects ranged from employing local artisans to recycling products, it was evident that this was a microcosm of the fashion industry at large — one left reeling following the election results last week.
Each speaker described challenges in manufacturing ethical, eco-friendly merchandise and their correlating approach to overcome said obstacle. “Early 2008 was a critical point for the company. We experienced several tsunamis in business: consumers’ response to the recession, the rise of Amazon and e-commerce, the Millennial generation that operates with different behavior and [the influx of] fast fashion,” Alberini said. “All of these had a major impact on our business model in assessing how we can secure the vitality of our business model. We might need to add a new tsunami after last week [the presidential election].”
Alberini described Lucky Brand’s tiered approach to focusing on sustainability, which primarily highlights open communication among vendors and the energizing of its team, specifically in relation to the brand’s heritage. “Our vision is to be an inclusive brand, we want people to participate. We hate discrimination — we want everyone to love Lucky,” he said.
Fisher always preferred the touch and feel of natural cotton. “It wasn’t good enough to just use natural fibers,” she said. Her curiosity in high-quality and untainted textiles sparked a companywide transition to holistically and ethically producing its garments.
With the creation of a director of social consciousness position, Fisher and her team investigated the conditions of the brand’s factories in China. “We started to find things that made us really unhappy and uncomfortable. We found padlocks on the dormitory doors,” Fisher said. “We thought we could just leave, but we realized that if we stayed we could make a difference.” That was 20 years ago.
Since then Fisher has championed a self-described “mini-movement” within the brand. The company’s designers share a passion to uncover new opportunities for organic linen or wool production, for example. Perhaps most profoundly, Fisher’s companywide Vision 2020 program aims to reach the goal of being fully sustainable and organic by 2020.
Fisher considers herself a “problem-solving designer.” With that comes troubleshooting the issue of excess materials and outdated clothing. This inspired the Eileen Fisher Social Innovation Award in partnership with the CFDA. The award grants a yearlong residency to young designers who are able to rework damaged clothing as part of the Green Eileen recycling program — an initiative that collects and ethically disposes or reuses unwanted clothing.
“Innovation can come from addressing problems and that’s what makes me hopeful while we’re struggling where we are now,” Fisher said.
Bédat, cofounder of e-tailer Zady, echoed Fisher’s interest in design serving as a vehicle for solution finding. Originally a lawyer, Bédat became intrigued about the quality of goods while working at a genocide tribunal in southern Africa and visiting marketplaces. “It was my first experience visiting markets and backtracking to see places where and how the pieces were made….It was a lens of the world that just opened up,” she said. From there, Bédat traced products to two central issues: the quality of the product and the treatment of the artisans.
She and her cofounder decided to unearth product life cycles, which revealed less than glowing processes. “The given election [results] is the impact that [poor production policies] had on U.S. manufacturing and how those things relate to what we see as our future. We tried to understand what’s the right way to make a product and there was a lot of conflicting information, which is when we decided…to create a new standard: how to think about design, material selection and production.”
Floyd, cofounder of jewelry line Soko, wants to pioneer ethical fast fashion. “I want to create the next generation of supply chains to make fashion work for the poor and the environment, rather than against it,” she said. Floyd acknowledged that fast fashion probably isn’t going anywhere, especially with the rise of global consumers who are fast-fashion addicts.
Soko employs local craftsmen once pigeon-holed into poverty. The company puts mobile phones into the hands of artisans who are able to receive orders, manage direct payments, deliveries and inventory levels via the brand’s app. “Income improves five times, which empowers artisans and retailers to leverage tech to work with brands in a transparent way,” Floyd said.
Modeled as a demand-based business, Soko is run by a cloud-based system, allowing for real-time global demand to be fulfilled. What’s more, these efficiencies reduce waste, timelines and costs.
When the panel members were asked if the presidential election results will impact sustainability goals or their own vision of how to move forward, there was a healthy dose of concern framed by optimism and urgency.
Floyd said, “Climate change is a big deal. I think now more than ever there will be a massive wake-up call for consumers, who have relied on brands to make decisions for them. Because their voice wasn’t heard in the election, Millennials view their way of showing support is by using their dollar as a vote.”
“For myself, I feel a sense of urgency and personal waking up. We can’t sit back and the government will make things right. We have to work together and get out there….We can’t be complacent — the companies out there that are trying to do things right will have people feel like they’re voting for their products,” Fisher said.
“From the domestic component, we have to understand how this [the election of Donald Trump] happened. We do manufacturing in the U.S. — because of that we’ve been exposed to a lot of stories of the negative impacts of globalization and come across a lot of sad stories,” Bédat said. “It’s true that 800,000 apparel manufacturing jobs have been lost over the decades. The states know what’s happening to the middle of America.…We have to be conscious of the good and the bad, and the unintended consequences of decisions.”
Alberini said, “I think we all feel frozen. There are a lot of things that threaten this industry. The lack of emphasis on policy for environmental and social issues — it’s a scary time. When new policy-makers talk about changing trade and going against a multilateral trade approach to a bilateral approach and [if you] consider currency issues, this can become a troublesome world for trade. But I believe in our people and I believe in the young generations. I’m very confident that we will have a prosperous future, but we need to speak up.”