Maven Women

How Humanitarian Law is Serving as a Feeder to Sustainable Fashion

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Much like Wall Street funnels aspiring fashion designers, who spend several years in finance building their skills and amassing funds before starting a business, there’s an emerging trend of lawyers and human rights advocates making the switch to fashion.

Here’s a look at three stories.

From social good to affordable menswear
At 14 years old, Jason Grullón. and his mother, who sold fabric in the Dominican Republic, went on a shopping trip while in America. He had his eyes on a pair of Lucky jeans, having long been enticed by the interesting styles, which were unlike anything he had seen at home. But the jeans were pricey, and when he asked his mother for the pants, she turned to him and said, “I can’t buy you jeans that only cost seven dollars to make.”

The moment stuck with him, even when he went to Germany to pursue a law degree, with the intention to use it to support social impact programs back home in Latin America. Near the end of his schooling, he went on a tour of emerging startups in Berlin, when something clicked: He wanted to create a company embedded in social good, and he wanted that company to specialize in affordable menswear.

With this concept in mind, he founded Virtu, a menswear company focused on sustainable production.

Finding justice in fashion
Rebecca Ballard, founder of Maven Women, went straight to law school after completing her undergraduate degree. “You don’t always know what you want to do with your life, but I was interested in law because of social justice,” she said. “Law is and can be an amazing tool for justice in this country. And it really helps with understanding people, the way they work and their logic.”

Ballard worked at a number of nonprofits in Washington, D.C. doing advocacy work before she moved to Asia to practice litigation. In Hong Kong, she cut her teeth in nonprofit management and law, before returning to the states to do pro bono work on modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Being a lawyer, she realized, required a particular type of wardrobe. This suit-laden uniform was not only unattainable for many women, but it was also lacking in sustainable options — which led her to think about creating her own.

She ran the idea by her then-boyfriend, now-husband, who was an analyst at McKinsey. Relying on his business mind and her legal background, she started Maven Women.

“There was this idea that if people are going to be interested in socially conscious apparel, it will be hippie-inspired,” Ballard said. “If that’s the world you live in, that’s fantastic. But we need more options. I was trying to create something for the women who work in more traditional fields like law.”

Ballard said she uses the skills she gained as a lawyer every day on the job. It has helped her with the basics — like being punctual and thorough — plus her background writing law reviews has driven her to write for sustainable journals about her experience working in the fashion industry.

Likewise, Grullón said his law sensibility allows him to be savvy in making business decisions that avoid any trouble in the long run, especially when working across international barriers.

“We as lawyers have a very different approach to problems,” he said. “We don’t over-stress, we’re solution-oriented — that’s key for a startup, because when you’re building a company, it’s going to be full of issues.”

An intimate look at the supply chain
Maxine Bedat, founder of Zady, spent the years before founding her fashion company doing human rights law in international war crimes tribunals. During these work trips she was able to visit markets and witness clothing being made, an experience that changed the way she thought about fashion production.

“I got to see how clothing and products were sold and marketed,” she said during a panel at SXSW. “It gave me the experience to see how things were actually made and the sources of those things, and I fell in love with that.”

Working in human rights law allowed Bedat the opportunity to see new parts of the world and learn perspectives from community members along the way. That helped serve as a foundation for Zady, which the company describes as “a lifestyle destination for conscious consumers.” It operates on a concept called The New Standard, which focuses on the eco-friendly sourcing of materials like cotton, linen, wool and alpaca.

Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co., a sustainable fabric sourcing company, typically visits the communities where her company’s fabrics are made once a quarter, most recently taking a trip to South Africa. Piece & Co. had recently placed an order of fabric from a group of garment makers for 1,500 yards of fabric, which allowed the market to hire several more workers. “That’s the gold standard for us: to provide steady work so that women can plan for their futures and stop working hand-to-mouth,” she said.

While Wright does not have a law degree (she graduated from business school at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign), she worked at a nonprofit that provides micro-finance loans to aspiring artisans prior to starting Piece & Co., an experience that helped her better understand how to make grassroots change. However, her impact at the nonprofit felt nominal, and she wanted to find a way to better improve the lives of impoverished communities.

“I felt like, if I was going to make a difference, I needed to lead with the fashion industry, working from the ground up in the developing world,” she said. “At the end of the day, there are so many people who want to do right, that want to source better. They needed a way to do that.”

Helping support a value-driven culture
One of the largest barriers for sustainable fashion companies is getting consumers to wrap their heads around a higher price point. Ballard said that if they have a better understanding of how supply chains operate, and knew the stories of the people making their clothes, they would be increasingly discerning with their selections and willing to spend more.

“We have a completely warped idea about what clothes should cost in this country,” Ballard said. “There’s no way you can buy a new pair of pants for 10 dollars without hurting someone. If you’re paying that for brand new materials, they’re almost certainly going to be synthetic from sweatshops.”

Pair this with the fact that, according to a Nielsen study, 75 percent of millennials would be willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings, and there is a solid case for demand.

“Young people are really driven by their values,” Bedat said. “I don’t want that to run counter to their purchasing decisions. We want to be comfortable and stylish and perceived the right way, so you don’t want to have to sacrifice one or the other.

Grullón uses this concept to inspire shoppers, operating on three main tenets of social impact: better salary, traceability, and a 50/50 business model, in which the company reinvests half of its profits into long-term development projects in the communities of its partners.

“The idea was always to have a connection to how a product’s made and how that’s impacting the person’s life,” he said.

*This story first appeared on Glossy

Scorecard: Where Big Brands Fall on Sustainability

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Sustainability for retailers is a particularly slippery slope. While some are lauded for campaigns that make a significant impact, others are cited for hyperbole or greenwashing.

Regardless, having an environmentally friendly ethos is important to consumers — a Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — and brands have taken note. It’s not enough to just sell run-of-the-mill goods, brands need to have a defined social and societal impact.

We took a look at some of the recent efforts by eight major retail brands and assigned them letter grades based on genuine transparency ventures, reception by consumers and industry leaders, and commentary from outside experts.

Patagonia: A
Patagonia has long been the frontrunner when it comes to sustainability in retail. In November, it pulled an unprecedented move and donated 100 percent of its global Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Patagonia also has a robust repair program that helps consumers maintain longevity of their products, in addition to selling used branded clothingfrom its Portland retail store. (And no one has forgotten its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in 2011, which asked consumers to think twice before making a purchase in an effort to prevent waste.)

“Patagonia has done a tremendous amount of innovation for people and the planet. It’s been in their DNA from the beginning,” said Rebecca Mallard, founder of Maven Women, a sustainable women’s wear company.

Levi’s: A
Levi Strauss and Co. recognized it had to do something to cut its abundant water usage, so in 2011, it implemented its Water<Less program, which streamlines its production process to reduce water used to make denim. However, what really sets Levi’s apart is its focus on inter-industry collaboration when it comes to environmental efforts. It hosts an annual “collaboratory” that convenes retailers from around the world to glean insight and tips about more sustainable operations. It also expanded its worker well-being program last year to benefit more countries.

“They’re taking their role seriously in supporting innovation,” Ballard said. “It’s open source and about creating a cohesive network, rather than having a clutched fist attitude. Partnership is an essential element of ethics and sustainability.”

Gap, Inc.: B
Earlier this week, Athleta, part of the Gap, Inc., announced that it is launching its first line of athletic wear fully certified by Fair Trade USA, which is focused on supporting global factory workers. For every garment sold in the collection, factory workers are given an additional financial premium to use to benefit their community in areas like childcare, transportation and education. With its Fair Trade line, Athleta primarily aims to support female factory workers — the new styles are made by a factory in Sri Lanka where more than 80 percent of employees are female.

The move by Athleta follows Gap, Inc.’s announcement last year that it has begun disclosing global factor lists in a push for transparency, taking a cue from companies like UK-based Marks & Spencer and Belgium-based C&A. While it’s an important move, it only serves as the initial step before making tangible improvements to working conditions and Gap has yet to launch a program like Levi’s worker well-being efforts.

“It’s a really great first step in transparency and accountability, saying ‘these are our factories and we’re going to own up,’” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just, a informational platform focused on sustainable fashion and beauty.

Kering Group: C+
Kering came under fire in December when it received low marks in the Apparel & Footwear Benchmark Findings Report, developed by watchdog organization KnowTheChain. Kering was positioned fourth-to-last on the report, which ranked mass retailers in several categories, including risk assessment, recruitment, monitoring and governance.

Kering claims the score was a result of issues around its information disclosure practices and that information highlighting its most recent sustainability efforts was not considered. Among these ventures is Kering’s environmental profits and loss app, which launched in October as an educational tool to track the environmental cost of fashion design. In response, Kering launched a “next generation” sustainability strategy at the end of January, a comprehensive plans to curb emissions and increase working conditions.

H&M: C+
Though H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012 and has since worked with organizations to help improve transparency standards, the actual level of transparency from H&M is minimal, with sporadic posts on social media alluding to improved working conditions. Additionally, the company has been caught in several troubling incidents, like the revelation that it had used refugee workers in Europe.

“The issue with H&M is they brand themselves as better than they actually are,” Ballard said. “When you find Syrian refugee children working in factories in Turkey, which happened, and a recycling campaign that has a greenwashing component, it makes me pause.”

Zara: C
Like H&M, Zara has been plagued with similar challenges falling upon fast-fashion retailers. However, it took four years longer than H&M to launch its first eco-friendly line. As part of its new effort, launched late last year, the Spanish company began offering recycled packaging and boxes and also started a clothing donation program (modeled largely off of H&M’s existing program).

“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy, told Glossy in a previous interview.

Everlane: C
Despite operating on a mantra of “radical transparency,” Everlane has shown this notion is particularly elusive. Even with its push to share “Transparency Tuesday” Q&As on social media and its efforts to take customers on tours of factories, it is prohibited from disclosing its factory list and has unspecified compliance guidelines for locating new factories. However, the company audits every facility each quarter and avoids at-risk countries so there is no compliance risk, according to CEO Michael Preysman.

Preysman told Glossy in a previous article that the lack of information about its factories is an attempt to protect other brands that operate out of the same spaces. “Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.”

Asos: F
In September 2016, an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Asos workers were subjected to particularly brutal conditions, including being discouraged from taking bathroom and water breaks and getting fired for taking sick time. Despite numerous reports, the brand denied that it was complicit in the allegations. “There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information,” it said in a statement.

*This story first appeared on Glossy