EthicalVoices

How Can We Improve Fashion Industry Ethics? – Jessica Kelly

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Jessica Kelly, the Founder and CEO of THR3EFOLD. She spent a decade helping hundreds of fashion and lifestyle brands grow their business through marketing, sales and public relations. She’s now gone on to found THR3EFOLD, and has grown her company to be a leader in the ethical fashion space.

She discusses several key ethics issues, including

Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and your career?

I started in fashion over 10 years ago now in PR at New York Fashion Week, and was very fortunate to have the opportunity to help build hundreds of brands through marketing and sales. I had a unique birds-eye view of the industry and everything that brands went through, and how hard it is to build a business. I saw really popular brands go out of business, and then saw brands grow and learned what makes this industry tick and how it works. But I really started to feel quite a disconnect between the work I did and the deeper impact and meaning it had. My joke is that I had had multiple Devil Wears Prada jobs, and at the end of the day it just felt like it was going from one emergency to the next. I knew there was a deeper meaning behind all of it, but it just felt so far removed.

That’s actually what led me on a trip to Zimbabwe that changed my life. I encountered some incredible people. Hardworking, joyful, generous people. Who, through a series of circumstances outside of their control, were in really hard situations and making decisions like which grandchild gets to go to school because they can’t afford to send them both. It was really just from a lack of sustainable jobs in their community. So, I went back from that trip hell-bent on a mission to figure out how to create sustainable employment. Through a long series of events and learnings, I discovered that fashion is the largest labored industry in the world.

I think it is best positioned to be the biggest force for good because of that. We just have to shift a few things in how we make and manufacture clothes. That’s what got me to what THR3EFOLD is today. THR3EFOLD is a sourcing and PLM platform that helps apparel brands find ethical factories around the world, compare pricing, and manage their production all in one place so they can grow for people, planet and profit.

I want to delve into THR3EFOLD a little bit later, but thinking back over your career for the past 10 years what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I don’t know if there’s one specific thing that was big enough to write a movie about – but there’s been a couple. In the early days of building your business, you’re trying to make the right decisions and aren’t always really sure of the best path to do that. At one of the first events that THR3EFOLD did a few years ago, there was a woman that was going to be on a panel. At the time that we were planning the event, a lot of really bad things started coming out about the environment in her workplace and the business that she had built that were very concerning.

I had to make the first difficult decision in building my company in the very early days of choosing to not have her at the event. But at the same time, really trying to honor the position that she was in and what she had done, and just inviting her to be a part of something in the future. But knowing that right now, she needed space to work out that issue with her and her past employees and team.

We were getting inquiries from people wanting to know how we were addressing the situation. You want to have grace for people, but at the same time, you want everybody that partners with your business to have the same standards that you are upholding as well.

Supply chain ethics are so much more important today than they were 10 years ago. You need to make sure it’s not just your organization, but the organizations you do business with that are actually ethical. That ties it a little bit to what I think THR3EFOLD is working to accomplish. Tell me more about what’s involved in ethical and sustainable fashion.

So many things. If you know anything about production, you know that it is quite complicated. It passes through multiple countries and multiple stakeholders just to get to the front door of the brand before it even gets shot, put on the website, and out to you as a consumer. So obviously with every pass through somebody, there’s something that could go wrong. I think for far too long, we’ve just not asked questions or swept things under the rug. So, I’m really happy to be seeing brands stand up and take responsibility for the supply chain choices that they make.

I think one of the biggest things to get started with is the labor piece. That’s really what THR3EFOLD focuses on is making sure that the factories that brands are producing with are paying their employees legally, that it’s on time, that it’s dependable and reliable. There’s no discrimination. There’s no child labor. There’s no slave labor. The building and work conditions are safe, and the relationship between the management is safe. That employees have the freedom to leave at any time they want.

How do you go about auditing the brands on your platform to make sure they are being ethically compliant?

We have built relationships with six auditing bodies, six ethical certifications that we really feel have the highest standards. They all meet the same standards across the board. But not only that, the reason we chose these six, is because they require a third party outside auditor to actually check the standards. There are a few widely accepted industry certifications that are more like self-audits, which I didn’t really think solves any of the issues we were having. So, we work with those six. There are about 11 certifications in the fashion industry around labor, and that just didn’t seem to be the place we needed to start reinventing the wheel, but finding the factories was incredibly hard. So that’s what we wanted to tackle first.

I think your purpose is great, and what you’re trying to do is wonderful. What’s your advice if senior managers or company owners aren’t on board?

They actually are becoming very interested. If this conversation was happening seven years ago, this would have been a very different conversation. The C-suite is really starting to notice the trends in buying around sustainably-minded brands. Gen Z has become far more vocal in demanding brand standards than the Millennial generation has. They outright won’t purchase from brands that don’t align with their values, and brands are really starting to take notice and try to shift to meet those consumer demands. So, this whole movement really has come from the bottom-up as consumers have started demanding that brands take their practices, their ethics, their sustainability, their supply chain seriously, and start having some onus around it.

We’re actually seeing the top decision-makers at the top brands in the industry collectively coming together. They’re putting about $50 billion in sourcing buying power behind their decisions to increase their brand standards right now.

I saw in Forbes that Gen Z is four times more likely to buy from a purpose-driven brand than a non-purpose-driven brand.

Absolutely. At the end of the day, in business, money talks. So, if you are shopping as a consumer and you are choosing to shop new and you’re not shopping secondhand, making sure you do shop where a team, a brand is going to see the impact is important. For example, if you are shopping at H&M, you’re shopping the Conscious collection. If you’re shopping at Target, you’re shopping the items that mentioned fair trade certified products. They’re evaluating their numbers every single week, every quarter, and they are going to replicate and grow what works. So when they really see consumer dollars matching with consumer demands and behavior, that’s when they’re really taking action.

You mentioned in the beginning that you were in a number of Devil Wears Prada movies in your career. I’m in technology. I’m not in fashion whatsoever. But it sounds to me it’s like a lot of abusive potential bosses and extremely high pressure. How do you navigate that? What’s the advice to people on how you can maintain your moral compass where there may be pressure to succeed at all costs?

That’s a good question. I mean, I’ve definitely had many cry in the bathroom moments just trying to survive. I think the best thing that you can do as an individual, because you can’t control other people’s behavior, is to be the difference yourself. Instead of having the hazing mentality of you’re going to be a mean girl to the interns, because someone was mean to you when you were getting started. Give them opportunity, give them education, take them under your wing. As you start growing in your career, you will become the change that you want to see in the industry by being that difference. That’s not to say that everyone in fashion acts like that. I had many wonderful coworkers, but there is a lot of high pressure.

I can speak from my experience in New York City. We’re very hard workers, but we’re sometimes over-workers. So, you have this constant inner pressure that just builds inside you in the City of work all the time, never leave your desk, everything’s an emergency, everything’s a priority. I think one of the beautiful things, especially right now this month we’re in, is mental health awareness month.

That has been growing as well in popularity, understanding, the importance of a quiet time in the morning and balancing, giving yourself a foundation to balance back on. For me, it’s my faith. For other people, it’s carving out that time of meditation. It could be being a part of an organization where you volunteer for people that have fewer privileges and opportunities than you had. I think giving yourself an awareness of the opportunities you’ve been given really naturally grounds you to be a better person, a better employee, a better boss, a better worker in your industry. That tiny change really is the big change that ripples out.

What’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I didn’t have a Gandalf that just was like, “Do this and remember this,” but I think what I’ve really surmised from a lot of very wise people that have paved the way before me – is that ethics, sustainability, all of this stuff, it’s a journey. It is not a destination. When you’re early getting started out, you might put too much pressure on yourself that you have to have everything perfect or you’ll get canceled. The reality is to get started, you’re going to be imperfect. You need to start stepping so that you can learn and grow and redirect. Understand that you’re going to continue to learn more. You’re going to find more resources. You’re going to learn how to do it better.

That applies to business and to life. Understanding that it’s a journey and not a destination also means that you’re never too much of an expert to continue to learn, continue to improve. I mean, when you look at ethical and sustainable fashion, when you have brands like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia who have been working on this since the impetus of their brand, and are still working on finding new ways to be better and improve, we all have a long way to go.

That’s really the biggest foundational truth on which you can set your business and your life.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here

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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com

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