Tokenism Versus Action: The Fashion Industry May Talk The Talk, But Do They Walk The Walk – Forbes

Last month we saw New York and London Fashion Week take place. A year ago, the fashion industry could have been deemed as ‘the missing voice in disability inclusion’ – but since then it’s stepped up its game and has begun to answer the calls for progress in this space. 

There have been some excellent examples of fashion companies embedding full inclusion and body positivity into the central components of their business – Sweaty Betty, Kurt Geiger and Tommy Hilfiger spring to mind for example. 

Kurt Geiger’s CEO, Neil Clifford, quite rightly highlights that “consumers have started to shop more considerately in recent years… People expect businesses to utilise their influence to counter inequality and many brands are reacting to this need.”

And it’s clear that the impact when fashion brands do commit to fully embedding inclusion into their business simply cannot be underestimated. 

Take Tommy Hilfiger as a prime example. The brand was overwhelmed by consumers’ positive response to Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive – the first time a global lifestyle brand modified its mainstream apparel into adaptive collections. Since it launched the collection in 2017, over 30% of its customer service calls in the United States are from people who just want to say “thank you” – highlighting in no uncertain terms what a positive impact adaptive clothing can have on people’s lives. 

Tommy Hilfiger has a very personal connection having children with autism. He commented; “I have first hand experience seeing how something as simple as buttoning a button or pulling up a zipper can be difficult. I knew it would make such a difference if we could modify our clothing to provide ease with everyday dressing for people with disabilities – it just felt like a natural next step for us as a brand that welcomes everyone.”

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Tommy Hilfiger’s approach to its Adaptive collection also exemplifies a key approach all businesses need to incorporate, regardless of what industry they sit in – keeping consumers at the heart of the process and involving a diverse community with lived experiences of the challenges being addressed in the decision-making process. 

The fashion brand approached the challenge with the knowledge that people with disabilities need to have a seat at the table when a company is creating adaptive products. The success of the collection absolutely hinged on their input and insights – and this is a concept which extends far beyond projects and initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion. We see a similar story when looking at Nike’s Go FlyEase – their first handsfree trainer. 

Moving back to the bigger picture, ensuring full inclusion is not about addressing one aspect of your business as a token. It needs to be built into the very fabric of a business. Design, advertisement, employment, creation of products, leadership and strategy – all are foundational in progressing disability inclusion. 

In looking to spark change, Clifford believes that visibility is vital when it comes to altering opinion and banishing bias on a widespread level. Currently, around 15-20% of the UK’s population has a visible or non-visible disability, which equates to 14 million people – yet disabled people make up only 0.01% of those featured in fashion and beauty advertising. Kurt Geiger’s People Empowered campaign works to address this imbalance, by providing a platform for individuals who have previously been underrepresented to share their stories and educate consumers about a wide range of disabilities. 

It’s clear the industry is making moves in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done.

Beyond it being a moral and societal responsibility, the financial incentives of embedding disability inclusion throughout the fashion industry are painfully apparent. Those with a disability have a spending power of £249 billion per year in the UK alone. According to Coherent Market Insights, the global market for clothing geared towards physically disabled consumers is expected to grow from $278.9 billion in 2017 to $400 billion by 2026.

So what are the barriers, what is holding fashion businesses back from embracing full diversity throughout their supply chains? 

Sometimes, it can be the caution and difficulty associated with entering unchartered territory – the paths to creation are still a work in progress, the challenges and solutions are still being identified and overcome. The unknown can deter some companies, and the fear of getting it wrong can play a large part. But instead of burying heads in the sand, business leaders need to know that the way forward is to engage openly with persons of disabilities and to learn what they can do to make a difference.

There were no existing blueprints or reference points for fashionable adaptive products in the industry for Tommy Hilfiger to learn from when developing their Adaptive range, so they built the entire model from scratch. They conducted in depth research and focus groups with consumers, and worked with expert organisations like the Boston Consulting Group, FireFish and Wunderman Thomson to successfully lay the groundwork for adaptive clothing in the fashion industry. Their work didn’t stop there. Tommy Hilfiger continues to engage with consumers to test and adapt product, e-commerce experiences and marketing campaigns to create an end to end accessible shopping journey.

The industry has historically homed in on certain aspects of inclusion to address – most notably size and race. It’s vital businesses recognise there is space for all aspects of diversity and inclusion to be embraced, with intersectionality at the heart of it. Focus on one aspect need not, and should not, take away from focus on another.

It is so encouraging to see brands – such as, but definitely not limited to, Tommy Hilfiger and Kurt Geiger – making waves in the fashion industry for the right reasons when it comes to disability inclusion. However, the work is far from over, and we need more companies working to embed disability inclusion in their business models. Not just where it is fashionable and ‘in vogue’ to be seen to be doing so, but with sincerity throughout the entire business supply chain.

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