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Social Entrepreneurs Are Opening New Pathways To Transform The Apparel Industry

Co-creation strategies with social entrepreneurs, including those surfaced and supported by a unique three-year effort called Fabric of Change, are defining the future of the apparel industry.PHOTO CREDIT: NEST

By Stephanie Schmidt

The apparel industry is one of the largest in the world, generating a global value of about $3 trillion (2% of global GDP) and employing some 100 million people. Its unrivaled creativity, diversity and innovation mean that even the smallest stakeholders can find space to pioneer new trends and challenge established norms. Now innovation in the fashion industry is finding new meaning in the 21stcentury — meaning focused first and foremost on economic development, environmental sustainability, and empowerment of workers.

Long-time industry strategists agree that it’s a moment ripe for invention and new partnerships aimed at shaping the industry’s future and aligning it more closely with human and environmental sustainability — and with the values of new consumers. With this in mind, C&A Foundation and Ashoka launched an alliance based on mutual interest in powering new solutions for systemic industry change. Called Fabric of Change, the three-year effort surfaced some powerful innovators and principles that forecast industry shifts.

Social entrepreneurs are pioneering the future of the apparel industry

Nicole Rycroft, founder of Canopy and a serial social entrepreneur, is well-known for “greening” the publishing industry and the Harry Potter book series. Seeing great potential impact now in the fashion industry, Rycroft recently launched Canopy Style to engage over 100 clothing brands in championing conservation and seeking out new and sustainable ways to source materials. With C&A Foundation resources and Ashoka’s intensive accelerator and catalytic support, Canopy has nearly doubled its impact: the group now works with 80% of the world’s viscose producers who are committing to moving away from endangered forest sourcing practices.

For changemakers just starting out like Akshay Sethi, founder of Ambercycle, Fabric of Change proved game-changing. Ambercycle uses genetically engineered microbes to digest polyester textiles and transform them into material that can be used as new fibers. (Polyester is the most used fabric of mass-produced clothing and a main source of microplastics, particles that damage our oceans and rivers.) Identified early stage through a global competition that attracted 350 entrants, Ambercycle is now connected to major industry players and Ashoka’s mentorship helped its team attract and secure an investment of half a million dollars.

More collective impact is needed to change the industry

Beyond spotting and supporting emerging innovators, Fabric of Change seeded unusual and much needed connections. It supported changemakers working along the fashion industry supply chain all over the world to gather, connect, and share insights and experiences. Ashila Mapalagama, a textile worker in Sri Lanka developing a system of social insurance as an alternative to traditional unions; Gabriel Rivera, a Mexican engineer empowering women home workers in Mexico through access to credit and markets; Stacy Flynn, a sourcing specialist making new fiber from cotton garment waste in the United States. These innovators, along with Rycroft, Sethi, and 26 other social entrepreneurs got to meet, share and start weaving a “mosaic of solutions” to collectively champion changes in the industry status quo.

Beyond peer to peer connections, the initiative attracted the attention of brands and media looking for out-of-the-box solutions. Ashoka, a specialist in social innovation trends, contributed greater visibility to the community through a report highlighting innovative insights coming out of this powerful network. As a result, Ikea, Corte Ingles and several other companies are now taking note of social entrepreneurs as valuable partners in sustainable innovation for their core business.

To carry this work forward, a robust community of changemakers must be supported — both social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs. Incentives for industry leaders to act must be strengthened. And social entrepreneurs and their solutions must be elevated and amplified, thus paving the way for business models that allow for both economic performance and social impact.

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