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HEC’s Fashion Revolution Counts on Accountability, Transparency and Fair Trade

Six HEC students from the SASI (MSc Sustainability and Social Innovation) program marked the annual April 22-29 Fashion Revolution Week by organizing a high-powered on-campus debate entitled “The Future of Fashion”. The April 25 debate featured representatives both from top firms and up-and-coming companies. All focused on responses to the exploitation, opacity, environmental hazards and lack of traceability that fashion businesses have been accused of. A first for the business school, conceived and marshalled by its students and backed by its S&O Center.

HEC’s Fashion Revolution Counts on Accountability, Transparency and Fair Trade - HEC Paris 2018

“We are forward-looking students devoted to making sure the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh will never happen again. That catastrophe claimed 1,133 lives and injured thousands more. Most victims were women.” From the outset, co-organizer Mathilde Treis set a solemn tone to the evening debate. The former communications manager at Jungle Folk, like the rest of her fellow-SASI students, was freshly back from a work-study fortnight in Bangalore, India. “For this fifth anniversary of Plaza, there are literally millions of people involved in this revolution,” she added. “We’re here to make sure fashion becomes more ethical, sustainable, transparent and fair.”

The HEC debate was one of dozens of events in the Paris region inspired by the UK-based Fashion Revolution collective. This movement was sparked by the collapse, five years ago, of an eight-story Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was the deadliest disaster ever in the garment industry. The victims were working for major retail companies in North America and Europe and caused an uproar and several movements demanding accountability and transparency in the fashion industry. However, to this day, labor and human rights groups point to a lack of transparency in several leading garment companies committed to improving conditions for these workers. Last year, a report on supply chain transparency found that less than a quarter of the companies contacted had agreed to implement a supply chain transparency pledge.

Strong Turn-out for Inaugural Debate

To answer these ongoing issues in the sector, SASI students mobilized top managers from Kering and La Redoute, as well as the cofounders of Maison Standards and Atelier Bartavelle. “You are the future!” declared Philippe Berlan, Associate Director for Commerce at La Redoute, as he urged the students to keep the convictions which, he believes, will change the fashion world. “We’ve seen huge steps in the past 10-15 years. But the fashion industry needs new vision and a fresh generation of managers to lead the second revolution. You are that fresh generation.”

Almost 100 students filled up the large T307 amphitheater to listen to insight and advice generously shared by panelists with widely differing experiences. For Uriel Karsenti, it was an emotional return to a campus he had known as a student, graduating back in 1998. “I like this idea of transmitting to a new generation of thinkers. They are perhaps more aware of the realities than we were back then,” admitted the founder of Maison Standards, a French label rooted in ethics and what it calls “timeless basics”. Since its inception in 2012, this entrepreneur has been driving a policy of transparency, timeless basics and ethics, without ever losing a focus on quality designs. “We’re a small company and have been trying to change the rules from the start. It’s a good sign to see some of the major companies like Kering involved in this revolution. But it’s easier for us. Our trademark is being anti-waste and going to the essence of fashion. We share this approach by establishing a code of conduct where our partners must abide by our standards. And we meet them face-to-face constantly.”

Calls for Traceability Mechanisms

This proximity to the supply chain has also been addressed by multinationals like Kering, as described by its Sustainable Sourcing Specialist Christine Goulay: “It takes a lot of time and energy to navigate the global supply chain, but we have not hesitated to focus our efforts in this area. Our CEO, François-Henri Pinault, has made sustainability a key priority for Kering because he sees sustainability as a strategic long-term investment. We have about 50 people devoted to our Sustainability Strategy for 2025, called “Crafting Tomorrow’s Luxury”.” 

And the results have been publicly recognized: in January 2018, the Corporate Knights’ Global 100 index revealed Kering as the world’s most sustainable textile, apparel and luxury goods corporation. “Our Sustainability Strategy is based on three pillars,” continued Goulay. ““Care” about our impact on the planet; “Collaborate” for the good of our employees, suppliers and clients; and “Create” pioneering ideas to safeguard our heritage and empower future generations.”

However, the biggest challenge facing all companies in the fashion industry is traceability. “We’re in a chain industry and, yes, traceability is a nightmare, a nightmare,” admitted Philipp Berlan. “In terms of cotton, for example, it’s very complex to control that chain of growing and processing.” La Redoute’s Director insisted that companies like his are investing in educating agriculturists involved in the picking and processing of cotton. “The industry is conscious of the need to change but, yes, we can’t be 100% sure all practices in this sector are fair yet.”

Fighting the Dirty Fast-fashion Industry

Since 2014, Alexia Tronel and co-founder of Atelier Bartavelle, Caroline Perdrix, have been investing in a fashion company built around a solid commitment to sustainable development and ethics. Their “new luxury” brand puts social values at the same level as style, quality and a heritage rooted in the French South. “It’s been a step-by-step journey,” explained Tronel. “After three years of exploration, we’ve established ourselves as a company which questions where fashion is going. We’re proud of our Mediterranean and Marseilles cultures, it’s at the heart of our work. But we’re also committed to transparency and another way of promoting fabrics. In this odyssey through the garment industry, we’ve created bonds with actors from the sustainable fashion world. We don’t consider ourselves an ethical label but we share common concerns with similar-minded people and companies aiming to produce…differently, like the label UAMEP (Un Autre Mode Est Possible).”

In the next two years, Tronel and her fellow-Marseillais are aiming to develop projects with local artisans and NGOs in five other countries in the Mediterranean basin. Her dream? To create clothes that have a long life cycle and can be worn all year long. “At the moment, clothes have a low life cycle. I want to be part of a smart fashion that goes against a dirty, fast-fashion industry. I’m optimistic we’ll achieve this.”

“Let’s Make Ethical Rhyme with Sexy!”

It’s a quest many of the attending audience related to, including SASI student Alexandra Peters who praised the sincerity of the panelists. She nevertheless expressed her surprise at the focus on the quality of the garments produced. “I expected to hear that environmental sustainability was a business driver. Instead, each panelist reflect that the first element of sustainability has to be to produce a beautiful, appealing product.” MSc Finance student Leopoldine Simon retained the contrasting approaches between the panelists’ firms: “It was super interesting to see the differences and similarities between huge luxury groups and smaller/new fashion brands and their handling of the sustainability issue.” MBA’s Paul Karim enjoyed the frankness of the exchange: “I appreciated that each speaker was comfortable enough to be critical of the industry and their own contribution to the challenges.”

Meanwhile, HEC Stand Up graduate Coco N’Diyae, founder of AfroLuxx, insisted that it’s towards Africa that much inspiration for sustainable fashion should be found. “There is an incredibly original dynamism coming out of the continent at the moment! They’re even creating fabric from cocoa, banana and coffee leaves. It’s an emerging market and my startup aims to put African and Afro-descendant fashion in the forefront of such a movement.” Ramata Diallo, a fashion consultant left the debate with an appreciation for the frankness of the panelists. “They proved that the industry is more and more conscious of the need to address the issues linked to sustainability. Even if it’s become a bit of a catch-all like being a vegetarian these days, I have hope for the future.” Any advice to move the fashion revolution along? “Why yes: let’s communicate in another way, let’s make being ethical sexy!”