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How Women Are Leading The Ethical Fashion Industry

Illustration by Elliot Salazar.
Some descriptions of "women in the workplace" sound more like National Geographic specials than serious business profiles. “How did she get there?” the narrator asks dramatically. “Can she adapt to this strange and hostile environment?” And, silly as it seems, women in some business sectors still are anomalies, facing challenges in asserting their credibility, in earning leadership opportunities, and in receiving capital investment. This is a particularly sad prospect, given that women make up more than 50% of the population. Still, there are always outlying sectors that reflect more equanimity, and fashion has long been one industry with plenty of female-fueled success.

Women have commanded a presence in the space for ages. And considering apparel sales alone are estimated to bring in $1 trillion annually, it's quite a commanding space. But, like any field, retail has had major ups and downs, including deserved criticism of its lack of sustainable practices and poor labour conditions that have devastating human and environmental costs. There’s a growing sensibility — especially among female entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, artisans, and consumers — that ethical fashion is good common sense both in terms of the world and in business, and they are finding new and varied ways to fundamentally change the way we produce, sell, and buy our goods. The goal? Aligning the items in our wardrobe with the values in our hearts. And it’s no surprise that women are leading that charge.

The Artisans
Once relegated to the back of country stores, handmade goods are cool again, and the industry is actually booming, thanks to platforms like Etsy and ArtFire. The mother-daughter team crafting glitter clothespins on their kitchen counter (an honest-to-god recent purchase of mine) can sell online without the overhead of a physical store or even an e-commerce site. Each marketplace allows small-batch makers a forum in which to showcase their products virtually. This kind of artisan industry has mobilised fleets of women — who otherwise may have had to balance a professional career with family life — to have their own businesses, on their own terms and time.

It’s not just happening in the United States.

“The artisan sector is worth $32 billion a year,” says Cathy Russell, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. “It’s one of the largest employers in developing countries, second only to agriculture in many places. And the large majority of artisans are women, who we know are more likely to invest money back into their families’ health and education, and also more likely to hire other women.”

These artisans continue to expand their reach, utilising easy-to-use e-commerce stores to reach the global consumer with nothing more than a smart phone.

While online maker platforms are growing to assist global artisans in reaching American consumers, organisations are emerging that help connect U.S.-based retail partners with international co-operatives exercising high ethical standards. For example, the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, housed at the Aspen Institute, serves as a clearing house for best practices on how to develop, strengthen, and ultimately connect the world of handicraft to consumers and retailers. Peggy Clark, the Alliance’s director, is convinced that the “consciousness of the consumer has changed” and that women have an increasing desire “to express their uniqueness and authenticity,” all of which serves ethical production.

“When you can find a product that speaks to your values but is also functional and beautiful, [the market is truly aligned],” she says. “And when a company like Walmart is launching initiatives like the Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative to source handmade, ethical products from female artisans, you know that this isn’t a niche effort.”
Sydney Price. Photo: Donald Bowers/Getty Images.
The Intrapreneurs & Entrepreneurs
Female intrapreneurs (those creating change within an existing organisation) and entrepreneurs have seen the writing on the wall, and are often reaching for the spray paint themselves. Confident that they can do well by doing good, they are creating ethical fashion initiatives within existing retailers and brands, as well as founding new socially inspired businesses designed to meet growing demand. Women-targeted brands may be especially forward-thinking on ethical fashion, given differences in consumption behavior. “Women think of shopping in an interpersonal, human fashion, and men treat it as more instrumental. It’s a job to get done,” said University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch in a recent Wharton article.

Each company has a slightly different approach but a common thread: Connecting talent and opportunity with the demand for more meaningful products.

Kate Spade & Company has taken what might be one of the most progressive steps to invest in women artisans. Led by Sydney Price, the brand’s On Purpose initiative launched in 2014 in partnership with a Rwanda-based for-profit enterprise. On Purpose aims to provide economic opportunity to a group of artisans in Masoro, Rwanda, who are trained to supply orders for Kate Spade by the company’s corporate employees. Having previously dabbled in a women-focused public-private partnership, Price was convinced that “as a business woman, a fully integrated manufacturing partnership has the most long-term impact for the artisans and their community.” She wanted to use the company’s core business competency to make an impact, “inspiring and engaging both the Rwandan artisans and [Kate Spade] employees along the way.” The proof is in the pudding. The cooperative has become an integral part of the supply chain of one of America’s most iconic brands.

But along with inspiration and engagement must come quality. Products have to be “beautifully made and commercially viable,” says the Alliance’s Peggy Clark. And in the case of On Purpose, they are and they do.
The Business Of It
The big box stores are in on this trend, as well. According to Walmart’s Tricia Moriarty, director of global responsibility communications, the company uses “the power of the purchase order to drive sales to artisans around the world, as well as to U.S.-based [women-owned] businesses and small-batch makers.”

Specific initiatives, like the Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, have been used to source and train women suppliers. It is a worthy cause underpinned by good business sense, given that the majority of Walmart’s 260 million customers are women.” It also represents a commitment to continue to address critics’ concerns to make their supply chain (and the labor behind it) more ethical.

And new brands are constantly popping up. Each is built around the idea of ethical production and the “slow fashion” movement, a rejection of fast fashion and the supply chain challenges it represents. Influenced by sustainability veterans like Eileen Fisher and Donna Karan, limited collections define the business models of brands like Zady (founded by Soraya Darabi and Maxine Bédat) and Cuyana (founded by Karla Gallardo) and target a younger audience. Slow fashion’s business model relies on consumer willingness to spend more per item and often focuses on beautifully made classic closet staples rather than seasonal pieces or playful accessories.

Taking the fashion-for-good approach a step further are the socially inspired businesses focused on both ethical production and social service provisions for its artisans. Often formed to provide opportunity for particularly vulnerable communities — such as survivors of human trafficking or people living with HIV/AIDs — these cooperatives also may include literacy-training, access to healthcare, counseling, and childcare. ARZU Studio Hope, founded by former Goldman Sachs managing director Connie Duckworth, aims to help Afghan rug weavers break the cycle of poverty. Duckworth launched ARZU after a trip to Afghanistan exposed her to both the talents of the rug makers, and the potential to address women’s development in a country often inhospitable to their professional growth. Afghanistan had once been a leader in rug production, but decades of war limited sales and distribution. Like Duckworth, many of the social entrepreneurs of these hyper-ethical initiatives trace their inspiration to trips overseas where they witnessed the incredible hardships faced by women, as well as the extraordinary artisan talents these women possessed. As a result, the stars and market forces aligned.

All the sooth-saying and trend forecasting in the world about the growth of ethical fashion will be of little use if consumer demand does not match or, ideally, outpace it. However, if traditional retail’s struggles in the market and the continued expansion of the domestic and global artisan sector tell us anything, it is that consumers want change. Women have long made the majority of their families’ consumption decisions so, if fundamental disruption is going to thrive, it will have to come through them.

“Women are agents of change and have been throughout history,” says Sydney Price. And maybe today's business section isn't dominated by the initiatives of intra- and entrepreneurial women overhauling the world of retail, but, in the words of Peggy Clark, “this is just the beginning.”