Fashion’s Sustainable Entrepreneurs, Past and Future – WWD – WWD

Fashion would have continued at its usual clip without the present global crisis, and those that are now forced to slow down and question the system are, in fact, decades behind the early crop of sustainable fashion pioneers.

In the broadest sense, exceptional strides for the environmental movement sprang out of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” — years before Earth Day was even established — and in the fashion world, one would be remiss to ignore people like Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia who has been preaching the need for sustainability for decades, or the brand’s current chief executive officer, Rose Marcario, or the likes of Eileen Fisher and, more recently, Stella McCartney.

But in conversations with industry experts, a handful of names are consistently mentioned as at the top of the list of those pushing for change. While to some extent they exist on the fringes, it is this that enables them to truly be unhindered free spirits. They are entrepreneurs who challenged the system and molded an example of environmentally and socially just supply chains, as well as a common language and textile standards around which the modern sustainable fashion movement hinges.

For the sake of transparency, this list does not include the rebel designers (more on that later), but those individuals at the forefront in building a transparent, circular, regenerative, equitable, resilient and diverse future. The list also is in no particular ranking, or order.

Marci Zaroff: “Proud grandmother” of EcoFashion
Founder and chief executive officer of EcoFashionCorp, as well as author of “ECOrenaissance”

WWD: You’ve referred to yourself as the “proud grandmother of this movement,” why is this title so fitting?

Marci Zaroff: For nearly three decades, I have been in the trenches pioneering the sustainable fashion industry, having coined and trademarked the term “EcoFashion” in 1995. People thought I was crazy when I founded my first sustainable apparel and home brand, which is still thriving today 25 years later. From building social and environmentally friendly supply chains and products globally, to being instrumental in the development of the Global Organic Textile Standard and Fair Trade USA Fair Trade Textile Standard, to spearheading the launch of sustainable and organic textiles into countless major retailers — from Whole Foods and Aveda to Target, Macy’s Inc., QVC and Bed Bath & Beyond, and to driving fashion forward on the front lines of consumer and trade events, media, board roles, writing, policy advocacy and film production, I have worked tirelessly and tenaciously to build this movement throughout my career.

WWD: What changes have taken place in the modern sustainable fashion movement since you began your work?

M.Z.: In the early years, there were three key stigmas of sustainable fashion: an expectation of products being crunchy, boxy, boring and beige; as well as too expensive, overpriced and unattainable; and a distrust of claims — “how do you really know?”

Today, the paradigm has shifted and EcoFashion offers no compromise, and third-party certifications are now recognized as the key to transparency and authenticity. Innovation around organic or sustainable fibers and materials has driven groundbreaking creativity and collaboration, while the Internet and social media have changed the game of connecting source to story. Responsibility is no longer about staying ahead, but instead, about not being left behind.

Livia Firth: Nature’s First Celebrity Publicist
Creative director and cofounder of Eco-Age

WWD: In brief, can you explain the nature of your work at Eco-Age — how long have you been at this?

Livia Firth: We founded Eco-Age in 2008; we have been doing sustainability for 12 years now. It is still the only company in the world to integrate technical expertise and supply chain solutions with communication and p.r., digital, events and celebrity outreach. A 360-degree agency that has created some groundbreaking activities in the last decade and we are ready for the next.

WWD: What motivates you, and what are you most proud of?

L.F.: Sustainability is about lasting in time. It’s about the future and integrating environmental and social impact, equally at scale — one depending on the other. What motivates me is this: short-term thinking, lack of vision and social and environmental justice.

Some things are just common sense. Do you want a planet over-polluted and full of exploited people and inequalities? Well, you have it. Or do you want to change this? Do you want a future? Well, then let’s do something about it.

In terms of what I am most proud of — so many things, like The Green Carpet Challenge [this year is the 10th anniversary], the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, turning Chopard jewelry’s gold supply chain into 100-percent ethical gold, getting 54 countries to take part in The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, and so on. But more than anything else: the Eco-Age Team.

WWD: What changes have taken place in the modern sustainable fashion movement since you began?

L.F.: When we started, sustainable fashion was not only niche, but also associated with sandals and hemp. Today we have proved beyond any reasonable doubt that sustainable fashion is glamorous and so the conversation now is not just to do with whether something is beautiful or not, but also today everyone talks about sustainability.

Fashion Revolution: The Professional Revolutionaries
Orsola de Castro, cofounder and creative director at Fashion Revolution

WWD: With the Rana Plaza disaster being the catalyst in founding Fashion Revolution, how has the organization and mission grown since then?

Orsola de Castro: It’s such a strange time. Obviously, my thoughts are always with the most vulnerable people particularly right now, and myself, I’m constantly grateful for my privilege, which is having grown children and a garden.

But it’s impossible not to think of the suffering of millions under these circumstances. I think we’re trying as much as possible at Fashion Revolution to highlight now more than ever for brands to be transparent and create a community that is vigilant.

WWD: How long has Fashion Revolution Week been recurring?

O.d.C.: This is our seventh year of Fashion Revolution Week. We started on April 24, 2014 — the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster.

It will be our fifth Fashion Transparency Index, a tool to measure brands’ transparency — and we’re still going ahead with our fashion open studio initiative. It’s very important for people to be inspired and to understand what the fashion of the future looks like from these young designers. So much about the future in terms of rebuilding the economy, it won’t necessarily have to be about panic-buying and cheap buying, it will also be about buying in a more discerned way.

WWD: Has it been a hard adjustment to pivot to online?

O.d.C.: It almost felt like our home — having been born out of a digital campaign [#whomademyclothes, which trended globally on Twitter in 2014] — but nevertheless because we’ve grown so big the technology is challenging but it allows us to reach further afield.

WWD: What is the right tone, as you mentioned “speaking the right language,” in your advocacy work?

O.d.C.: That was very much part of my role within Fashion Revolution — to ensure that the tone that we use is right and that we communicate accurately. We’re not sensationalistic.

And we were the first movement to really embrace fashion. We call ourselves a pro-fashion campaign, not an anti-fashion campaign. Working on accuracy is incredibly important, as far as I am concerned. The constant of making everything shocking or brutal or attention-grabbing, sometimes it will lack the quiet simplicity of a message well delivered.

So much of the power we have around this movement now is understanding these issues are incredibly complex and celebrating that complexity. We don’t shame fashion brands but we don’t thank them.

Carry Somers, cofounder and global operations director at Fashion Revolution

WWD: With the Rana Plaza disaster being the catalyst in founding Fashion Revolution, how has the organization and mission grown since then?

C.S.: Fashion Revolution is now the world’s largest fashion activism movement. Fashion Revolution Week takes place in April each year, but the revolution continues all year round. Over 3 million people engaged with Fashion Revolution over the course of last year.

WWD: What achievements are you most proud of?

C.S.: The recent achievement I’m most proud of is sailing over 2,000 miles from the Galapagos to Easter Island this year as part of eXXpedition, a two-year all-women circumnavigation of the world to raise awareness about the devastating environmental impacts of plastics and toxins in the oceans.

This voyage will create the first global dataset of plastic pollution, which will help inform solutions, as textiles are estimated to be the largest source of microplastics, accounting for some 35 percent of global microplastic pollution, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Textiles.

We also launched a new hashtag #whatsinmyclothes because the majority of brands don’t publish their Restricted Substances List [spearheaded by an environmental task force of the American Apparel and Footwear Association].

WWD: What progress has come?

C.S.: In terms of traceability, in our 2019 Fashion Transparency Index 35 percent of brands were publishing a list of their first-tier manufacturers where our clothes are cut, sewn and completed, up from just 12.5 percent of brands in 2016.

Patrick Duffy: The Swap Savant
Founder of Global Fashion Exchange

WWD: Can you summarize your work and reason founding GFX in brief?

Patrick Duffy: It started when I became aware of the many issues that were hiding behind much of the consumerism fueling the environmental crisis. In 2013, GFX started as a swap, conspired at Copenhagen Fashion Summit and has since evolved into a global community. In the beginning, sharing, bartering and trading was a very scary thought for companies and brands. They didn’t believe me when I would say “swapping is the future.” We are now creating solutions through consulting, education and a global network of engaged agents of change.

WWD: What achievements are you most proud of?

P.D.: While swapping and the sharing economy is not a novelty anymore, I am proud to have been part of something where people can take control of their closets and have a say in how the future will be created while still achieving powerful self-expression and positive environmental impact.

As GFX goes fully digital with The Swapchain, we aim to take our impact further with blockchain-enabled swapping that allows you to connect with people all over the world in one-click, to trace and track products from seed to closet.

WWD: What qualities define the modern sustainable fashion movement?

P.D.: Kind to the planet and humans, equality for all, safe working conditions, zero waste, closed loop — you know, all that good stuff.

But there is greenwashing to be cautious of. Now more than ever consumers are calling out companies who don’t honor the aforementioned dream list.

Rachel Kibbe: Modern Ragwoman
Circularity and textile waste consultant

WWD: What has this slowdown revealed?

Rachel Kibbe: The cracks in systems are certainly being magnified.

Navigating a global pandemic together is a shared experience, at everyone’s doorstep; hopefully, it leads to a deeper understanding of our common fragility and how much we depend on one another. I think this includes: protecting resources, re-shoring supply chains, recycling, and reusing, weaning ourselves off raw materials, providing secure jobs and healthcare as a universal human right.

WWD: Can you summarize your work and career history in brief?

R.K.: I’ve spent a decade working in the sustainable fashion space, entering with an interest in both activism and business models around fair production and more sustainable fashion.

In 2011, I founded the first multibrand online store for ethical fashion catered toward Millennials. I became increasingly concerned about what happens to our “stuff” after purchase and merged my company Helpsy with a textile recycling company. I’ve now started a consultancy, Circular Services Group, where I work with various stakeholders across industries on accessible and scalable solutions for textile waste and creating a more circular fashion industry. For instance, I’m excited about my role as fashion director at Retrievr, a clothing and electronic doorstep clothing collection company.

WWD: Why is it important to “get your hands dirty,” especially as it relates to textile waste?

R.K.: Textile waste is not the sexiest vertical in the sustainable fashion space. I always like to get my hands dirty, so you’ll always find me headed toward the tough-to-seemingly-impossible. There are plenty of brilliant people currently focused on sustainable production. Meanwhile, the reverse supply chain and textile waste is fairly nascent. In many ways, we’re starting from square one.

WWD: What qualities define the modern sustainable fashion movement, and how has that changed since you entered this work?

R.K.: The movement started with a handful of people. We had big ideas and a strong sense that the fashion space was overdue for a change. Most of us had scant resources, but we did anything to get the message out. My experience of starting an e-commerce business with $3,000 out of my studio apartment while working full-time was the norm among us.

This is no longer just a grassroots effort. There’s still work to be done but I’m proud of the collective work, grateful the media is covering this and where it has all lead.

Bay Garnett: Thrift Satirist
Senior independent fashion adviser at Oxfam

WWD: How has the perception of thrifting changed? It wasn’t always trendy.

Bay Garnett: It’s like Cheap Date [the late-Nineties pioneering thrift glossy she cofounded]. I don’t like things being trendy, but to be honest with you, I think it’s brilliant that people and kids especially are turning to secondhand in whatever form that takes.

The alternative to fast fashion is secondhand. So long may it grow and prosper. That’s my work with Oxfam now, but to try and, say — give it a bit of glamour.

WWD: What are your responsibilities as a senior fashion advisor to Oxfam?

B.G.: My goal now is to bring star power — all those bells and whistles that luxury stores have — to Oxfam. I hope my [Oxfam pop-up in Selfridges] shop is like a serious comment, but it’s definitely subverting luxury. I have the Gucci mannequins; it’s your archetypal luxury store but the prices are secondhand prices — that irony is what makes it playful and fun.

WWD: Will you ever return to magazines?

B.G.: I still do shoots; I just did a wedding dress shoot for Oxfam. It’s a huge source of pleasure, I do a lot for them: pop-up shops, the Secondhand September campaign, fashion shows. It’s always been my passion to work with a charity that deals with secondhand clothes but to lend that high-fashion eye.

To answer your question: yes, but only using majority or entirely secondhand.


Dominique Drakeford: Curator of ‘Nontoxic’ Style and Culture
Cofounder of Sustainable Brooklyn and founder of MelaninASS blog.

WWD: What are you reflecting on as we hit the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the seventh anniversary of Rana Plaza and ride out a pandemic?

Dominique Drakeford: I’m thinking a lot about what it means to recalibrate how humans interact with the environment. How systems are inherently racist and exploitive. And how we as individuals have to redefine well-being and happiness. I’m constantly in a vortex of thinking about the interconnectedness of ecosystems and what healthy relationships can and should look like post-COVID-19. I’m thinking about truly building community alongside agricultural and land liberation.

WWD: Can you summarize your work and reason in cofounding Sustainable Brooklyn in brief?

D.D.: My mosaic of work has included influencer and brand partnership collaborations, education, community advocacy, social sustainability writing and global public speaking. If I had to summarize my work in one word it would be “bridge” — connecting community with ideas and progressive initiatives. That’s my art.

My cofounder, Whitney McGuire, and I have very different backgrounds within the “sustainability” space, but we both came together initially to bring equity to a sustainable fashion system. But our main goal is to disrupt exploitative agendas while building community.

WWD: What achievements are you most proud of?

D.D.: I’m proud that my parents allowed me to be uniquely weird growing up — going to school with hangers on my belt loop, pennies glued to my braids and wearing loud vintage and urban clothing. (I’m pretty sure I’m the reason they created uniforms by my junior year.)

Since starting my blog MelaninASS [Melanin And Sustainable Style] in 2017 — I’ve had such a beautiful Rolodex of achievements, from media features in Teen Vogue and Elle, presenting a keynote in Australia and shooting a Timberland campaign in Italy while working for three months in Ghana with Studio One Eighty Nine, all the way from co-organizing my first symposium featuring predominantly black women in sustainability.

Truthfully, nothing gives me butterflies as much as receiving a heartfelt text, DM or e-mail from a person who has been inspired by me or my journey. Those affirmations, authentic moments and conversations are the achievements I’m most proud of.

WWD: What qualities define the modern sustainable fashion movement? What motivates you?

D.D.: The modern sustainable fashion movement is very layered — filled with a plethora of unique brands whose business models are challenging traditional linear supply chains. There’s so much innovation but unfortunately, it’s still orchestrated and dominated by white women’s voices and agendas. The modern sustainable fashion industry shouldn’t be the focus but rather the black and brown indigenous sustainable fashion lifestyle, which has been developing a regenerative ethos and localized circularity for centuries.

I’m motivated by them. Those untold stories. That ancestral wisdom. Those fundamental learnings of connection to land and people. The creative resourcefulness of black activists who merged sustainable fashion with political activism. We are in a crisis of connection and who better to learn and give agency and stakeholdership to than the original stewards of the land and vanguards of sustainable fashion and style.

Lauren Singer: Zero Waste Entrepreneur
Founder of Package Free and Trash Is for Tossers blog

WWD: What are you reflecting on as we hit the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the seventh anniversary of Rana Plaza and ride out a pandemic?

Lauren Singer: I think a lot about how we can make [zero waste lifestyles] affordable and accessible to as many people as possible. I’ve been thinking so much about that. At Package Free, as we look to making our own products and building out supply chains, we believe it’s a basic human right to have access to these products. It shouldn’t be a privilege.

WWD: What achievements are you most proud of?

L.S.: I so infrequently, if ever, look back at myself to feel proud of something that I’ve done. One, I’m very happy to be pursuing what I’m most passionate about; It was the moment I realized I didn’t have to be a sheep, and I could choose what my world looked like. Choice is a privilege for so many people, but I believe every choice we make no matter how small can make a difference. I feel like what I’m working on now is a small piece of a big puzzle.

WWD: What qualities define the modern sustainable fashion movement?

L.S.: When I started Package Free, which will be three years ago next week, even then it was so small, and now is the first time ever that you have sustainability as a fundamental value system or pillar for so many of these brands.

Businesses, individuals and families are realizing we really have to take responsibility for our choices because no one is going to save us. We can’t just take, take, take anymore.

If all of my business practices, my lifestyle and my choices were put out on a big screen would I be proud? If you create something, you should be held responsible for this end of life.

Céline Semaan: The People’s Activist
Founder and executive director of Slow Factory Foundation

WWD: What are you reflecting on as we reach the anniversaries of Earth Day and Rana Plaza?

Céline Semaan: The Rana Plaza collapse is an example of how colonial structures are still active in our modern world. Too, celebrating Earth Month isn’t necessarily something to be proud of, as it is another example of how much we need to unlearn in order to be able to design and create resilient systems.

Earth is 4.543 billion years old; Homo Sapiens first appeared on Earth about 200,000 years ago. Celebrating the Earth goes as far back as the first humans being here on this planet but today leaves out indigenous wisdom. Indigenous knowledge captures in its wisdom the savoir-vivre in harmony with our planet and the proof that the dissociation with Earth happened at the same time as the construct of colonialism.

WWD: Can you summarize your work and reason in founding Slow Factory Foundation and Study Hall in brief?

C.S.: My work centers on open knowledge, access to information and digital literacy particularly centered on the fashion industry and the many industries it is in tandem with. We’re a public service nonprofit organization translating complex information to the general public as well as designing resilient, regenerative and circular systems in the fashion industry and beyond. We also work with fashion brands, the waste industry, nonprofits focused on decarbonization and reforestation practices. My approach is global, holistic and inclusive of all cultures and industries because we can’t solve climate issues from a monolithic perspective.

WWD: What achievements are you most proud of?

C.S.: We are very proud to be a resilient organization that continues to build, grow and improve this industry by employing science, indigenous wisdom and human-centered design. We are particularly proud of the One x One science incubator we established with Swarovski and the U.N. Office for Partnerships. We are also very proud of our open education initiative with Adidas called Landfills as Museums where we take design students to landfills and study the end of life of objects, circular design and regenerative systems.

WWD: What qualities define the modern sustainable fashion movement?

C.S.: The modern sustainable fashion movement is still in flux. When companies that have been preaching sustainability are now furloughing employees, downsizing or letting go of their teams, it essentially shows that their systems may not have been sustainable or resilient after all.

Businesses must unlearn structures of exploitation, question all models and take a big step back from the profit-based systems, in order to gain necessary clarity and perspective.


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