The Vogue Business 100 Innovators: Sustainability thought leaders
December 9, 2022
Meet the people at the forefront of sustainability, hand selected by Vogue
Progress towards reducing fashion’s devastating impact on people and the planet can, at times, feel frustratingly slow. Yet sustainability’s most ardent advocates never give up on the hope of facilitating meaningful change for the industry. In this category, we celebrate the people challenging traditional ways of thinking and working and those innovating for a brighter future and the prospect of an industry that has a positive impact.
NazmaAkter – Founder and President, Awaj Foundation and Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation
Most advocacy around the fashion industry’s labour and environmental practices is driven by campaigns or non-profit organisations that frame their messaging for audiences in wealthy countries, inviting consumers to pressure the brands they buy from to change their ways. Rarely do consumers hear from garment workers directly. Nazma Akter, a union organiser and former child garment worker, who grew up working in factories alongside her mother, has convinced global brands to listen. She makes sure garment workers are represented at global conferences, helped to push for Bangladesh, gradually between 2010 and 2018, to double the minimum wage for textile workers, and trains women on bargaining tactics and to advocate for themselves in both the workplace and at home. Dozens of women she has trained have gone on to negotiate collective bargaining agreements of their own.
Petri Alava – Founder, Infinited Fiber Co.
Petri Alava’s lnfinited Fiber Co., which he founded in Finland in 2015, has developed technology to recycle textile and paper waste into fibres that can be woven into new cloth, potentially helping textile production to become compatible with a circular economy. The company says it uses responsible chemistry and eliminates the need for carbon disulfide, a hazardous chemical used in conventional viscose production, and has investors including Adidas and H&M Group. With construction of its first commercial production facility underway, the trademarked Infinna fibres have been used to make denim, jersey, French terry and other woven fabrics. Aiava, who is known as an entrepreneur more than an inventor – juggling businesses that range from a municipal waste recycler to grain storage logistics to a Finnish publishing company – is now intent on licensing lnfinited’s technology to producers of pulp and viscose fibres.
Greg Altman and Rebecca Lacouture – Co-founders, Evolved By Nature
It’s one thing for scientists and advocates to inform consumers about fashion’s use of toxic chemicals and to pressure the industry to do away with them. Replacing them is another story, as demand continues for attributes such as water-resistant workout clothes or longlasting eyeliner. From their lab outside Boston, Greg Altman, Rebecca Lacouture and their team have developed ways to take compounds found naturally in silk and programme them to give fabrics and cosmetics the same properties as some of the world’s harshest chemicals. Founded in 2013, Evolved by Nature makes “activated silk” formulations that can replace PFAS or “forever chemicals”, among other hazardous or unwanted substances. The company, which also works with industries beyond textiles and cosmetics, such as pharmaceuticals, is gaining ground in the fashion supply chain globally: its technology is used in textile mills, including Billion Rise and Apex, which make polyester and nylon fabric blends for performance wear, underwear and lingerie for multiple brands; in leather tanneries including Richard Hoffmans; and is the basis of the formulas in Michael Strahan’s new skincare line, Daily Defense, launched in September, as well as Evolved By Nature’s own skin barrier repair product launched in October.
Chloe Asaam – Designer and Program and Operations Manager, The Or Foundation
Chloe Asaam wears many hats, and most of them bear the same theme: honouring the women who came before her, celebrating those who may follow and linking it all together through fashion and culture. Based in Accra, Ghana, she calls herself a designer, researcher and humanitarian. The Gucci Design Fellowship finalist works with the Or Foundation to not only educate the worldabout the reality of where its old, discarded clothes end up but also to create community-driven solutions for dealing with it. A priority is providing young women in Accra with “holistic support” and alternatives to the dangerous but very common practice of carrying bales of secondhand clothes on their heads through the markets. She helped the OR Foundation create an apprenticeship placement program that connects women with local designers and industry professionals and offers support for women interested in starting their own businesses. The programme also offers resources such as financial literacy, women’s rights and reproductive health classes. Asaam gives voice, through her social media platforms and elsewhere – including as a member of the Board of Fashion Ghana – to the complexities involved in criticising fast fashion, people who buy it, and the relationship between African communities and Western fashion brands.
Ayesha Barenblat – Founder and CEO, Remake
Advocacy organisation Remake wants to turn fashion into a force for good, and Ayesha Barenblat is the founder and CEO leading the charge. When the Covid-19 pandemic left thousands of garment workers without wages as brands and retailers refused to pay their suppliers, Remake stepped in to help them recoup lost funds. Its #PayUp social media campaign recovered $2.42 billion in unpaid contracts and exposed how brands in the Global North were treating their suppliers in the Global South. In the aftermath of the #PayUp campaign, Remake launched its own manifesto, designed to challenge these relationships and encourage brands to do better. Its mandates include: keep workers safe, be transparent, give workers centre stage, sign enforceable contracts, end starvation wages, and help pass laws. On that note, Remake helped to develop the Fabric Act’s worker rights provisions alongside US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. The nonprofit has also raised $152,000 in direct relief for garment workers worldwide and now has 1,437 ambassadors working across 75 countries.
Nicole Bassett – Co-founder, The Renewal Workshop
Repair services are catching on in fashion, but before circularity was an industry buzzword, The Renewal Workshop was laying the groundwork to make it a reality. Co-founder Nicole Bassett has been pushing the repair agenda in fashion for over a decade now, recognising that brands and consumers alike have spent years filling up the world’s landfills with clothes that are perfectly usable if they can just have a ripped seam mended or broken zipper replaced. She had the idea for The Renewal Workshop while working in the apparel industry, where she saw firsthand its large volumes of waste, as well as a lack of any systems or processes for dealing with it or preserving its value. She invited Jeff Denby to join her in starting a business to fill that gap, and over the years, The Renewal Workshop has not only offered product repairs – or renewal, as they like to put it – for brands from Prana, Carhartt and The North Face to Mara Hoffman and Lo & Sons, but invited them in to see the process with the goal of designing better, more durable goods from the start. The company’s acquisition by logistics company Bleckmann for an undisclosed amount earlier this year indicated the industry is recognising the growing demand to build capacity to repair. Bassett, who spends much of her time thinking about how fashion can achieve not only circularity but degrowth, is a key visionary behind it all. With another partner, she recently launched a separate service, Cascade Circular, aimed at helping brands build internal capacity to “think and work with a circular lens”.
Rebecca Burgess – Founder, Fibershed
If you’ve heard of regenerative agriculture or noticed the surge of fashion brands making claims about knowing where your cotton or wool clothes come from, you may have Rebecca Burgess to thank. Since challenging herself in 2010 to develop a personal wardrobe made entirely within a 150-mile radius – including fibres, dyes and labour – the nonprofit she founded as a result of that work, Fibershed, has grown into a world-renowned network of local textile producers, researchers and supporters. The California-based organisation has worked with brands including The North Face and Coyuchi and, in September, launched a cooperative with farmers and brands including Reformation, Outerknown and Mate the Label to increase adoption of regenerative agriculture in the fashion industry, in part by asking – and enabling – brands to share the risks inherent in agriculture that farmers are typically forced to bear alone.
Nishanth Chopra – Founder, Oshadi
Regenerative agriculture is a growing area of focus within fashion’s climate efforts. But for brands to source more regeneratively grown materials, more materials have to be grown regeneratively. Nishanth Chopra is doing the work. The designer, who grew up around textiles – his family has worked in the sector in India for over 60 years – launched the womenswear label Oshadi in 2016 and soon realised he wanted to operate outside the traditional fashion business model. He expanded to create a cooperative in India, employing local farmers to grow cotton using traditional, regenerative practices. The farm supplies cotton to his own brand and a growing number of others – and increasing demand allows him to continue expanding supply, which in climate terms means more acres of soil that are sequestering carbon rather than releasing it into the air. In just the first year, the farm grew from five to 50 acres and now is an estimated 250 acres. Brands are now looking to partner with Oshadi in new and engaging ways. California label Christy Dawn, for instance, worked with the cooperative last year to create a community-supported agriculture (CSA)-like model for fashion, allowing the farmer to connect directly with the consumer as well as the brand. Other brand partnerships are expected to launch soon.
Marsha Dickson – President and Co-founder, Better Buying Institute
When brands get called out for labour or environmental abuses in their supply chain, they typically issue statements to say they have rigorous standards that they expect suppliers to meet. But for suppliers to meet those standards, they have to cover the costs involved in doing so – whether it’s maintaining a safe workplace, paying workers decent wages or investing in wastewater treatment equipment or other technology to reduce environmental impacts. That’s prohibitively costly for many, whose margins are too thin to cover the kinds of investments needed. What results is a discrepancy between the kinds of practices that brands say they want and those their prices actually pay for. Marsha Dickson, an academic who spent years researching social responsibility in the apparel supply chain and building collaborations between brands, industry associations, suppliers, policymakers, advocacy groups and others, has brought that gap to the forefront with the Better Buying Institute. The non-profit she founded in 2015 has changed how many of the fashion industry’s buying contracts are written and has elevated suppliers in the conversation by creating a platform for them to rate, anonymously, their clients’ purchasing practices.
Beth Esponnette – Co-founder, Unspun
Repulsed by the sheer volumes of fabric waste in her first jobs as a fashion designer, Beth Esponnette became an inventor. Her high-tech vision of the future of fashion manufacturing eliminates cutting rooms and instead employs robotics and a version of 3D printers that use yarn rather than polymers. The approach may be an outgrowth of her untraditional path to fashion design: she studied fibre science and apparel design at Cornell University in New York before earning a master’s degree in design at Stanford University. San Francisco-based Unspun Inc., which she founded in 2015 while moonlighting as a professor of product design at the University of Oregon, uses scanners and proprietary software to create a garment pattern. A 3D weaving machine is now being developed to weave an entire garment, leaving zero waste.
Linda Greer – Senior Scientist and Health Programme Director, Clean by Design
The fashion industry has come under scrutiny in recent years for its use of toxic substances and is taking strides to eliminate or reduce them in some areas, even if progress is patchy at best. Linda Greer, an environmental scientist with a PhD in environmental toxicology, has spearheaded the industry’s focus on reducing its reliance on chemicals. From her role as senior scientist and health programme director at the environmental non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), she founded a programme in 2009, Clean by Design, to identify and promote opportunities in the supply chain to reduce energy, water and chemical usage – and generate cost savings in the process.
It grew out of work she was doing on global mercury pollution, which brought her to China – where she saw how much industrial pollution was going unaddressed, with the apparel sector sector “distinguishing itself as a very large source” of China’s water pollution at the time, she says. “I was simply ‘following the pounds’ of pollution as industry left the US and moved abroad.” Clean by Design gained traction quickly and has since been adopted by mills and factories around the world and multinational brands from New Balance to Gucci and Bottega Veneta. Greer sparked such change in the industry, Stella McCartney wrote a piece about her for Vanity Fair.
Kimberly M Jenkins – Professor, Parsons School of Design
Want to know why we wear what we do? Ask multihyphenate Kimberly M Jenkins, a professor, researcher and consultant who specialises in just that: studying the impact of fashion through the lenses of politics, race, psychology and anthropology. Through her work as a university professor, Jenkins is shaping the next generation of fashion professionals, helping to decolonise the fashion curriculum. She is currently a part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design, having formerly taught at the Pratt Institute and Toronto Metropolitan University. In 2021, Jenkins founded Artis Solomon, an education consultancy shaping a more intelligent fashion system, of which she is the CEO. Its signature resource – The Fashion and Race Database – was first established in 2017 to expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge the misrepresentation that saw marginalised voices, designers and creatives overlooked for so long. In 2022, The Fashion and Race Database partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to launch a new podcast series, The Invisible Seam: Unsung Stories of Black Culture and Fashion.
Bobby Kolade – Founder, Buzigahill
Bobby Kolade has designed for major brands and founded an eponymous label in Berlin, which reached the Woolmark Prize final in 2015, but his next act is much more ambitious. For its first project, upcycling brand Buzigahill takes clothes bought from the secondhand market in Uganda – where Kolade was raised – and redesigns them for customers in the Global North. The subversive take on upcycling is a response to the environmental and humanitarian impacts of the unwanted, used clothing piling up in Africa, dubbed “waste colonialism” by academics. This has surged in recent years, as brands in the Global North offer take-back programmes, often shipping these garments to countries across the Global South instead of processing them domestically. Kolade co-wrote and hosted the Ugandan podcast Vintage or Violence, which investigates the local textile industry and the impact of secondhand clothing imports on it. He also founded Aiduke Clothing Research, a Kampala-based non-profit pushing for local production and access to markets.
Peter Majeranowski – President, Circ
Textile recycling company Circ goes by the saying, “We have all the clothing we need to make all the clothing we’ll ever need.” Experts estimate that less than 1 percent of clothing today can be recycled, and it is thought to account for the fastest-growing category of municipal waste. So, the ability to recycle old textiles into new ones is crucial for fashion to meet just about any of the ambitious sustainability goals it has set for itself. Peter Majeranowski first became interested in alternative energy during his years in the US Navy, where his job was to board ships smuggling oil out oflraq – and, seeing the risks associated with fossil fuels, developed with now-chief technology officer Iulian Bobe a hydrothermal pressure process for breaking down plant matter that they eventually realised would work on clothing. At Circ, he leads a team that has developed a process for recycling not only cotton and polyester – the most widely used fibres in the world – but also poly-cotton blends. The Virginia-based company, which operates a pilot facility and plans to open its first commercial-scale factory in 2025, has received investment from Patagonia and Inditex, among others. If brands can scale this technology, they could start recycling many of the clothes they’ve already made, in addition to future clothes that will theoretically be designed with recycling compatibility in mind.
Neeka and Leila Mashouf – Co-founders, Rubi Technologies
Considering the majority of fashion’s environmental impact is generated in manufacturing the materials used to make our clothes, it’s not enough to just make existing materials more efficiently. The industry needs a full transformation. Neeka and Leila Mashouf, scientists as well as twin sisters from the family behind global women’s retailer Bebe – have developed a process for making textiles out of greenhouse gases, sequestering carbon rather than releasing it. That’s a feat, but they are working to ensure their startup Rubi Technologies, which was one of five recipients of the H&M Foundation’s 2022 Global Change Award, doesn’t put out technological innovation for the sake of innovation. They have a dedicated ethos to actually solving a problem and not swapping one crisis for another: they’re making sure their textiles don’t use harmful chemicals during production, don’t shed microfibres once they’re made and don’t feed into an industry that will only use its fibres to tell a positive story – as opposed to changing its ways.
Ngozi Okaro – Founder, Custom Collaborative
With her laser focus on supporting women and making the fashion industry a more sustainable, equitable place (although she might call that description redundant), Ngozi Okaro is changing the industry from the inside out. Through the organisation she founded in New York in 2016, Custom Collaborative, Okaro identifies women from marginalised local communities who have vision, talent and ambition and finds ways to make space for them in the industry. Whether it’s training fashion companies on equity and inclusion or working on policy efforts such as New York Senator Gillibrand’s Fabric Act and Senate Bill 62 in California, Okaro pushes people in powerful positions to stop treating marginalised women as a “cause” and to remember that creative minds and visionaries can come from anywhere and that the world is better off if and when it listens to them. Her face was illuminated on a giant Nasdaq billboard in Times Square last year as one of 10 grant recipients from the Conscious Fashion Campaign to “women social entrepreneurs transforming the fashion industry”.
La Rhea Pepper – Founder, Textile Exchange
Fast becoming a household name for anyone working in fashion, Textile Exchange is moving the needle on the industry’s approach to fabric sourcing. The single biggest obstacle to companies changing their fibre sourcing is cost: changing how farmers grow cotton or produce wool, or even a brand choosing cotton over polyester, all have price tag implications. The bottomline impacts are often the overriding factor in business decisions, even if they wreak havoc on the environment. That’s why Textile Exchange founder La Rhea Pepper talks constantly, fearlessly, about the need for a paradigm shift: to focus more on values, and less on dollar costs. “Brands hold the key to market transformation by creating the paradigm shift from a price- to a value-based system,” she told Vogue Business last year.
Kate Raworth – Author, Doughnut Economics
Kate Raworth – author of the internationally bestselling book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist – is a self-described “renegade economist”. She holds positions at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, and the World Health Organisation Council on the Economics of Health for All. As degrowth becomes a critical conversation in fashion’s bid to bring production and consumption in line with planetary boundaries, Raworth’s book should be on every industry professional’s reading list. She developed the “doughnut” of social and planetary boundaries as a “compass for human progress this century”. The inner ring outlines the minimum social foundations we need to ensure a good life for all, including healthcare, housing and a political voice. The outer ring provides a hard stop for growth, with environmental boundaries we must live within, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and air pollution. The doughnut in between is where we should aim to live. In 2019, Raworth launched the Doughnut Economics Action Lab to turn this framework into reality. Now, she is working with the British Fashion Council to develop a circular fashion economy, accelerating the industry’s attempts to meet the Paris Climate Agreement.
Nicole Rycroft – Founder and Executive Director, Canopy
Before the world started to understand that manmade cellulosic fibres, a category of fibres that includes rayon and viscose, was driving rampant deforestation around the world, it thought rayon was an eco-friendly fibre made from bamboo. A former physiotherapist and elite-level athlete, Nicole Rycroft saw the connection between felled trees and full closets and started talking with fashion brands. Eventually, CanopyStyle was born, a campaign that counts brands from Stella McCartney to Eileen Fisher among its most ardent supporters. The campaign is housed at forest advocacy non-profit Canopy, which Rycroft also founded and directs, and where she has driven a similar shift in the paper sector. CanopyStyle has not only put fashion’s role in the destruction of the world’s most precious forests on the industry’s agenda, but it is also a key force behind the fastaccelerating quest for “next-gen” materials. Fuelled by Rycroft’s passion and expertise, Canopy is sounding an alarm about the problem while also presenting viable solutions.
Marine Serre – Fashion Designer
Most designers come up with a vision for a product and then figure out how to make it “sustainably”. French designer Marine Serre works in the reverse. Her fabrics warehouse, a stone’s throw from the building that houses her studio, is full – to the ceiling, every shelf to capacity – of used textiles. Worn T-shirts, cream-coloured eyelet-lace pillowcases, scarves and rolls of deadstock fabrics are all sitting, for weeks or years at a time, waiting to be used in an upcoming collection. Rather than look for new fabrics to bring her vision for a garment to life, she looks to existing fabrics to inform the vision from the start. And it seems to be working: Serre is one of the buzziest designers in fashion right now.
Mathilda Tham and Kate Fletcher – Co-founders, Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion
Making fashion sustainable is one of the industry’s biggest challenges, but there are very few tangible solutions to make that a reality. The Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan, first published in December 2019, is a shareable document developed by academics Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham, cofounders of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion – along with Lynda Grose and Timo Rissanen – which released its own manifesto in 2018 and has over 400 members. The plan advocates for an “Earth-first” approach, built around the idea that “without a healthy planet, all activities will cease”. Swapping the economic growth logic for earth logic means making decisions based on environmental and ecological sustainability rather than profitability. The plan, and the values underpinning it, have informed conversations about degrowth, been used as a framework for fashion education, and become the foundation of three PhDs. Earth logic brings together the many loose threads of solutions to unsustainable consumption, including regenerative agriculture, resale, rental, repair and recycling. But it also challenges the aspirations and desires spurring fashion on, encouraging people to think locally, lean on tradition and craft, and build local fashion centres that work for the community and environment instead of dictating to them.
Rebecca van Bergen – Founder, Nest
For all of the concerns about working conditions and wages for garment workers and safety at the factories they work in, there’s a subset of the fashion labour force with even less protection that sits much further from the public eye. Homeworkers with skills from hand embroidery to traditional Japanese shibori dyeing make up an informal economy that many industries, fashion included, have largely denied even exists. This drives workers further underground, which leaves them even more vulnerable to abuses and neglect. Rebecca van Bergen has brought this issue to the surface. In founding the nonprofit Nest, she has transformed homeworkers’ needs from a hidden list of concerns to established baseline requirements that major brands – from Hermes to Target – now pay attention to.