Interview with Marina Spadafora “Only 12% of International Fashion Brands Can Be Considered Sustainable”

An ethical fashion ambassador to the world, Marina Spadafora is an eclectic designer: she has her own brand and collaborated with Ferragamo, Prada, Miu Miu, and Marni. Her motto is “Fashion with a Mission” and is the Italian national coordinator of Fashion Revolution.

In April 2020 she published for Solferino Libri named “The Revolution Starts From Your Closet”, in collaboration with Luisa Ciuni.

In November 2020 she was on a jury for the first prize of “Communication for Good”, an award that presents the campaign with the greatest social and environmental impact. In this exclusive interview, Marina reveals the less fashionable sides of an industry that is currently aiming to build its “green reputation”.

Elena Grinta: Good morning Marina and welcome back! I am happy to hear from you again after our first meeting on the Jury for the Communication For Good Award! As you know Be Intelligent focuses a lot on acts of communication – and therefore persuasion – that can transform both consumers’ and companies’ habits.

With you, I’d like to explore the fashion world that seems to have caught an interest in the “Green Wave” by communicating its efforts toward greater sustainability, and – at least from a communication point of view – has managed to create the idea of being very actively responsive to this issue. As well as having a greater ability to realize this than other industries, and to be perceived as a sector that is particularly sensitive to topics in sustainability.

Marina Spadafora: Actually, the food sector is achieving much more on a sustainable level than the fashion sector. As you might have seen, there are much more people in the world buying organic food than there are people buying sustainable clothes. How they implemented their strategies I don’t know, but it certainly works better!

Elena: So there is currently no ability to create a durable system and position itself as a sustainable industry in the fashion system today?

Marina: We’re trying there are a lot of layers within the industry that are often difficult to get through. There are a lot of people who are not truthful, and this leads to a lack of transparency which makes it difficult to understand what is truly being done to build a better brand. When looking at the websites of different brands, it is very hard to understand and break down what exactly they are aiming to accomplish and how.

This year, I followed these guys who did the research for Italian Brands of the Fashion Transparency Index done every year by Fashion Revolution: a lot of nice words on all the points but there is nothing concrete, so we are not in a great situation.

Elena: As an outside observer it seems to me that we are living in a big bubble. It is almost as if overnight the whole fashion system managed to turn the industry into a sustainable industry, but without concretely stating what sustainability actually means.

Marina: There should be guidelines on both environmental sustainability and social sustainability. There are very clear rules about the chemicals that can be used, and everything that concerns the environmental aspect.

Yet in regards to social justice, there is a big gap. In the countries where the production takes place (not just that of the fast fashion brands) people are paid a minimum living wage and there is a 1:4 difference, which means that to live comfortably, a person would need to earn four times the amount of what they currently do. As a result, their children need to become employees too.

Elena: Would you say that even though the claims within the fashion system are promising, the reality is still far from being sustainable?

Only 12% of International Fashion Brands Can Be Considered Sustainable

Marina: It is still a very distant reality, only 12 percent of brands internationally are currently doing noteworthy activities

Elena: Do you mean 12% in terms of the number of companies or in terms of the sales impact?

Marina: No. In the number of enterprises.

Elena: That is certainly not reassuring! Also because the next question would have been how to import virtuous models within other industries. That is, how to achieve a mobility industry rather than an energy industry, and for others to learn the best practices from fashion and then import them into their own industry. Could you share some advice, perhaps a kind of strategic guidebook, for other industries other than fashion?

Marina: You would really need to review the parameters and follow very simple guidelines: do production, sales, and distribution while ensuring respect for the people and the planet. Because when profit becomes the main driver of these three pillars, the other two important aspects are ‘forgotten’. Unfortunately, this is the most recurring case because greed is sadly one of the flaws of human nature.

“It’s very difficult to make the big global giants, the multinationals, the corporations understand that they should perhaps slightly revise the margin profits to make sure that the productions are done properly.”

On the bright side, big investors are breaking away from the oil industry, as well as the Nasdaq. There are stocks, like Exxon’s, that got ejected because their numbers dropped too much. Whereas if we look back, it was one of the stocks that established the Nasdaq. So this trend is present. There is also a trend evaluating how companies move. The further it goes, the more finance will start to detach and distance itself from companies that really don’t make any kind of effort towards circularity initiatives.

People Planet Profit – is a balance (im)possible?

Elena: This discussion brings us to two important points: of which one is profitability. The motive of profit in the private sector is very relevant. The right balance, whereby profit cannot exceed a certain number as it would at the expense of the other two P’s (Planet and People), is a magic formula that everyone is looking for like the Holy Grail. Is it difficult to offer these guidelines?

Marina: Is difficult because there are no laws. The fashion sector, similar to the food sector and the body-care sector, has no laws to regulate its companies. Here it is most urgent that serious laws are made in order to change this and create some type of regulation. This is what we are fighting for: Fashion Revolution, together with 60 other nongovernmental organizations have submitted a program called Fair & Sustainable Textile to the European Parliament. This contains guidelines for a broad law covering all these aspects that are in need of regulations.

Elena: If I understand correctly, we are currently at a delicate stage where institutional intervention is necessary and we cannot leave enterprises to enter the free market.

Marina: No we can’t: unrestrained liberalism leads to borderline situations. When they deregulated the financial market, Iceland, which previously had very strict rules, went bankrupt in 2 years. So, at these moments when there is a lack of laws, human nature goes into a negative mode of exploiting all the liberties at hand.

Elena: Thank you for these insights. I would like to draw back to what you mentioned before, with respect to the oil sector. Finance is increasingly responsive to public opinion so the sectors that are the subject of battles like oil are also becoming the subject of divestment. However, this is not the case for all High Footprint Industries: think of the FAAMGs (an abbreviation coined by Goldman Sachs for the five best-performing tech stocks in the market, namely Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet’s Google): no one talks about the environmental impact of this companies – not to mention the social impact, a real taboo!

Marina: We need to get busy and not start today but yesterday! It is said that if 3.5 percent of the global population becomes activists and support a cause, the cause will succeed. This happened with the vote for women and with the abolition of slavery. So what we want to do with Fashion Revolution is to raise awareness that reaches these critical masses.

Greenwashing and Communication For Good

Elena: There is always the haunt of greenwashing: behind the active efforts that the consumer takes to consider a company’s sustainability, there lie the interests of corporations or lobbies. This makes it difficult to realize change.

Marina: Yes, but it is urgent work that needs to be done and we need to keep moving forward.

Elena: Can you think of an advertising campaign that you think deeply touched the consumer and had an impact – not just in the Fashion world – that accomplished real action because it created a reaction?

Marina: I cannot think of any.

Elena: Ouch, that’s not a good sign!

Marina: I have to think about this for a moment… Can you think of anything?

Elena: Patagonia’s “Dont’ buy this jacket” is the campaign most frequently mentioned, but maybe we got tired of always just referencing Patagonia, right?

Marina: With Patagonia, you break through an open door, they are good!

Elena: Maybe this is a theme, though: when we talk about sustainability everybody aiming to be sustainable at this moment, but if then you have to think about what these big companies have actually done in that direction … Should we address that next time?

Marina: Yes, I would like that.

Elena Thank you, Marina, see you soon!

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