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The Kindness Economy: Is compassion in fashion here to stay?

By Romita Roy

Artwork by @majatomljanovic

One of the inventions attributed to Gitanjali Rao, Times Kid of the Year 2020, is her app Kindly, which uses AI to detect cyberbullying. Kindness; the value that almost sounds like a cliché but is ever elusive, seems to be gaining ground among youngbloods in every sphere of life, even economical transactions. Mixing business with kindness almost sounds like worse advice than a business with pleasure, but again, business with millennial consumers; that’s a whole animal in itself. At 75 million strong, millennials are expected to peak at 81 million in 2036. Ruthless, difficult to please, status-conscious and experience-valuers are some of the terms applied to the cohort who are notorious for distrusting big corporations.

So where does kindness figure in the equation?

According to surveys, the greatest ‘status symbol’ for millennials are companies with a conscience.

The 2018 Deloitte Millennials survey revealed that 40% of respondents said the goal of a business should be to ‘improve society’, coming second only to ‘generate jobs’ in the priority list. Think about it- never has there been another time in history where so much free advice has been doled out by complete strangers. Bill Connerly wrote for Forbes, “What can kindness on YouTube help you do? Fix a leaky toilet, disassemble any piece of machinery, learn how to juggle. And the vast majority of the contributions were acts of kindness. I recently bought a new woodworking router. That act of commerce followed a question that I posted on a forum about routers with dust collection ports. In less than 24-hours several people had answered my questions and offered their advice. Pure kindness, which triggered my eventual purchase. Self-interest is a powerful force, and a very positive force, but not the only one at work. Pure kindness has amazing impacts on the economy.

This isn’t just about the do-good feel-good factor, it makes business sense too.

The distrust in big companies is most apparent in fashion, FMCG and lifestyle industries- largely due to the nature and connotation of the products. Throw in a pandemic which has further ingrained in the young that less can be more- and the divide has become more stark. Spending on oneself when the rest of the world is in despair can feel slightly less guilt-ridden when there’s the nuance of kindness attached. Signs were already showing pre-Covid; the aforementioned Deloitte Survey compares its 2013 results to 2019 showing trust in businesses has further reduced, proving brands just aren’t getting it right. Clearly, loyalty and benefits programs don’t cut it. Says Mary Portas, sort of the guru and pioneer of the term ‘Kindness Economy’ with her own fascinating back story in the fashion industry, If we observed the last 30 years, consumerism reached a peak, says Mary Portas. "The priority of the retailers has always been, during that time, infrastructure: what mattered was to have the biggest, the fastest and the cheapest. Everything depends on operations more than understanding of the way people live and think. But, there is a mutation: the rise of “kindness economy”. A new economy that companies need to get accustomed to is starting to rise, laying on a new system of kind values”. In the fashion industry, “indicators are everywhere. We observe a real backlash towards fast fashion, while the trend is really about upcycling, reusing, vintage and second hand.”

The numbers are out there for everyone to see. “Research has revealed that businesses within the purpose-driven B Corp movement, are growing 28 times faster than the national economic growth of 0.5%. There is an obvious demand for increased transparency in business practices and greater awareness of corporate social responsibility,” says Tribe.Digital. Says Mary Portas about big retailers shutting down shop, “Yes, yes I can hear cries of, ‘but everybody shops online now, that’s why the shops are closing Mary’, but that simply isn’t true. People are shopping in real life. They’re just not shopping in the same way because the way we live, has evolved.” Issues such as reducing plastics and food waste have become mainstream for consumers. “I like profit, I like new clothes every so often. This isn’t going to stop. But the way we market it and the way we sell it is changing.” She says, speaking at World Retail Congress 2020. “Gucci is absolutely redefining its business. They have stood up and gone ‘We’ve watched the world burning and we’ve added to it. Guilty! We’ve all done it. I’ve made businesses make more money and erode part of this planet… So now we’re saying: how can we do this in a different way?”

Understanding the kindness model- can small business also make a difference?

The Deloitte survey asks 30 to 40 years old to state the values they look for in companies and the need for ‘respect’, ‘attention’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘the understanding of the implications of one’s actions’ stand out. Others are ‘being interested in activities that connect people’ and ‘don’t necessarily consider people as consumers’. Consumers want to be in charge, they definitely don’t want to just pick something off a rack. And to enable this, communication is key. An early recurring topic in Brandon Maxwell’s twice-daily Skype calls with his #WFH team was, “how can a New York-based fashion brand help the global community during the coronavirus outbreak?” An action plan was quickly formulated in these “80 per cent business, 20 per cent fun” virtual meetings. Brandon Maxwell, the label, pivoted from designing womenswear to creating hospital gowns and fabric covers to prolong the life of surgical masks used by medical workers.“So many people see the fashion community as negative space, but I’ve always known it to be a deeply human one. If anything positive can come out of this, it is that the industry’s kindness is revealing itself.” Maxwell told Vogue UK.

Not only that, millennial consumers want companies to be woke about causes and have an opinion on current affairs. Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter Movement or farmer suicides, consumers want brands to care and extend help in whatever way possible.

Kindness extended 360 degrees is the ideal way to function- to all the shareholders of the company, its employees, its vendors, the environment and of course, the consumer. Staff engagement is a fantastic outcome of the kindness economy, especially when you have millennial employees. Finding one’s purpose- a term very dear to the cohort is made possible when they feel that they aren’t just doing a job but rather contributing to a cause larger than themselves. Social media engagement is another obvious result.

Because Instagram and Twitter have become this ‘Do-good Olympics’ of sorts, working for a good cause (and having a hashtag campaign) can give you the brand the traction it didn’t know it needed.

Partner engagement is another clever way to leverage the kindness economy- one’s business depends on your partners, vendors and suppliers and their goodwill and word of mouth is imperative to a brand’s growth. Giving back in ways small and big therefore makes

the relationship more than purely transactional. In fact, small business can win big in this department since Gen Y is less likely to have the best opinion of an Amazon or Starbucks thanks to poor business ethics like low pay and dubious sourcing.

Fashion and compassion- how can one mix these two?

According to Fashion Revolution, a third of the carbon footprint of clothes comes from the way we care for them, with excessive washing and dry-cleaning. Says BetterIndia, “Washing laundry is not exactly the most eco-friendly activity. It involves copious volumes of freshwater and a variety of synthetic chemicals – from detergents and softeners to dryer sheets and bleach – all of which wash down the drain and straight into lakes and rivers. Conventional detergents contain a myriad of chemicals including surfactants, optical brighteners, softeners, bleaches and artificial fragrances. They leave chemical residues on clothes, that we absorb through our skin and lungs, leading to allergies, skin infections, respiratory trouble, even cancer. One 2019 study (by Ecowatch) found surprising evidence that the ‘delicate’ wash cycle uses about twice as much water as other settings and releases an average of 800,000 more plastic microfibres than lower-water volume settings. The study also revealed that washing clothes in cold water with shorter wash cycles are not only better for the environment, but it can help keep clothes lasting longer.” Hence, clothes which lend themselves to less washing and dry cleaning is are definitely the trend of the future, saving time, money, the environment and lending to the longevity of the garment itself.

Another strong foreseeable trend is that of ‘make do and mend’. For some, a missing button or a fabric tear means that a garment is destined for the bin. But this hasn’t always been the case. We used to darn, patch and stitch our damaged clothing to give it a second lease of life, and it’s something consumers are learning to embrace again. “Long vocal about a wide range of environmental issues, Patagonia (pioneering green outerwear brand) now says it wants to help reduce textile waste by encouraging customers to either repair their gear or recycle it. To that end, the outdoor door clothing company recently created repair guides in partnership with iFixit to help customers learn about the art of repairing clothes. Repair guides include how to patch a down jacket, how to install a zipper and how to remove stains. In addition, Patagonia also promotes product repair through its Worn Wear program. The message to customers is simple: Do not toss out any gear that only needs simple repairs. Over the past 20 years, the number of clothes the average consumer owns increased by 60 per cent, but that same consumer only keeps each garment half as long. To counter this fast-fashion trend, Patagonia says it wants to create garments that last, which includes proper care on the part of consumers.”

Inclusion and diversity, another buzz term that’s been going around fashion circles for a while now, is a way to extend one’s welcome hug to marginalised sections of the brand’s ecosystem. Says Toronto-based indigenous designer Sage Paul who gave the Ted Talk ‘Your clothes are the most political choice you make every day’, “This idea of inclusion and diversity is already assuming there were people who were not included, but meanwhile my community (indigenous people) has been creating fashion for as long as we’ve been wearing clothing and every other community has, too, so I think it’s about this notion of expanding our idea of what fashion is and allowing that to be a part of our mainstream industry. I think there’s a number of steps we can take to foster our homegrown talent, and I think there should definitely be support from the government–grants that are not just economic development but are also on the creation side. We want to give funding that can prop up our designers so that they can actually start to build their business. Also, I think the department stores, the 15 per cent [pledge], making sure that retailers are required to carry X per cent of Canadian-made work, then all of our consumers are seeing Canadian-made work, and that creates that local economy. There are so many designers, there’s so much beautiful work that I think a lot of people would be interested in, and I think if we invested in that work, we wouldn’t be disappointed.”


About the author

Romita Roy is a freelance writer & illustrator. She has a fashion background from NIFT and has written for Bombay Times, Quint and BW Businessworld. She is an advocate for sustainable fashion and slow living. She navigates the dilemmas of being a conscious millennial through her writing. Follow her blog on @agirlnamedromita on Instagram for more!


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