How can the fashion industry use its power to promote empathy and peace?
A few months ago, when we saw World Humanitarian Day appear on the calendar (19th of August), we asked ourselves ‘In how far can the fashion industry be a force that promotes human welfare and peace?’
HUMANITARIAN: (adjective) Concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare
The ginormous fashion industry is a labor-intensive industry, employing millions of people around the world. The companies employing these workers have a direct influence on their welfare. Businesses can choose to support the workers in different ways, influencing not only the quality of life of the employees but also their communities.
With its creativity and reach, fashion companies can also play a more subtle but incredibly powerful role in providing people with a way to express who they are and what they believe in. Historically, fashion has often taken the influencer role in questioning established thinking and promoting change.
In our reading and conversations with professionals, we identified four ways that fashion companies can contribute to peace and human welfare around the world.
1) Instituting social justice in the supply chain
For decades, organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and the Fair Wear Foundation, have tirelessly been fighting to improve the rights of workers throughout the supply chain. Improving pay and working conditions ensures that not only the workers themselves can lead better lives, but also their families and communities.
However, millions of workers around the world still don’t have their basic rights met, struggle to survive financially and work under inhumane conditions. The covid-crisis again acutely exposed the disparities in the labour market. When companies in richer countries faced decreasing demand, many orders were cancelled, putting at risk the most vulnerable workers.
So, what can fashion companies do to ensure better practices? A small but increasing number of retail companies ensure that they have full transparency within their supply chain, and that their employees work under fair conditions.
This may be more difficult to do for larger companies with complex supply chains. But there are companies and organisations that can support the process. Earlier this year, Thomas Radal from Ulula, gave a webinar explaining how creative tele-communication solutions can be used to provide workers with safe and simple ways to provide feedback on working conditions. Tip-me, adopted for example by Ethletic, allows companies to give customers the option of giving a tip to further support workers. Lost Stock, launched during the covid-crisis, re-sells stock from cancelled orders in Bangladesh, providing payment to workers who otherwise couldn’t have been paid.
By making their supply chains more transparent, companies contribute to social justice and stability in communities dependent on the fashion retail supply chain.
2) Providing employment and business opportunities for refugee communities
The UN refugee agency estimates that there are currently nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Both within the refugee communities, as in the countries offering asylum, social enterprises have arisen to support refugees in building a better future.
In looking for ways to help refugees rebuild their lives, a growing number of social entrepreneurs have found that among the displaced there are talented craftsmen and -women. Certain fashion companies, such as Vanina, Sep Jordan, Rania Kinge and Makers Unite (see images with descriptors below) have made it their brand purpose to support refugee communities.
Sep Jordan’s collections are crafted in Jordan by Palestinian refugee women, whose cross-stitching techniques have been passed down from generation to generation. Sep Jordan’s founder, Roberta Ventura, wanted to give the meticulous needlework of these marginalised women’s the recognition they deserve from international markets. Read the full story.
Makers Unite is a creative platform for social inclusion based in the Netherlands. At their Amsterdam studio they connect people with a refugee background and local designers to create sustainable products with a story.
Rania Kinge is the first social enterprise in Syria made up entirely of displaced women, currently serving over 100 women in 3 governorates in Syria including Damascus, Sweida and Aleppo. The ethical brand trains women who have lost their source of income due to the ongoing war in Syria, after which time they are able to earning an income with the production of jewelry and fashion items that sells online and around the world.
Vanina is a social enterprise based in Lebanon, supporting community development while valorizing local craftsmanship. They partner with NGOs to help people living in refugee camps by raising money through handcrafted collections. Read their full story and discover their collection on https://vanina.me/
In the shadow of these praiseworthy initiatives offering refugees new opportunities, are the vulnerable refugees working in the garment industry facing risks of child labor, miserable pay and precarious conditions (read more here).
As professionals in our industry become more aware of the poor conditions many refugee communities are facing every day, learning from the solutions created by front-runners can bring new perspective towards finding solutions for all.
3) New clothes to build a new Life
As most professionals working in the industry will know, clothes have a powerful influence on people’s feelings of self-worth, as well as on how they are seen by the outside world. Being dressed well and fitting to (desired) lifestyle and living conditions has an enormous influence on our wellbeing.
In 2012, researchers Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky coined the term Enclothed Cognition, following an experiment studying the effect of clothing on people’s mental processes. They concluded that the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them can change the way people see and value themselves.
The photography project ‘Sneakers like JayZ’ beautifully explores the meaning of clothing for newly arrived refugees. This collaborative project was born following the meeting between a volunteer at a Paris reception center and a freshly arrived Afghan refugee asking for ‘some nice sneakers, like JayZ’s’ to replace his old flip-flops. Beyond protecting from the elements, clothes provide a way for people to find new dignity, to showcase who they are and protect them from prejudice.
Although not largely publicized, there are organisations and companies that actively seek to support underprivileged communities by providing fashionable clothes. Organizations such as Dress for Success or Career Gear provide, next to counselling, professional attire to respectively women and men seeking to find employment. Good360 stimulates corporations to provide quality products to communities. In this way, Levi’s, for example, a few years ago provided a large donation of new Levi’s and Dockers brand products to organizations supporting refugees.
4) Raising awareness and influencing social change
Historically, fashion has often been at the forefront of social changes. From dress length to two-piece swimsuit, from shoe styles to texts on t-shirts, fashion has driven people to rethink social norms and values.
Today, there are also brands and designers using their visibility to advance causes. From ‘There is no Planet B’ t-shirts by Ecoalf, to Armani and Gucci going fur-free, companies are increasingly taking a stance for the environment. Designers such as pioneer Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney use their brands as well as their personal fame to promote causes including animal rights, environmental protection, and social equality.
Rather than start their own movements, brands can also choose to back a movement or support key figures of a movement. In 2018, Nike took a brave, yet controversial, stance by supporting activist Colin Kaepernick. The former NFL quarterback rose to fame for kneeling during the national anthem at football games in protest against racial injustice in the US. By running a powerful advertisement campaign supporting his cause, they not only showed their stance that could influence their loyal customers but also provided broader visibility to the cause. In one of our past blog articles, we speak about more of these successful partnerships.
Most recently, after the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, countless brands and fashion retail organizations openly showed their support. From making donations to organizations fighting discrimination to pledging more diversity in their teams or more shelf space for products from black-owned businesses, companies widely sought to do something about systemic racism still very much present today.
Of course, the question always remains, are companies being authentic or jumping on a cause to use as a marketing tool? Greenwashing is still widespread in the industry. Nonetheless, a lot is authentic. More importantly, even companies that might not be doing everything right yet carry a lot of influence and can help raise awareness and bring about change.
Fashion reaches every corner of the earth
As one of the primary drivers of the industrial revolution, the global industry has played a significant role in putting in place systems and practices that today we know are harmful to the environment and communities. However, the fashion world can clearly also take a driving seat in bringing about change, within the industry but also in society more widely. Frontrunners in the industry are starting to put purpose before (or at least next to) profit. They are showing that, yes, fashion can be a force that promotes peace and welfare!
Join us for our Share & Connect Round Table on the theme of Fashion for Peace, to exchange thoughts and ideas with other members and experts around this theme.