On August 9th, Remake participated in Fashion’s Social Impact: Sourcing for Social Good, moderated by Barbara Ende, President of Sycamore Marketing Group, Inc. The SOURCING at MAGIC trade show Las Vegas panel discussed how brands, retailers, manufacturers, and suppliers are addressing the social good dilemma.
As more consumers begin to demand ethics and sustainability from fashion brands worldwide, the social good dilemma becomes increasingly prominent. The social good dilemma can be defined as the struggle between maintaining profitable business practices and while remaining simultaneously ethical. This dilemma is a continued struggle within fashion, which has historically favored profits over people and the planet. With the emergence of an increased desire for sustainability and ethics in fashion, it is a topic that many brands need to address moving forward.
[W]e are here to disrupt this three trillion dollar industry… our mission is to show fair wages for the people who make our clothes, and for fashion to address its climate impacts.
Panelist Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake, opened the discussion by noting that she believes that fashion needs “radical disruption,” stating “we are here to disrupt this three trillion dollar industry… our mission is to show fair wages for the people who make our clothes, and for fashion to address its climate impacts.” Barenblat shared that she founded Remake because “we were not making enough progress, and continue to not make enough progress, against fashion’s own stated sustainability goals.” Hence, the urgent need for radical disruption through education and policy.
First and foremost, the fashion industry “has been mostly unregulated” when it comes to auditing and certifying sustainability or ethics, according to Barenblat. This general lack of accountability is partly to blame for insufficient progress towards social good oriented goals.
Panelist Dr. Cindy Lin, CEO and Co-Founder of social analytics company Hey Social Good, stated that its goal is to “inspire companies to do better,” given their current progression towards sustainability and ethics. “People expect companies and brands to do better and to do more. We all want to see better transparency. We want to see authentic impacts, not just greenwashing.”
Lin affirmed the need for regulation, or more simply, for data relating to brand practices in ethics and sustainability. “We need better records, more credible records, to show that there is good impact on the ground.” Without data in this area, the industry will continue to lack regulation, and thus accountability.
Hey Social Good aims to “use data as a force for good, because the truth is, data really drives a lot of decision making.”
Many brands focus primarily on metrics associated with carbon emissions; Hey Social Good encourages individual companies to look beyond their “carbon footprint.” Lin stated that “Just measuring the carbon emissions tells us nothing about whether that’s making a positive impact or a harmful impact. What we focus on instead is that unit measurement of ‘is it that impact or practice for activity by a business making a positive impact on the ground?’” By “on the ground,” Lin is referring to people and the planet, two primary components in the conversation around sustainability in fashion.
Barenblat affirmed that much of the conversation surrounding social good has historically been a trickle down system, with input on the issues primarily coming from those in power. She went on to share that as a Pakistani American (her family having run factories in Pakistan), she approaches the complex issues of the fashion industry with more ethos towards those in manufacturing, such as garment workers. “In social impact spaces, even well-meaning folks don’t really understand supply chains or how manufacturing works.”
It’s complex, there is no one right answer. We actually need standards. We need regulations, but we also need incentives and we need market incentives.
During the discussion, Barenblat disagreed with Lin’s remarks on how the lack of progress in creating social good in fashion is due to a “data problem.” Rather, she feels that it comes down to commercial practices. She asked, “How is it that in this industry that all of the worker-driven responsibility and expectations are pushed down to the bottom without any kind of investment?” She asserted that there must be financial investments towards creating more ethical and sustainable commercial practices, not just auditing.
Lin responded to Barenblat by stating that she “thinks part of the problem is the reporting structure. There are no regulations to our own standards.” In her eyes, current practices in auditing do not take into account real “on the ground” results.
The reason that Lin started Hey Social Good is to show whether companies are concretely meeting their goals, rather than just talking about meeting them. Hey Social Good provides assessment, verification, and guidance through its unique, data-based social good assessment tool. By cross-matching with UN Sustainable Development goals, the organization can ensure that brands are following through on their commitments (because numbers don’t lie).
While Barenblat and Lin “agreed to disagree” on the relevance of data in the conversation around creating social good, they did come to a consensus that current methods of auditing are not enough to motivate progression towards social good goals, individually or industry-wide.
The discussion continued with Barenblat stating that change needs to come from regulatory policy; she feels that “market based solutions” have not been sufficient, and that it is time for the government to ask what its role is in protecting garment makers and the planet.
Moderator Ende noted that because much of the conversation is oriented around market based solutions, “there’s a lot of greenwashing happening,” as the emphasis is more on marketing and advertising rather than concrete practices for positive impact.
Regulation itself is on a slippery slope, as the lack of regulation results in unethical behavior, and yet too strict of regulation can result in a multitude of lawsuits. Lin expressed: “It’s complex, there is no one right answer. We actually need standards. We need regulations, but we also need incentives and we need market incentives”
Barenblat agreed with Lin’s remarks, noting that the FABRIC Act has built-in incentives, such as “tax credits and a grant program, to assure that people make dignified wages” as fashion laborers. “We cannot say in good conscience that garment workers [currently] make a living wage.”
Barenblat elaborated on current regulation, stating that it is “built in a vacuum,” with many who are impacted by the policy lacking a seat at the table in creating and implementing policy. “Any policy or regulation has to really be centered around the community that it is expressively trying to serve.”
We can try to buy all the sustainable and ethical products in the world, but if we are not thinking from a citizen standpoint, we’re not going to make the kinds of changes we need to make our climate goals.
Much of manufacturing, in the fashion industry and beyond, has departed from the United States in order to avoid regulation. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment reached “an all-time peak of 19.6 million” in 1979, and steadily decreased to 12.8 million in 2019.
Outside of regulation, there is still one central issue: informing and educating the public or consumers about where their dollar goes.
Barenblat reminded listeners that consumers are not fully to blame in their purchasing habits, noting that “the multimillion dollar marketing industry makes fast fashion very trendy.”
Overall, she shared, these issues cannot be fixed with “just the market.” Consumers need to “be a citizen first, and a consumer second,” since “we can try to buy all the sustainable and ethical products in the world, but if we are not thinking from a citizen standpoint, we’re not going to make the kinds of changes we need to make our climate goals.” In other words, we cannot buy our way into a more sustainable and ethical future. Although consumers are responsible for their decisions, the larger impact is comes from the corporations.
An audience member asked panelists if there is a way to design transparency legislation so that there are tangible impacts on the ground, and Lin responded enthusiastically, stating that, “regulations are supposed to set a standard… we need to have a better recording of information that makes sense, not just reporting for reporting’s sake. You can design it in a way where you have to identify those metrics that are actually indicating something of importance or value.” Furthermore, added Barenblat, current legislation around transparency does not provide any cash flow “…back into the community that is impacted by these issues.”
One key notion that both Lin and Barenblat call into question is who is responsible for verifying whether transparency data is accurate, and if the data measures metrics are actually applicable to changes on the ground.
Early in the panel, Barenblat was asked by Ende if, given all that she knows about the industry, she was hopeful for the future of fashion. Barenblat shared that she “remains an eternal optimist because of the people in our community. We are seeing the next generation of manufacturers and brands, a lot more people of color in seats of power, and our community intuitively realizes that there is no sustainability without fair pay and climate justice.”