Liya Kebede

Women’s empowerment and sustainability were the key topics at a seminar titled, “Women Are Good for Business” at the Fashion Culture Design “UnConference” held at the New School University Center.

Liya Kebede, founder of Lemlem, the Ethiopian hand-woven women’s and children’s clothing and cotton scarves company; Mary Alice Stephenson, founder and president of Glam4Good, a women and girls’ empowerment platform, and Marlo Tablante, sustainability manager of H&M in the U.S., shared their views on a panel that was moderated by Hitha Herzog on Friday.

Mary Alice Stephenson, Marlo Tablante, Hitha Herzog, Liya Kebede

Mary Alice Stephenson, Marlo Tablante, Hitha Herzog and Liya Kebede.  Griffin Lipson/

Kebede, who is also a model and activist, said the reason Lemlem was created was to find a solution to a problem in Ethiopia. Historically, people there wore handmade clothes, but with Westernization, they started wearing more T-shirts and jeans made elsewhere. “The weavers were jobless,” she said.

Kebede visited this area, where hundreds of weavers were trying to sell their product, but they didn’t have a market any longer. “The idea was we should be helping and promoting these artisans. Helping sustain people and giving them a place where they can blossom,” she said.

As a result, she opened the market for Ethiopian weavers to sell their wares to a larger market in the U.S. In addition, she noted, people are looking for new places to produce clothing “and Africa is the next place people are looking into.” But as much as she’d like the economies to grow in African countries, she wants to make sure they’re not making uniforms and low-cost production, but rather are doing high-quality goods.

Stephenson said that when she left the fashion industry to start her non-profit organization, people were shocked. But she has used her connections with the fashion and beauty industry to empower and help others. Good4Glam partners with nonprofits, media outlets and fashion brands to provide makeovers, and fashion experiences for people in need.

“I’m not Bono. It took me a while,” she said. “Actual impact isn’t sitting around and having your picture taken in a T-shirt with an empowerment logo. If you want to use your social media and influence or status to actually help people, then you connect with foundations like Glam4Good. It’s really, really hard to actually help people. It takes money and funding,” she said.

Tablante said H&M has been doing sustainability since 1995, working with chemicals and figuring out how to clean the water where the company produces its clothes. The retailer has looked at the impact of its business on people, the environment and the process of making and selling the clothes. “We’re looking at it long-term. We have goals we’re looking to achieve over the next 20 years,” she said. One of the goals is to only use sustainable materials by 2030, she said.

Asked about the role of social media, Kebede said the company spends a lot of time on the product and then telling the story behind it. “I don’t like putting the story in front of the product,” she said. “I don’t like sharing my personal life on social media. It’s become such an animal, I don’t really know. I think that the product speaks for itself. It’s a shame that people don’t know the story behind it, but that’s not what I’m selling,” she said.

Stephenson said she has always used social media to show people the power that the fashion and beauty industries have. “Gen Z shows off everything. Why don’t they show off service?” She works with high school students and wants them to show off what’s important to them through social media.

Tablante of H&M said if social media is used to talk about social issues, she’s OK with that. “That’s how people are communicating and connecting with each other and staying in touch with one another. It’s a global world and social media is a powerful tool,” she said. She added H&M is the second largest global retailer and has to be where its customer is. “If they’re on social media and they’re talking about gender, then we’re going to do that too,” said Tablante.

Discussing women’s empowerment, Tablante noted women at H&M make up the biggest share of the business and the product. “Women at H&M are at the table,” she said. Fifty-eight percent of H&M’s board are women, 76 percent of the retail staff are women, and 73 percent are managers. The chief financial officer in the U.S. is also a woman.

Kebede said at Lemlem, 90 percent at headquarters are women, but the weavers are mostly men, because the tradition of weaving is passed down from father to son — but the women spin the cotton and mostly women sew the clothes.

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