Women’s Empowerment Is Crucial for an Equitable Fashion Industry

If we transform opportunities for the women workers who make up most of the apparel manufacturing workforce, we transform everything.

by Dan Schiff

The hands that make our clothes overwhelmingly belong to women. More and more companies and social entrepreneurs are beginning to understand that lifting up and empowering these women is necessary to building a more equitable industry.

The clothes we wear are functional — or fashionable, often a statement of who we are, or who we want to be. But far too quickly we tire of them, sending about 85 percent of our garments to landfills. Industry stakeholders are realizing that this pattern is completely unsustainable for our planet, and are striving toward a circular economy in which apparel waste becomes obsolete.

In the traditional linear economy, products are used and disposed of with little regard for what happens to their components. In a circular economy, designers and manufacturers must have a plan for either reusing materials in other high-value products or safely returning the materials to the natural environment.

A New Model for Women Entrepreneurs

Efforts to build an apparel industry with greater support for women and less tolerance for material waste may seem like separate efforts, but Lis Suarez Visbal sees them as two sides of the same coin. The social entrepreneur, based in Montréal, Canada, is helping women workers realize new economic opportunities through circularity.

Lis Suarez Visbal, founder of FEM International

Lis founded FEM International as a global nonprofit to train women as social entrepreneurs in fashion. She also established the ETHIK eco-design hub as a collective and incubator to help these women reach market when their businesses are ready. The two organizations are equal parts of Lis’ joint vision for the future of fashion.

In contrast to the old model of starting a business to design and produce disposable objects, the more than 1,000 women who have gained business skills and market access through FEM and ETHIK see the world of fashion as a way to give new life to old fabrics. What once was just waste plastic can now be upcycled into a leather-like material for bags and other accessories.

“We see the circular economy as a system that allows for social entrepreneurship projects to really shine by giving women access to these new opportunities,” Lis says, noting that women comprise 75 to 80 percent of the global apparel manufacturing workforce.

Reaching the Most Vulnerable Women

Canada welcomes a quarter of a million immigrants each year, more than half of whom are women who face barriers to economic inclusion in their new society. In 2005, Lis launched FEM to help these immigrant women in Montréal find livelihoods through fashion.

Today, FEM connects to women’s citizen groups in Latin America, Asia and Africa, too. In Colombia, for instance, FEM provides capacity-building and access to markets to the Wayuu people, an isolated and vulnerable native group in the country’s north, teaching their women artisans about product and material life-cycles so they can incorporate elements of circularity into their work.

FEM empowers all of these women to be more than simply cogs on a wheel — Lis wants them to become eco-conscious entrepreneurs and the new leaders of the fashion industry.

A woman going through FEM’s training typically learns business basics — the fundamentals for writing a business plan and steps on how to leverage community resources and strategies for reaching foreign markets. Unlike traditional fashion business courses, FEM bakes in eco-design and circularity throughout its modules.

The end result is that more than 85 percent of FEM students report being in a better financial situation than before they received the training, meaning more sustainable livelihoods and greater economic opportunities.

Incubating the Future Leaders of Fashion

When women entrepreneurs trained by FEM take the next step in Lis’ ecosystem, they become members of the ETHIK collective, which incubates their businesses while also connecting them with a supply of recycled fabrics and other eco-materials. ETHIK’s boutique and its workshops further link the entrepreneurs to consumers and the broader fashion community.

ETHIK fashion show

ETHIK “gives a real experience of what the market is all about, and gives them a controlled environment for testing their products and their services while developing their capacities,” Lis says.

Lis is now pursuing new opportunities for FEM and ETHIK. Through a budding collaboration with the Montréal city government, she hopes to increase municipal textile recycling and spread consumer awareness of the circular economy. Lis also is partnering with the Polytechnical University of Montréal to develop new optical technology that will speed up the sorting of recycled fabrics.

Such partnerships and advances are intended to further Lis’ systemic vision for the future of fashion and open doors for the new generation of women eco-entrepreneurs.

“We believe that we cannot be repeating entrepreneurial models that are linear because they are creating the problems that we have today, both on the social level and on the environmental level,” she says.

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Lis was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2011 and is involved with Fabric of Change, an initiative by Ashoka and C&A Foundation to reshape the fashion industry as a force for good. Lis has been recognized by Fabric of Change for her work in disrupting business as usual in the world of fashion. Additionally, Lis is an Ashoka Globalizer Fellow this year, which means she is developing a scaling strategy to maximize the impact and reach of FEM and ETHIK. By collaborating with business experts and apparel industry leaders, Lis hopes to bring her approach to fashion design and production into the industry mainstream.

Dan Schiff is Global Partnerships Project Manager for Ashoka.

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