« How can fashion companies put in good use the largely unknown dyad immigration and fashion production to achieve social inclusion and agility in production? »

“Immigrants are the backbones of the fashion industry. From production to design houses, fashion has been predominantly run by immigrant populations. Even today, you go down the list of designers, I would say 80 percent of designers are immigrants. It would impact the fashion industry tremendously if we don’t have our voices heard.” – Designer Naeem Khan as quoted by Elle Magazine.

The fashion industry is currently on the lookout for solutions that incorporate sustainability and facilitate a new way of doing business; that is a statement that echoes in the industry gatherings according to the State of Fashion 2020. Despite the nervousness and uncertainty, “exciting opportunities remain for those who can make sense of the noise and drive innovation accordingly” according to the report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey (2020). Seeing the presence of immigrants, namely refugees and asylum-seekers in certain countries under this light, the current paper will make a case for them not as a liability, but as an opportunity for flexibility in fashion production, and a possibility to enhance the offering of fashion brands with products designed with social sustainability in mind and the aim to “give-back” to society

My hypothesis is that fashion businesses of any size could use the learning and aims of the Sustainable Development Goal 17, which is all about building partnerships for sustainable development.  In the field of policy and institutional coherence, a plan for partnerships of fashion companies to small, decentralized production hubs that work as their allies towards sustainable development can be enhanced in various ways, one of them being the institutionalization and funding of these social enterprises actively targeting the poverty eradication and social integration of low-skilled refugees and asylum-seekers or else “newcomers” that struggle for a new chance in their host countries. Based on the case study we conducted by examining the project NAOMI Thessaloniki+Naomi started as an emergency aid non-profit, but evolved into much more. With an active fashion academy and a production unit and with strong ties with Germany, Naomi is has successfully tested its social entrepreneurship model of upskilling and giving work to refugees. More on their work and background can be found here: https://naomi-thessaloniki.net/+ (the case study is not included in the current article), many of the “newcomers” are willing to be upskilled with the end goal to be employed within the fashion industry – and their wish could be facilitated in alignment with the aims of SDG 17. Governments or local decentralized authorities can “encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships”  (UN SDGs, n.d.) that will result in a win-win situation for both parties i.e. the social enterprises upskilling and giving work to immigrants on the one hand, and the fashion businesses that work with them to source sustainable product lines with shorter lead times that they could ever do in Asian countries.

But is flexibility and agility in fashion production necessary and why? Due to the change of customer behaviour and the global fashion markets, companies are asked to “rethink inbound logistics and establish highly efficient warehouse processes” and at the same time “speed up and transform the fashion production to a demand-focused model” (Andersson, Berg, Hedrich et al. 2018). Fashion companies will have to optimise the apparel production model by using new strategies such as nearshoring or even onshoring, which is of interest in this paper. Nearshore markets for Europe as identified by McKinsey (2018) are Turkey and Macedonia in the Balkans, while the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports also mentions Romania and I can add Bulgaria with a blooming ready-made garment sector. Onshoring efforts also take place especially in countries such as the UK and Germany, who seem to want to capitalize the “Made in Britain” and “Made in Germany” labels, and let me add France, which equally capitalizes the “Made in France” label lately (European apparel brands increasingly shifting production out of China, 2019).

Examples of fashion labels and social projects that engage displaced populations for their production needs

A good example that engages moving or displaced populations is the exciting initiative launched by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR n.d.) in 2018. “Named after the 1951 Refugee Convention, Made51 links refugee artisans with social enterprises—that seek to do good and make profit—which help them create high-end products” (Refugees target global markets with luxury crafts 2019). Made51 uses an interesting protocol to supply its ethical home ware and accessories to the world: they identify refugee artisans, utilize skills and traditions and partners with local social enterprises in order to help with educating, organising the production, fulfilment, quality control and the like (Made51 n.d.). The project runs currently mostly in Africa and uses a mentality and technical expertise similar to NAOMI, but at a totally different context.

An upcycled vest by the NAOMI project

The solution proposed here i.e. upskilling refugees and integrating them in social and local fashion production schemes, can easily be applied seemingly to any country with a considerable (or not) influx of displaced populations. The project NAOMI Thessaloniki that I have studied closely based in Western Greece shows the way, but the model can easily be replicated to countries or, rather, regions with an existing know-how on apparel production. Italy, for instance, having a big immigrantion influx and excellent know-how and owning the coveted “Made in Italy” label could also replicate the solution to provide seamless social integration and a thriving new life to its newcomers. Even Germany and any EU country accepting low-skilled refugees could implement similar schemes of local social production hubs similar to NAOMI.

It is essential to note that social fashion hubs often run workshops on the side that aim not only to upskill, but also to become an inspiration or an introduction to artistic expression and other types of Do-it-Yourself projects, which, in their turn, aid inclusion, as we will see later in this article. Other similar structures that someone could look at are the projects SOFFA and ANKAA+More information on the structures mentioned can be found on their websites: http://soffa.gr/ and https://www.ankaaproject.org/+ that operate in Athens with similar aims i.e. integrating displaced populations by the means of upskiling; these structures could provide insights and become a valuable production partner aka resource to fashion, or other businesses – as they are not both solely tied to fashion production.

Nearshoring and onshoring capacity building could come in handy and solve two problems at once while being mutually beneficial and socially responsible and also support brands based in countries with no local production such as Luxembourg, serving as their production partners. At the same time, such production partnerships can cause a paradigm shift and help re-educate consumers in the right direction i.e. encouraging them to buy responsibly and with “give-back” mindset having the burning question “Who Made My Clothes?” that the Fashion Revolution campaign popularised (Fashion Revolution n.d.) as their main compass for responsible purchases.

Drawing inspiration from and adjusting the paradigm of the art workshops in the contemporary context

A long-standing concept that social production hubs or “social fashion factories”, can draw inspiration from and can get proof that such an experiment can actually work are the art workshops, also called art education or public art, a concept that seems to be connected to social inclusion in academic literature over the years. An interesting example is that of the British government, which developed initiatives promoting social and educational inclusion through the arts (Sanderson 2006) and that placed young people and socially excluded “at the top of the funding agenda” (Belfiore 2002). The transformative role of art is equally discussed in transnational refugees context in a paper Maggie O’Neill, where it is suggested that art is creating a “potential space” for dialogue, a space which is reflective and safe and from where “narratives around the themes of transnational identities, home and belonging could emerge” (O’Neill 2008). Arts and crafts is traditionally connected with wellbeing and it is proven by research that they can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression and loneliness (Smith 2019), thus the use of such strategies point to the right direction when used with groups of people in distress such as refugees or other categories of “newcomers”.

Similar projects that aim to give a sense of meaning along with financial compensation to vulnerable groups by engaging them with arts and crafts exist in a few countries i.e. Germany or Luxembourg. For instance, People is a social fashion project that sells unique social fashion products produced by young people at risk in Berlin. The project is run by the charity organisation Karuna in an effort to rethink the approach to charity work and in 2015 it was awarded with the BKM award for cultural education by the federal Government of Germany. What is it that the project and brand People does exactly? In their own words, “together with a team of kids who struggle with drug addiction, mental illness or homelessness three fashion designers create annual editions of design objects and sartorial pieces that capture the essence of a universal desire: inclusivity.” (People, n.d.) The products on the website boast contemporary urban design, seem to have good quality and have a high end price point, obviously destined for conscious consumers who have not only the sensitivity, but also the buying power to acquire them. As People puts it “Pity cannot solve problems”, but giving structure and hope to others in difficult situations does+More at http://peoplepeoplepeople.de/about/ and the website of the organisation behind the project https://cms.karuna-ev.de/+.

Another example that brings together the art workshop strategy, fashion or accessory production and social inclusion of and sensitive groups is a workshop that employs people with disabilities or special needs. Coopérations based in Luxembourg has a non-profit, socio-cultural structure and has recently supported the production of an accessories’ collection with sustainability in mind. The project “DONO”, which means “After”, was a creative collaboration of Julie Conrad Design Studio and the marketing agency accentaigu – SDG 17 is applied here with flying colours, too – and follows the principles of upcycling and circular economy. The tarpaulin and other materials that were discarded after the end of the renovation of the Adolphe Bridge in Luxembourg was used as the primary material of the collection, and most of the products were designed with a multifunctional nature, adding one more layer of sustainability.+More information and the full range of products on the official page https://hello-dono.lu/+ By upcycling the plastic material that would otherwise go to waste and by using Coopérations as a production partner, the DONO project not only brought a collection of sustainable products to the market, but also gained a lot of traction and press coverage for the social innovation behind it just as much as the design.

There are no data regarding the actual popularity of the aforementioned line of products with consumers, but the assumption is made that the project creation was stirred due to an existing sensitivity to sustainability principles and a possible market for products that give back to society according to Corporate Social Responsibility theories. Such products are a good choice for customers who want to not only buy a product for its primary function, but also to do good while buying i.e. support a specific vulnerable/minority group at the same time. There is evidence that shows that there are long-term benefits for brands that adopt a business model “which includes CSR, and specifically sustainability, as an integral part of the corporate mission” (Di Benedetto 2017).

To sum up, the last, but most important, in my opinion, sustainable development goal, goal 17 that encourages strong partnerships and collaborations can be put in good use in the European fashion production space. By forming partnerships with social fashion production units that already exist in Greece, and by potentially initiating or funding the creation of other similar production hubs in other European countries, fashion brands can indirectly help in the social inclusion of refugees, while producing in a socially sustainable way, and thus creating attractive products for responsible and conscious consumers. Fashion brands have a clear interest to do so, not only because of their CSR strategies, but also to solve their own need for agility in production, which will result in faster lead times, less transportation costs and CO2 emissions, thus substituting the fast fashion model with a “social fashion model”.

By Stylianee Parascha, President of Fashion Revolution Luxembourg and a Sustainability and Conscious Communications Consultant.
This article is a rewritten chapter of the Master thesis entitled “Immigrants are an under-appreciated source of inspiration and competence. Exploring the threads that tie fashion and immigration together. How can fashion as a boundary object become the missing link between the prosperity of moving populations and the need for agility in fashion production? Is there a business opportunity for fashion companies?” The research was conducted in the course of 2019; the thesis was defended on February 2020 and has resulted in the acquisition of a Masters in Sustainability in Fashion and Creative Industries from AMD, Akademie Mode & Design, Faculty of Design of University Fresenius, University of Applied Sciences in Berlin.