So as some of you may have noticed, last week I popped along to Know The Origin’s Feminism in Business panel talk which I must say was wonderful!
Hosted by Sophie Benson, writer, stylist and lecturer who focuses on sustainable business and fashion, with excellent panel made up of Sarah Neville from Birdsong, Alison Kelly from NU Wardrobe, Charly Young from The Girls Network, Emma Slade Edmondson from Charity Fashion Live and of course the lovely Charlotte Instone from Know The Origin.
In the course of the 2-hour talk, a lot of ground was covered when it comes to women in business, in start-ups and especially women in the garment industry who account for 80% of the workforce.
As so much was covered and there is so much new information that I am still processing, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some notes on the hot topics of the evening’s conversations.
Hot Topics I’m Going to Cover…
There were lots of things to go through so I have lots of notes to share with you. To make it easier to digest I have broken it down into topics for you to read through at your leisure.
Please have a read through each of them and leave your comments at the bottom so we can keep this conversation going.
VC Funding for Female Led Companies
2% of VC money in England goes into female-founded companies. When I first heard that I was shocked, though I suppose that’s not too shocking when you look at the fact that women comprise of just 27% of the venture capital labour force with most of that number being in Junior Analyst, Associate, or equivalent entry-level positions.
VC funding as a small startup can be tricky to get anyway, but as a woman in fashion, or beauty or cakes, or anything considered to be remotely “girly”, it can be even harder, especially when you walk into a boardroom full of men and are met with the oh too common comment which is:
“That sounds like a lovely idea, I think I’ll ask my wife/girlfriend/teenage daughter what she thinks.“
It was great to hear these ladies opinions on this issue but was saddening to hear their stories that sounded so familiar to what I have heard from the likes of Emily Weiss – founder of Glossier, and several other world-renowned entrepreneurs in their How I Built this interviews who have all been met with a similar phrase when walking into VC meetings.
Luckily the ladies in this panel had some pretty solid advice as to how to try and break down these barriers when looking for VC funding.
- Hunt down female VC’s. Granted it’s not the easiest thing to do but by exploring your contacts both personally and in business, you might just stumble across a female VC that believes in your business. As well as this you should ask other female business owners who have received VC funding who they approached, and then reach out to the same people where possible.
- Focus on the facts and frame your business in a way that gets to the point and communicates how it is going to grow. At the end of the day, these guys might care about how your business is going to change the world, but what they really want to know if how much money it is going to make their clients.
- Communicate the financial cost/benefit over the emotional & social cost/benefit, but find a way to tie them together. Charlotte from KTO told is about a great way to do this.
- Take two items that look almost identical to the meeting and ask the VC’s to tell you what the difference is. Let them guess for a bit and then break it down for them in numbers only, for each item.
- This one is £X to make and would sell for £X meaning it would make £X profit.
- Then break down the social costs of each item.
- This one was made by a woman, working in slavery in a garment factory, earning £X per day if she’s lucky. This other one is made by a woman, working in a factory that has a workers union, fair hours, looks after its staff, and pays £X a day minimum.
By putting social and financial costs together on such a way you can clearly communicate why your company is the better investment choice, especially when looking at how social trends towards the clothes we wear are changing.
If you are looking for more advice on VC funding I recommend you check out Startups.co.uk for more tips and professional advice.
FEMINISM THROUGHOUT THE SYSTEM - NOT JUST THE VISIBLE PARTS
One of the other big things that were discussed was the need for feminism and equal rights throughout the fashion system, rather than just focusing on women working in retail and HQ for the larger corporations. When we look at the fashion industry, we often ignore the 80% female workforce creating the actual products, who are then paid pennies and are often subjected to physical emotional and sexual abuse by the people that they work for in the factories, something that we all know isn’t right.
Equality in the workplace is something that is being worked on globally, but the focus of it for most companies is on defining and developing gender equality in the more visible parts of the supply chain (HQ & retail), using tools like the recently published UK gender pay gap statistics for 2019.
Though it’s not perfect and companies should be doing a deep dive on the intricacies of the stats in their own company, rather than applying national learnings to themselves, it is a good start for where things are heading with gender equality at the end of the production chain, but will likely have no effect on those working lower down in the production part of the process.
Recently something that got lots of publicity and highlighted the issues with how “feminism” is considered throughout the production and manufacturing process, was the T-shirt promoted by the Spice Girls and sold as part of Comic Reliefs “Gender Justice” campaign, raising money for women’s groups and charities, and released to coincide with Equal Pay Day 2018.
The Spice Girls were even quoted saying “Equality and the movement of people power has always been at the heart of the band. It is about equality for all, ’every boy and every girl’. “
Sounds great right? – WRONG. And actually worryingly ironic.
After this t-shirts went on sale, it came out that the factory producing these shirts was paying women workers 35p an hour, much less than the living basic wage in Bangladesh, and was forcing workers, most of whom were women to work 16 hour shifts, to make 1000’s of t-shirts a day, with the women facing verbal abuse, being reduced to tears and being threatened that they would use their jobs if they didn’t keep the work up.
It’s a sad story, but it is also something that shows where fashion is dropping the ball when it comes to Feminism and Equality.
To change what we see here and to change what is going wrong in the supply chain we need to make sure we focus on working with Factories, Suppliers, Shipping Companies, Printers, Packagers and Distribution Warehouses that have equality as a core value so that together we can make sure feminism starts with the product just not at the slogan you have on your T-shirt.
What's Changing in the fashion industry
One of the things that came up lot’s during the session were small conversations around changes within the fashion industry that are beginning to empower and alter the way things work for women.
With feminism and equality becoming a “trendy consumer attitude”, it is bringing the conversation to the forefront, and we are starting to see big brands looking for ways to incorporate it into their business in more ways.
Yes some of these ways might just be by putting #FEMINIST on a t-shirt made in sweatshops, but as us consumers start to question and challenge these brands more, they are going to have to do more to keep up with a world that is becoming more awake to the problems and less tolerant of the smoke and mirrors production techniques that have served the big brands bottom lines so well in the past.
`Us “bloody millennials”, are aware that people are dying to make the clothes we wear, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore.
How we address equality and feminism in the fashion industry is being tackled in some way at all levels of the production chain and, it was interesting to learn that the women on the panel felt that one of the big reasons women leave their 9-5 jobs to start their own thing was because women often see the issues with products, systems and processes and want to find a better way to do it for an emotional reason, not just a financial one.
Just looking at the panel it was clear how many women are making changes and starting companies to be the change and to use their voice to make a difference.
- Birdsong was founded to empower women who have moved to London from countries where they have not been required to work, due to traditional working values. These women are often very skilled makers and have grown up making their own clothes, and clothes for their children however in moving over to London with next to no English and with no qualifications, they found they could only get work as cleaners, or in very low skilled work. In starting Birdsong, Sophie has empowered women all over London to use their skills and start a career here, making clothes ethically and being paid fair wages for their labour.
- Charlotte Instone from Know The Origin changed things up after the Rana Plaza disaster when she discovered how little brands knew about who was making their clothes. She started Know The Origin to bring transparency to the clothing industry and to promote brands that meet her high ethical standards for the fashion industry.
- Alison Kelley from NU wardrobe saw too much wastage in fashion and so started a clothes swapping and sharing platform to prevent people from throwing things out, or buying a new top by giving them the ability to borrow something from someone else’s wardrobe, just like you might your friends.
What these brands and companies do is impressive, but is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to women working to change the fashion industry. Women have founded most of the brands I have interviewed, like Jennifer from Evamoso, Krystin from Tala Design Co, Hennie from H.Holderness – even myself, a women currently writing an article about feminism and equality in fashion, in an attempt to share a message and change things up.
These are some of the changes happening in one part of the chain, but what about what’s changing for women at the maker and production level?
Often when we talk about women in positions within the garment worker world we often use language which makes them sound helpless and unable to have their voice heard or make a difference, we talk about them as victims and though this is the case for some women trapped within the slave and garment trade world, there are others who are making waves to change things.
Charlotte told us about a woman she met called Karpona (Apologies – I have almost certainly spelt her name wrong here),
Karpona is working on setting up trade unions and is fighting against injustice in the garment industry. She has gone through the hardships of being beaten, jailed and has even had her friends and colleagues killed, all in the name of fighting for equal rights for women in the garment industry.
She has now trained over 100,000 women on fair pay and their rights as workers. These women are now venturing out and sharing what she has taught them with other women in factories and sweatshops across Bangladesh, supporting them in fighting for women rights, fair pay, fair hours and better working conditions. Her fearless passion and drive is making a huge difference to all the women she has worked with and continues to empower more, in a country that is known for pushing back on freedom of speech.
Karpona is not the only person making a difference. In January 1000’s of garment workers in Bangladesh went on strike causing dozens of factories to close for over a week. Protestors were met with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, but managed to disrupt the supply chain for major global brands like H&M, Primark, Walmart, Tesco and Aldi who account for roughly 80% of exports from Bangladesh.
I suppose in summary what I am saying is that there is a lot that is changing for women in the fashion industry, but to keep the change happening we need to focus on moving forwards, empowering and supporting the voices that get hushed and working together to make things better.
For those of you that are a bigger fan of numbers than words– and are not suffering from information overload from my notes above. Check out these stats below which give us all a good summary of a few of the things that are wrong with the fashion industry right now.
Mind blown by any of those numbers at all? I sure hope so, but I also hope you feel inspired by what you have read in this article to either start shopping from brands that do more to be ethical than profitable, or if you are a brand, to pay more attention and really get the information on who you are sourcing your materials from, and where your products are being made.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this please leave them below!