On May 11, we kicked off our New Normal webinar series with some of the leaders in the ecofashion space to explore how brands have reacted to the current crisis, how they navigate in our current volatile and uncertain world and the role of sustainability going forward. This is the fourth of the series. You can read about the 3rd one here.

Our first session on May 14th touched on a topic that is all too important to consider during the current crisis. Our moderator Christal Earle of Brave Soles took us through some questions surrounding Brand Activism and Community Involvement with a panel of industry leaders who run organizations with this at the core of their mission. The panel featured Cindy Jones-Nyland from TO THE MARKET, Farrukh Lalani founder of Daria Day, and Leticia Sales and Peeyush Rastogi the co-founders of Happee

Christal kicked off the panel by diving straight into a question that set the tone for the rest of the session, asking the panelists to consider what brand activism and community involvement looked like for their specific organizations.

This can look different for everyone, and the ‘reason why’ varies however, Leticia was quick to highlight that it’s not just about the connection and engagement of the customers but the entire ecosystem of the ecofashion space. “We believe that fashion can be an agent for turning the world into a better place and every stakeholder can be a part of this change. It’s not just about us with the customers, but it’s also about the suppliers and the entire ecosystem of people that are involved in this process”. Farrukh was quick to agree, “It is empowering the artisans that we’re working with to have a meaningful life. But it is also the miners who we source from, creating that whole community right from the mining down to the actual jewellery that is produced. So, it’s really about using your force and business to create change and to make a positive impact”. 

This focus on a community that includes all stakeholders goes far beyond just the considerations of community involvement but how organizations can measure how effective they are in their mission.  Contrary to a conventional brand with the bottom line at the forefront, the leaders on our panel who work with purpose driven organizations are striving to see impacts that go far beyond profit, to the well-being of their stakeholders. Cindy noted that TO THE MARKET measures impact through job creation and job sustainment. “One of the measures of our overall work is how much production volume and how much job creation we can push to the non-traditional suppliers and manufacturers”. And other members of the panel echoed that their businesses were focused on similar impact indicators. Farrukh highlighted that at Daria Day the impact isn’t necessarily measured by the businesses bottom line however, by the bottom line of their stakeholders “ The biggest impact that we measure is the increase in household income for our artisans and what that means for them. Most of these artisans are the sole breadwinners right now and they’re female. So for them, it means they have been able to send their younger siblings to school or they have been able to help their parents rent a home”. 

Christal made an important segway into how much of a ‘fine balance’ it is to run a profitable organization while prioritizing those commitments to community engagement, activism and staying true to their mission. However, for the panelists it seemed like a no-brainer that the two could, in some ways, fall hand-in-hand. For Peeyush at Happee, that commitment provided an opportunity, especially during the disruption of COVID-19. “Our consumers got to see another side of the brand during this emergency. We were able to showcase how we could pivot. It was an opportunity to see why we were different and that we were trying to make a difference and help the community in this situation”. This approach is contrary to a lot of fast fashion brands at the moment pushing sales online, Leticia commented on this saying “ A lot of people started questioning brands that were still trying to push sales and sell product…Now is not the time to focus on selling, but on helping, which we were already doing [at Happee]”.  

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It’s likely that we’ll see this strategy of transparency and community involvement pay off as a result of the way that consumers adjust their shopping-habits post-COVID. Cindy highlighted that “consumers will be the litmus test for greenwashing vs authenticity and activism” and further, “The organizations that stay true to their values, their strategy and core mission vs using it as more of a marketing strategy, I think consumers are going to find that out quickly especially given that the crisis has really opened up a lot of eyes in terms of supply chains and where things come from”. Leticia was quick to give consumers credit as they become more aware of the impact their purchases can have “Customers nowadays are very skeptical, but they are very smart. It’s not enough anymore for you to just write in a piece of tag that you’re ethical. A lot of people do their homework, their research”. There’s hope that this shift of consumer habits will stick around long after the industry rebuilds from the disruption of COVID-19. Cindy was optimistic that this crisis has opened consumers eyes and hopefully given even more insight into where their products are coming from. 

And for brands that aren’t quite there yet in their business goals to become more transparent and engage in community involvement, our panelists had some great advice for them. Farrukh noted that the key is cultivating relationships from the beginning, “It’s very important to develop these really strong relationships and build that trust in at the ground level”. And with those relationships Cindy noted that you have to hone in on your ‘reason why’ and move forward with that as your focus, “It’s really hard to do all things, when you can boil it down to things that you are connected with and are very important to you, you’ll stay true to that strategy, that value system and core business”.

Our panelists know it’s not an easy task, but with that focus and commitment to the community it is incentive to continue. Leticia felt that when her and Peeyush started out building Happee. “In my personal experience it makes a lot of difference whether you personally connect to the cause that you are trying to help or not. As every entrepreneur knows, there will be a time when things will get tough and a time when you are going to ask yourself a dozen times: Should I keep doing this? Should I move forward? Why am I doing this? This is so difficult. For me whenever this happens, the answer is always in the change that we can create or the people that we can help”. And lucky for us Christal summed up the decision to become more transparent so well, “ As soon as you draw a line in the sand that means you’re setting a standard, and there are going to be things that don’t meet that standard”.

At a time when everyone around the world is becoming increasingly aware of the intricacies of the fashion supply chains and where their clothes are truly coming from, there is no better opportunity to become more engaged with brands who are active as members of the community or who are advocating for change. Even more, there’s never been a better time, as a brand, to become more transparent and to do better. Our panelists gave us incredible insight into how they’re engaging with their communities right now and how you can get started, however there is so much more to learn. To hear more from Christal and Farrukh, Cindy, Leticia, and Peeyush check out the full webinar here.  

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