With most of our shopping done online these days and ever more brands available at our virtual fingertips, it becomes more of a challenge as consumers to shop online with sustainability and fair trade in mind. Entrepreneur Ayesha Mustafa aims to change this with a unique online platform called Fashion Compassion, which caters for the style and sustainability conscious. Shopping with purpose is a major component that defines Fashion Compassion from other online fashion outlets that tend to lean towards fast fashion trends and generic branding. I ask Ayesha about her motivations behind the company, and what her views are about endorsing a sustainable lifestyle through everyday consumption choices.
Words: Mariam Sheikh
What is Fashion Compassion?
Fashion Compassion is a sustainable accessory marketplace which brings together small, emerging positive fashion brands. The brands we represent are creating unique pieces that have the environmental and social aspects of fashion in mind. The whole idea is to bring these brands together and create a platform that really caters for a person that is more geared towards sustainable lifestyle; a person who is a conscious consumer.
What the inspiration was behind the platform?
One thing that was always my interest was fashion: not the designing aspect, but the business aspect of it. When I was growing up in different countries, I saw how fashion was made and how craft was a big part of fashion.
When I was 16, I interned at the Grameen Bank, which was the first Institute that gave micro-credit loans to the poorest women in Bangladesh. One aspect that really came out to me was the Grameen cheque, which was the reviving of the handloom industry. We used to go to villages, where there were lots of families who were hand loomers for generations. They were living on the poverty line, and Grameen started sending marketing experts and supervisors there. And slowly these women, who were completely illiterate and had no idea about business, were getting to grips with their talent: taking it and really merging it with new design. They were more inspired and more ready to compete with the mass market. That made me realise that, if you provide people who have talent with the right guidance and right skills, they can stand on their own feet. And I thought that I would always do something that would help the most marginalised, especially women. That would be my biggest inspiration I would say.
What does ethical fashion mean to you?
For me, ethical fashion means transparency, good quality, durability, positivity, understanding the supply chain and how products are made, but fairness as well. When you think about ethical fashion in general, it's basically looking at fashion in terms of the environment, and also the social side. The cost of creating fashion is looking at what it does to the environment, and what it does to the people making it. So ethical fashion is a way of making sure that fashion is fairer with both, the social and environmental aspects.
Do you see potential for social entrepreneurship and sustainability to become established industries in the future?
I think it's already getting there. People are talking about it. A lot of companies are in to it, like Gucci or the Kerring Group. They are saying that sustainability is a huge part and it's not a component or a feel-good factor, its not like CSR. It's part of the brick-and-mortar of the business. I do think that, in the coming years, millennials want to work with sustainable companies, and they want companies to have these policies in place. I do think this whole idea of social entrepreneurship will become more mainstream. In some cases, for example, in Sweden, it's already there and it's so ingrained. Everything you touch is about organic and traceability, and they really foster social entrepreneurship and doing good. So I think some countries are already there, some will take a bit of time, but I think it's definitely going to be mainstream in the future.
Why do you think sustainability and ethics in business are important?
If you think about any business, not only fashion, people are talking about sustainability. So, if an industry is not sustainable from its foundation, at some point it's going to wear itself out. I think in terms of how we as consumers encourage and participate in these practises, we still think we don't have power. But if you think about it, we do have power. Because it's our money that we use to buy what we want to buy. It's ultimately our choice what we spend money on. What we need to do is instead of being reactive, we have to be proactive. By reactive I mean that we make our choices in terms of what we want to buy influenced by what the media tells us, what celebrities tell us to do, what we see influencers telling us to do, and in some way out inner voice gets lost. I think it's really thinking about who you are as a person, what are your values, what kind of businesses do you want to be associated with, how does that product engage with your lifestyle: you should always ask, 'does it really enhance your lifestyle?'.
How can we as consumers participate in these practises?
I think we have to be not cunning, but clever in the way you ask questions and consume things. It starts with you. Knowing really who you are and what you stand for and what you want to buy, whether that's what you want to wear, or what you want to eat defines who you are. If you start going into shops and start requesting sustainable products, and if more and more people start doing it, they will have to provide it, because that's what the market wants. If you think of your parents and earlier generations, they would know where the milk was coming from, or where to buy local meat. Even for a blouse, my mother would know where she got the material, and which tailors made it. They have those stories. Right now, if somebody tells me, 'I like your top', and I got it from Topshop, they google it and go buy it. Whats your uniqueness?
"We make our choices in terms of what we want to buy influenced by what the media tells us, what celebrities tell us to do, what we see influencers telling us to do, and in some way out inner voice gets lost."
There is a tendency for brands to focus on either green and social credentials or aesthetics? How does Fashion Compassion accommodate that balance?
In terms of sustainability, it's a huge realm and it's also a grey area. So many brands that we have on Fashion Compassion will say we have vegan leather, or we are completely eco-friendly. Or they say, we are a social enterprise and we are focussing on helping a community. But design is a very important part. As a fashion company and as a retailer, we work with brands across all spectrums that help the environment, as well as the social aspect. The most important thing is you have to have the aesthetic first and then the social or environmental aspect, because you are a business. Nobody buys fashion because they pity it. They buy it because they like it, or because they want it. So the aspect of aesthetic is the most important for a brand, whether they are in sustainability, or they are not. And then comes the focus on the social or environmental aspect. I think there are very few brands that can focus on both. What we do in terms of balancing, as a retailer, our main focus is to bring brands that people will desire, so the aesthetics have to be there, and then it's going to be either the social aspect or the environmental aspect.
"Right now, if somebody tells me, 'I like your top', and I got it from Topshop, they google it and go buy it. Whats your uniqueness?"
Has it been easy to gather support and attention for the platform?
It's been a mix of things. When I first started it, which was in 2011, and it was mainly run through events, I think it was not easier. But we were getting a lot of interest and support. However, as we are growing and expanding, I also feel like there is a lot more competition in the market. There are many aspects of gathering support, so if you are just talking about getting press coverage or media coverage, now its much harder to do that, because there are so many sustainable brands coming up. So, if you want to get traction, you have to shift through that and make sure you have a unique point. I think people are more open to it now and people understand sustainability more. They are happy to buy sustainable products, they are more engaging than they were before. And most importantly, they themselves have the knowledge.
Also, I think social media is such a big aspect for it.
Social media is there, but it's also very, very clustered and has become very busy.
Definitely and perhaps theres a danger of the brand message diluting a little bit?
Yes, also every sustainable brand wants to have more likes, but do those likes ever get back into sales? Or how do you know if somebody on social media is actually really making their company grow? At the same time, because there is so much noise, it is harder to create that impact because everybody is on it.
You are particularly passionate about women's empowerment. Could you expand on this a little bit more?
Women's empowerment in general is something that I have always been interested in, and has been something that has been a point of passion I would say. I have lived in different countries, where I have seen the differences between men and women, but also the opportunities provided to them in every aspect. I feel that I was given everything equally to what my brothers were given, and I felt like, 'how can I as a woman make an impact and make sure that other women are given a fairer chance?'. In terms of fashion, if you think about how fashion and who makes it, about 80 to 85 percent of people who create fashion are women. So if you really want to bring fairness for women, you have to look into an industry that employs the most. And that is fashion. If I want to do something and if I want to speak about it, I want to work with an industry that employs them and that can actually change things for them. That's why for me, I think, fashion is the key because women make it. Most fashion is targeted and made for women, women wear it, women work in it, and women are part of this industry in every way.
"The most important thing is you have to have the aesthetic first and then the social or environmental aspect, because you are a business. Nobody buys fashion because they pity it."
In your view, how can the global fashion industry make a more positive social and environmental impact?
I think, globally, a lot of fashion labels are waking up to that and that they need to begin embracing sustainability in either the environmental or social aspects or both. In terms of big companies, I think transparency again is important. Making sure that they are open and honest in terms of how they source products, how they are made, the conditions they are made in, the materials that are used. And then making sure that this transparency is then further communicated to their customers. Instead of just focusing on trends, they need to start focusing on the stories of the people who make it.
What are your hopes for the future of the platform and ethical fashion in general?
I hope that I can grow it to be one of the best and unique platforms for accessories and unique gifts that have a story, so what 'Not on the High Street' has achieved for craft, I would want to do for sustainable gifts and accessories. It's not just about selling, but also about advocacy, activism, and about bringing a positive change through fashion. In terms of ethical fashion in general, I would like for it to grow and become mainstream. I would like to see a lot more brands embrace sustainability in their business models, and to make it more accessible, both in terms of the price point, and the products they offer to the general public.
Could you name three of your favourite ethical companies and brands and why you are inspired by them?
One that I really like is Reformation. It's a clothing brand and it's very trendy and geared towards a younger audience. I just like the fact that they have made ethical fashion so accessible, and the products are good quality. They are something that you can wear at any occasion, but also the price point is accessible. It's something that a young person can buy very quickly and feel really good about it. It has that appeal to it. Another company that I like and love is called Fushi Wellbeing. It's my friend's company and I love it. They specialise in well-being and producing oils and beauty products, so its all about sourcing products from Africa, India and even from the UK. Whereas everything is made in a very sustainable manner and it's the packaging, the ethos. It's all about being very fair and honest. The products are superb and the prices are great. Another platform that I like and go to is the ASOS Green Room. Although it's small, I feel like they have really trendy finds in sustainable fashion. You can know where the things are coming from, they give you a little bit of a story behind it.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is aspiring to transition into a more sustainable/ethical lifestyle?
I think I would say that one person can definitely make a change and not to think that so many people have to do it to make a change. Start from where you are. Make the smallest changes in your life. For example, if you are driving your car everywhere, maybe start walking, taking the bicycle to places that are close by. Recycle your trash and look at what grocery stores are doing now, use a tote bag instead. These small choices that we can look at and change, can really take us a long way.
As women, we all love beautiful things, but by paying attention to the companies that make products and not being afraid to explore difficult and ethical questions, the treasures we choose to welcome into our lives in the form of material goods will become even more beautiful. With the knowledge that you have elevated another.
For those who are looking for an eclectic shopping experience infused with integrity, quality and rich artisan heritage, Fashion Compassion offers a fantastic range of accessories that hail from all corners of the globe, while upholding the stories of artisans and crafters.