Fashion industry must prioritise its inclusion crisis over sustainability

inclusion crisis
© Viacheslav Iacobchuk

Joanna Pritchard, CEO, The Valuable 500, discusses why the fashion industry will never be able to address its sustainability crisis without addressing its inclusion crisis

The abbreviated term ‘ESG’ has been thrown around a lot lately, encompassing everything from the environment to inclusivity, it was once seen as an optional ‘do good with business’ model, however, is now gaining momentum across the globe with proof that it is not just a ‘nice to have’ but an essential, profit increasing part of a business’s growth.

The environment, social, and governance (ESG) construct is affecting every sector of business. This is particularly relevant now with COP26 in Glasgow and rightly the focus on climate change and what governments and businesses could and should be doing to reverse the trends.

But this is only one aspect within ESG – diversity and inclusion is another which is gaining attention as organisations search for talented employees. One area under the spotlight is the fashion industry, which can no longer hide behind a veil of resource-snatching and discrimination. The good news is that we have seen many examples in recent years of brands, both high end and high street, making real efforts to ensure their manufacturing is kinder to the planet, (the ethical fashion industry is currently worth over $6.35 billion USD, and is predicted to almost triple in less than a decade), and there is no question that this is important, but if fashion is going to be sustainable it needs to be sustainable for everyone.

When it comes to disability inclusion, we are miles behind.

Disability inclusion

It is true that the fashion industry is not the only one under the spotlight. One in five people in the UK are disabled, and yet, in the music industry this community only makes up 12%. This falls to just 8% in tech, but within the fashion and beauty industry in the UK, people with disabilities make up a microscopic 0.02%, meaning they are the largest and most underrepresented minority group of all. And while it’s encouraging to see models with disabilities walk the runway every now and then, we need to see representatives across all roles in the sector, not just the ones on the show.

Beyond employment, disability inclusion must be engrained in everything a business does if they are to truly call themselves inclusive. One example of pioneering for inclusion came in 2016, when American fashion label, Tommy Hilfiger, set a new trend when they geared an entire line toward people with disabilities. The collection featured pieces with many accessible adaptations, including magnetic buttons and adjustable pant hems to name a few. This theme was mirrored by a small number of brands who also wanted to shout about social justice, including Kurt Geiger with their ‘People Empowered’ campaign along with Gucci in 2020, who made Ellie Goldstein, a pioneer for models with Down’s Syndrome, the face of their Gucci Beauty campaign.

From a distance, it did appear we were making great progress. That is, until earlier this year when Jue Snell, model and amputee, was told ‘we don’t do disabled, move on’ by a casting agent – a comment that made her feel ‘less than human”. Clearly, though great work is being done by some, there is still a major lack in commitment from many others to genuinely address a diverse range of needs, and we must hold these brands accountable.

The reality today is simple, the failure to aptly integrate disabled people into all that your business is doing, makes your business fragile. The World Economic Forum backs this up with their recent research on disability inclusion in the workplace. Those who have created an accessible environment, on average, see 28% higher revenue, and 30% higher profit margins. One in five people have a disability, which means businesses can increase their market size by 20% if they think about inclusive employment, production and campaigns associated with their brands.

There is real opportunity for growth here, and everyone benefits from inclusion. The overused excuse that it is too difficult or too expensive for workplaces to be redesigned to accommodate people with disabilities no longer works. You can’t serve that customer base unless you know that customer base and ignoring that customer base is costing you.

We have seen the first push, but need to see more for greater inclusivity and diversity both on and off the runways. Brands who shout about inclusion but do next to nothing about the issue are quickly going out of season. We need basics and staples in our wardrobes, not just another statement piece.

The ESG construct is about more than just virtue signalling, and it no longer makes sense to not comply. Institutional investors are looking ever closer at companies’ values and managers’ ethics, and while it may seem like a lot of time-consuming effort on business leaders’ part to become inclusive, the fact of the matter is that today, it’s smart business.

It’s not only about looking at our mistakes, but what we need to do for us as a society to be listening, learning, and making reactive changes quickly. While 80% of disabilities are invisible, 100% of the disability community still go unnoticed.

We’ve been hearing a lot of cheering for the E in ESG lately, which is much needed and urgent to change behaviours, but we can and should be fans of both the E and the S. It’s time we started putting as much focus on “inclusion for all” as we do to the climate crisis, so no one is left behind in the post-pandemic world we are rebuilding.


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