Fashion entrepreneurs and enthusiasts gathered at the 2015 Social Retail Summit on recently at Ludlow Studios. The summit convened four panels, including Marketing to Men, Aggregators and Curators, Direct-to-Consumer Brands, and Social Impact/Conscious Retail.
The Social Impact/Conscious Retail panel consisted of four entrepreneurs working on retail that was either in part, or wholly, driven by the good work their products and/or companies did in the world, and was moderated by Nevena Rousseva, the Editor of Style and the StartUp, a blog focused on blending fashion, sustainability, and startups.
The panel started by focusing on the story of each company, and how they assigned value to their respective social missions. Interestingly, all panelists approach their social impact missions in different way. David Bolotsky, founder and CEO of UncommonGoods, a website dedicated to featuring creative products from independent designers, explained that social good was always essential to the way that he started, and continued to run, UncommonGoods, one of the original B Corporation certified companies (and he encouraged everyone in the audience with their own company to check it out as a great place to get started). As his company has grown, UncommonGoods has continued to focus both internally and externally on impact. Their staff are all paid a fair wage, well above the minimum wage, and they have recently added the Uncommon Collection to ensure their vendors too are withholding their high standards.
Jodi Susman, Digital Marketing & Strategy at Catrinka, an ethical fashion accessory brand dedicated to invested in women and girls that emerged after seeing a need for meaningful employment for women. Now employing women in 16 countries, Catrinka started with it’s social mission in mind, and reminds you of their impact with by featuring the women who made your item with every purchase. Susman explained that social impact was not a driving fact, but rather, the only driving factor, in starting her company.
On the flip side, pre-launch entrepreneur Sandy Saccullo, the founder of OneClique, a high heel shoe company focused on shoe separates, folded social impact into the pre-existing product she offered. Sandy explained that in order to dedicate every waking hour of her life to shoe separates, she felt it had to be for a higher purpose. For Saccullo and OneClique, that means donating a portion of every sale to Kind Campaign, a nationwide movement that brings awareness and healing to the negative and lasting effects of girl-against-girl bullying.
Lastly, Jesse Ayala, co-Founder of Modavanti and Editor-In-Chief of Row+Rue, discussed how he features fashion first with the social mission woven in later as the “cherry on top.” Both companies promote socially responsible, ethical, and sustainable fashion practices, the former through an ecommerce site and the latter through a blog featuring relevant companies.
There was a single common thread, though, between all the panelists: it’s essential to lead with product, even when social impact is at the core of your business. That’s because people, no matter how well intentioned they are, don’t want to consume junk. They want to invest in products they are proud of, and the impact makes that purchase even sweeter.
Both the moderator and and an audience member asked about how important it was to start with a social mission and if it’s possible to integrate it into an already existing business. Bolotsky cited Unilever acquiring Ben & Jerry’s as a successful example, and the other panelists brought to the forefront the overall movement towards more socially sustainable practices in business overall including CSR initiatives at larger corporations. Ayala, too, pointed to several large and established fashion companies that are starting to release sustainable lines such as Nike and Kate Spade. Ayala stressed the importance of the large companies to pioneer the movement in order to change the market overall. Saccullo pointed out that investors, however, often challenge the benefits of a social impact mission, citing their discomfort at risking profit for impact.
On that note, Susman pointed out that profit and social mission must go hand in hand. In order to fund the social mission, the business must be profitable. Bolotsky explained that this is a constant tension and that he always explains it as “putting on your oxygen mask before helping others.” He explained that he went without pay for the first seven years of his company, sacrificing his own salary for the increased starting wage of workers.
Overall, the passion of the entrepreneurs were palpable and it was clear their passion largely stemmed by the important impact they were making by way of their work. It was interesting to see the diversity of how social impact manifested in each company, whether it was embedded into the internal workings of the company, if it was consumer focused, donation based or direct service across the globe. The panel was a microcosm of the rapidly growing social impact driven field.