- Marjorie van Elven |
Tamsin Lejeune wants to unite fashion businesses around a common objective: to make fashion future-proof by addressing inequality and global warming. She started back in 2006 by founding Ethical Fashion Forum, a non-profit organization holding online trade events aimed at sustainable fashion entrepreneurs.
Ten years later, Ethical Fashion Forum rebranded as Common Objective (CO) and revamped its business model looking to do more than just preach to the converted. CO now offers a global database matching brands, buyers and suppliers. Everyone is welcome, regardless of how sustainable their operations are, but those who adopt best sustainability practices are highlighted in the search results. Those who still have a long way to go are provided with resources to educate themselves on sustainability and, of course, the ability to contact partners which will help them make the necessary changes.
CO’s platform currently counts over 15,000 users across 138 countries, of which approximately 3,000 are business profiles. Businesses of all sizes are there, including Farfetch, Selfridges, Burberry, Prada, Kering and Marks & Spencer, to name but a few. Earlier this year, the organization launched the CO Leadership Awards to recognize 10 companies making a difference in the fashion industry. Winners receive even more visibility on the platform.
FashionUnited spoke with Lejeune over the phone to learn more about the organization’s work.
Tell me about yourself and the journey that led towards founding Common Objective.
I began this journey in 2006 when I founded Ethical Fashion Forum alongside a group of fashion entrepreneurs wanting to do things differently and finding it very difficult to do so. We focused only on companies already interested in making a change, but the truth is we need to be working with the least sustainable businesses because they are the ones having the most negative impact and the ones who need the most support. That’s why, in 2016, we raised funds to put our project to scale.
Now, Common Objective is essentially a place where you can find suppliers, buyers and information tailored to your needs, similarly to Match.com. We don’t exclude anyone, but the more sustainable you are, the higher you rank on the platform. This way we incentivize and reward best practices in sustainability, as well as making change easier for companies, removing the barrier to entry.
Common objective says on its website that it has a “3D approach” to sustainability. Can you explain that to us in more detail?
3D means to do business considering the people, the environment and financial profit, all at the same time. That’s been at the heart of our mission from the very beginning. On the one hand we have businesses that are very focused on the social and environmental aspects, but didn’t get it right from a business perspective. On the other hand there are businesses which are very successful but haven’t integrated social and environmental best practices. We believe the future of business is addressing all three, otherwise your company doesn’t have longevity. Actually, our entire industry doesn’t have longevity.
A panel during the last Copenhagen Fashion Summit discussed the need to come up with an entirely new idea of growth. What is Common Objective’s view on this topic, within a 3D perspective?
There are two ways the sustainability issue is debated: the first is with respect to the quality of the products. Which materials have been used? Are they organic? How much energy has been used? Those considerations tend to dominate any conversation about sustainability. The second consideration, which is just as important if not more, is quantity. Even if you’re ticking all the quality boxes, if you’re doubling your production every year or every week, then the impact you have through addressing the quality considerations is negligible. So, yes, growth is more and more in the agenda.
There are a lot of representatives of big businesses or fast fashion businesses coming to us -- we call it the ‘brain drain’. There is a growing number of individuals in these companies getting uncomfortable about their practices. They feel unable, within their role, to really change things because the business model actually goes against operating sustainably. To meaningfully address sustainability, they need to do more than just consider the quality issues, which is what the majority is doing.
Patagonia and Rent the Runway are two examples of businesses addressing the quantity issue. Fast fashion brands should follow in their footsteps and think of creative ways to change the way their business operates. Three dimensional sustainability is incompatible with producing tons of cheap products which will soon be thrown away.
Common Objective has recently launched the CO Leadership Awards to recognize companies making a difference in the industry. I had the pleasure of interviewing two winners: Osklen and Mayamiko. How did the idea for an award come about and what are the future plans for the CO Awards?
We initiated the awards because we feel that leadership is what’s going to change our industry. We started by recognizing businesses, but the idea is to expand and recognize individual leaders as well. We worked quite hard to offer a cross-section: our winners include suppliers, large brands and niche brands. There are six criteria for businesses to win, the first one is that they must have sustainability integrated at the heart of what they do. They need to be considering the impact of their activities and be able to demonstrate the results of their work in quantifiable terms.
This aligns with our three dimensional approach: companies have very clear targets when it comes to their financial results, which are measured monthly, quarterly and annually, and reported formally to the shareholders and the board. We’d like to see companies do the same for social and environmental targets. It doesn’t suffice to have a sustainability policy, you also need a clear set of targets and a strategy, a roadmap to reach them and measure your success.
We also want to encourage businesses to talk about what they are doing, because communication is key. A recent UN report showed that the demand for sustainable fashion increases in relation to the availability. The more available it gets, the more people want it. However, less than 1 percent of the high street is promoting what they’re doing as sustainable. There’s a huge gap between what people want and what they can find, so we’re encouraging businesses to find ways to communicate their practices. Our winners had really inspiring and innovative communication campaigns.
In addition to the 10 winning businesses, we recognized a hundred other businesses which meet the criteria. Those companies come up first in the search results on our platform. As a result, they’re getting more clients. As the website grows and becomes the go-to place for fashion businesses, this recognition will acquire more and more value.
What are the main advantages of signing up to the CO platform?
We bring together not just suppliers and brands, but organizations and experts as well. We’re building a community for change. There is no other organization offering such an opportunity to be supported to make the most sustainable choices. Many people ask us if we’re afraid companies will cheat the system and greenwash their activities on the platform. We do have lots of checks and balances to prevent that, but that’s actually not the biggest problem.The most significant concern is that a lot of buyers and suppliers don’t understand the meaning of several terms around sustainability.
That’s why our site offers a lot of guidance. You’re not just given contacts, you’re also given information. There are pop-ups explaining all the terms and pages that connect you to simple visual resources. One of the features we offer is called fabric switch. You can look up any type of fabric and it gives you a visual presentation of the alternatives. Then you can click through it and be led to the suppliers.
Another difference between us and other platforms matching suppliers and buyers is that we’re accessible to all. It’s free to join, it’s like Linkedin, which has allowed us to gather a much larger database than other platforms. You can upgrade to access more services, but that’s not a requirement.
The platform has over 13,000 users. How did CO promote it?
We only took on a marketing person in January this year. Up until then, it’s been mainly word of mouth. Usually one person in the team tells others and they then join. When we get to about 10 users from a given company, we get in touch with them and ask if they would like us to give them a demo of our multi-access plan which includes all the content and more functionalities. That’s how we’ve been building our partnerships. Kering happened that way, for example Other partnerships include Vivienne Westwood and Roland Mouret.
Speaking of partnerships, CO has recently teamed up with London College of Fashion to encourage students to use the platform and incorporate sustainability into their academic work. Does CO intend to partner up with more schools?
I’m incredibly excited about this partnership with LCF and also the potential for students and graduates. Over the last 12 years the biggest changes I’ve seen have been a result of students graduating and setting up their own businesses or joining large companies. They’re taking leadership, even though they’re quite junior. It’s really important for our mission to work with fashion colleges. We do work with a number of other colleges which pay a fee to grant access to all of their students.
What are you most proud of in all these years working for Ethical Fashion Forum and CO?
I guess it’s bringing people together around a common objective. If we continue to do this, I really believe we can change the way the industry works. It’s not going to be easy, but we need to unite the creative leadership within the fashion industry. We are the most creative minds in the world! If we can have those minds address the greatest challenges of our time, which are global warming and inequality as a result of the global trade model, we can really change things.
What are CO’s plans for the future?
We’d like to become the go-to platform for the fashion industry, but fashion is just the beginning. There’s a reason why we chose Common Objective as our name. That’s relevant to any type of business that operates a complex supply chain. We see an expansion beyond fashion.
We also see in our roadmap going forward the opportunity to go transactional so businesses can buy through the platform. We can become a trade organization.
Some of the businesses we work with all around the world are really transforming lives. For us to be able to match them with meaningful long-term clients is just amazing. Our mission in the next 5 years is to help transform the lives of over 15 million people through catalyzing change across thousands of businesses which will operate more sustainably in their supply chains.
Pictures: courtesy of Common Objective