Women are largely leading the sea change when it comes to ESG, and at companies like Allbirds, Parade, Levi’s and The Folklore Group, they’re doing it through global amplification, authenticity, teamwork, resourcefulness and boots-on-the-ground action.
“A lot of women in fashion — and business in general — are tasked with the job hands on of figuring out how they’re going to get women to buy their sustainable products because there is this eco-gender gap that’s happening,” Cami Téllez, founder, chief executive officer and creative director of Parade, said in a conversation about the female forces powering environmental, social and governance advancements at Fairchild Media Group’s “Women in Power” event held during New York Fashion Week at The Current at Pier 59. Using her underwear brand Parade as example, she said: “[Women are] moving the category away from having a one-note, individualistic approach to marketing and building product for women.”
On the innerwear side of the equation, where Parade is now capturing 1 percent of the underwear market, the 25-year-old Téllez said it’s a big feat to present an alternative to the linear definition of sexy that’s been traditionally presented in a male gaze. Masses of women agree, as the brand has a Gen Z-centric, social impact-focused ambassador program spanning 10,000 members.
As a young brand, Téllez was able to build sustainability in early on and mobilize an army of change-makers. “It was exciting to talk to [our ambassadors] and to back them in their [various sustainability] efforts and that’s a big part of how we need to think about our role in brand building. It goes beyond the action of buying a product and wearing a product,” she said. “Gen Z wants brands to be part of their personality, be part of their day-to-day [lives]. We’re thinking about how we can continue to uphold values and set the example in the category, so this is a brand that they’re excited to tell their friends about.”
Where women differ and are most powerful is often in their teamwork approach to sustainability.
“I think we’re still at the very beginning of this [sustainability] conversation. What I’m most interested in is building knowledge across our industry,” Téllez said. “It’s about taking a team for the ride in understanding how these [sustainable] technologies work, so you can build a workforce of people who are informed and understand what the stakes are.”
Diversity is not a separate and siloed effort but another core element of ESG, and the priority of Elizabeth A. Morrison, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Levi Strauss & Co. She joined Levi’s at the tail end of 2020 to drive change across the company’s core DE&I pillars meant serious investment and visibility, accountability, transparency and advocacy. (Morrison wrote in her responses to the conversation as she was unable to make the physical panel).
“After going deep on our culture and the role our values play in guiding our business and shaping our employee experience, I was clear on what I wanted to achieve and I communicated it, from the C-suite to the front line. It’s important to drive the understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion as a strategic differentiator and key business and talent imperative versus a ‘nice to have’. Plus, statistically diverse businesses are more successful businesses,” she said.
She underlined, however, that authentic DE&I is a journey. “It takes authentic commitment, strategy, resources and sustained effort over time,” aided in part by Levi’s 169-year-old history.
This longevity helps her see the irony in sustainability conversations today. “Ironically, I’m over the words sustainable and ethical. I say this because they should be the default way in which we operate. For example, who is running their business in a nonethical way? Why would we not strive for sustainability and use the utmost care when it comes to our environment and the natural resources it provides us? If we could stop focusing on these as buzzwords and accept them as ‘ways of operating or doing business’ I think this would be a huge step forward.”
Amira Rasool, founder and CEO of The Folklore Group, has seen her African studies major be put to good use, as she uses art and business to make an impact for designers who have been less represented. She founded The Folklore Group to bring African and diasporic designers into the fold and has forged partnerships with major retailers like Farfetch.
Rasool is focused on global market expansion and helping to eliminate poverty though access to technology, creativity and connectivity. “I really wanted to make an impact that would last way longer than me, to have technology in these communities that didn’t have it before.”
And as for buzzwords, the word ‘quota’ is overdone in her eyes. “It’s OK to have goals, but I think we should replace quota with goals. As soon as [people] hit that [ESG] quota, they’re not interested in going beyond that. Everyone wants to meet and exceed their goals, but quota is really defined.”
She also clarified that while creativity takes many forms, sustainability — at its root — is responsible resource use. “It’s sometimes better to go to a thrift store than go to a retail store. It’s better for the environment and it forces you to spend the extra time going through those racks to have an experience,” Rasool said.
In leading more responsible efforts at Allbirds, Hana Kajimura, head of sustainability at the footwear and apparel company, says it’s important to stick to the facts (and bigger picture) amid a deepening climate crisis.
“It’s about amplifying the impact not just beyond one person but beyond one company,” she said. “We label all of our products with our carbon footprint — how many kilograms across the life cycle of the product. All you have to know is that number has to get to zero. You should be able to follow along that journey as we go along it. It’s grounding in numbers and following along with progress updates in time.”
At Allbirds, collective action is something the company is achieving via collaboration. As WWD reported, the brand teamed with Adidas to make a low carbon footprint shoe of less than 3 kilograms of CO2 compared to the average shoe that chalks up 14 kilograms. Though its aims with Adidas are a feat to acknowledge, Allbirds recently celebrated the launch of its entirely plant-based “Pacer” sneaker last week which Kajimura wore during the panel.
Kajimura continued, “This is such a shining example of when we worked together and challenged the conventional business norms and when you do that, we can all get so much farther — faster.”