Social Entrepreneurs Catalyze Co-Creation Amongst The Apparel Industry
Collaboration in fashion goes well beyond Kate Moss teaming up with Topshop. Forward-thinking brands co-create by working together with competitors and social entrepreneurs to design radical new projects and processes that lead to win-win-win situations.
By Danielle Batist
The route from sketch to t-shirt to consumer is a winding road full of turns and sidetracks. But in the middle of this complex path, there is an opportunity for powerful collaboration, and even a stepping stone for cross-sectoral co-creation, spurred on by social entrepreneurs.
Social entrepreneurs are redefining the fashion value chain as a web of interwoven sectors. Together, this “supply web” of players can make holistic change more feasible for all.
In order to achieve global impact, we must break down artificial, competitive barriers in the sector and tap into community capital and collective resources, according to this report by the C&A Foundation & Ashoka. It states: “Community-powered solutions [build] a shared identity among stakeholders who may not have previously seen themselves as connected, thus creating a strong and efficient foundation for collective action [and widespread impact].”
Trust on all levels
Ultimately, to create a more sustainable, innovative and humane apparel industry, co-creation needs to take place on three levels: first, between brands to drive better industry standards and drive down competition; second, between brands and non-profits or social enterprises to place bottom line and community impact at the heart of the supply chain network; and finally, between brands, workers and factories to ensure worker well-being, worker rights and greater transparency.
Sharing data, cross-factory knowledge and expertise with non-traditional partners takes a leap of faith. The make-or-break factor on all collaboration levels, therefore, is trust. The magic that can happen when such trust is established is powerfully demonstrated by Canopy. The Canadian-based forest protection organization partnered with not just with one brand, but a group of 96 leading clothing brands and fashion designers including industry giants H&M, Zara, Topshop and Levi Strauss & Co, and icons like Stella McCartney.
After spending twelve years transforming the paper industry—including famously ‘greening’ the Harry Potter book series globally—founder and Ashoka Fellow Nicole Rycroft and her team became alarmed by a growing number of clothes tags reading “made from natural fiber.” They discovered that 120 million trees disappear into clothing every year—a number set to double in the next decade.
To find business solutions that protect the world’s last frontier forests, Rycroft quickly realized that the apparel industry needed what she had also built for the paper industry: a global alliance of companies co-creating new purchasing practices. So she launched CanopyStyle in late 2013 with the ultimate commitment from all CanopyStyle brands to eliminate the use of fabrics that contain ancient and endangered forest fiber by the end of 2017.
One company that was early to adopt the co-creation approach in order to save the forests is H&M. “We realize that in the area of sustainability we are really not competitors [and that] we can make greater change when we collaborate,” says Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, H&M’s Sustainability Business Expert. “Canopy encourages us and leads the way in this sometimes complicated world of brands and producers and their sourcing practices. I really believe that we have achieved fast progress and impressive results in such a short time precisely because we did join forces instead of approaching the producers one by one.”
The CanopyStyle mission was helped by the fact that the rayon supply chain has what Rycroft calls ‘an incredible pinch point.’ The top 10 producers are responsible for 75 per cent of global production. This meant that after gathering the support of top producers of rayon, Canopy was able to co-create policies with them and then have the brands go back to their producers with a clear message: ‘We will eliminate any sourcing that comes from socially controversial or endangered forest ecosystems and we encourage you to work with Canopy to ensure that your supply chain is free of such fiber.’
And it worked, says Rycroft: “We now have rayon producers that do in fact represent 75 percent of global production, with parallel commitments in place. Now we’re in the process of translating those commitments into a change in practice. That’s where the rubber hits the road.”
The power of co-creation
Co-creation can be applied to large corporations as well as the world’s smallest micro-businesses. Nest is a US-based non-profit organization that co-creates with both. It brings together leading fashion brands (from Target to Eileen Fisher to PVH, the parent company to Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) as well as more than 300 artisan businesses in 46 countries. Their goal is to provide craftswomen (and some men) not just with market access but with the necessary training to service these markets too.
“Artisan homeworkers are not seen as a scalable economic force, but the numbers tell a different story,” says Rebecca van Bergen, Nest’s founder and executive director. “The global economy for artisanship is the second biggest employer for women after agriculture in the developing world and is bigger than the coffee economy.”
An example of how Nest co-creates with both brands and workers can be found in the design of its Ethical Compliance Standards for artisans. When global standards first came in, many brands tried to mitigate the risk of non-compliant homeworkers by putting them up in dormitories to work from inside factories. By now it is well documented that instead of tackling the root cause of workers’ health and safety, the approach created a whole new set of problems.
Instead, Nest’s Artisan Advancement Project Steering Committee of brands co-created the Ethical Standards as a way to improve conditions for artisans and homeworkers. It recognizes that their work standards cannot be measured in the same way a four-walled central facility can.
Jim Brett, president of committee member West Elm, says in SustainableBrands.com: “As much as 20 percent of our assortment each season is handcrafted and made by artisans around the globe. Our work with Nest and our esteemed brand partners will create sustainability standards to ensure craftspeople are working in safe environments and being paid fair wages.”
Nest completes the co-creation cycle by training the artisans so that it is possible for them to comply. Once adopted, the Standards could impact tens of millions of people employed in this informal economy.
All in all, the act of co-creation and collaboration across big fashion brands, workers and social entrepreneurs opens up the possibility of a depth of impact that is impossible to achieve if players are working in separate silos. And so, while we have started this important work, we must continue to grow our team. Next players to add to the mix? Governments and young people. Governments can help institutionalize ethical standards and young people represent the next generation of leaders, workers and consumers. Working in concert, we build a powerful, sustainable and long-lasting ecosystem for change.
This article is part of the Fabric of Change Initiative – a three-year partnership between Ashoka and C & A Foundation unlocking the unique power and potential of social entrepreneurs and their solutions to transform the apparel industry as a force for good. For more information, head to www.changemakers.com/fabricofchange or join the conversation online at #FabricofChange
Danielle Batist is a journalist who writes about social change.