Laura Francois: On fashion's impact & designing for change

Thanks to the growing global wave of awareness in 2019 about the garment industry's impact on our planet, it’s now no secret that fashion's future has to be a sustainable one. Wide-scale issues like landfill pollution and worker exploitation aren’t going to solve themselves, and for brands, designers and consumers alike, 2020 will be about finding solutions and taking action

For Laura Francois, the answers to fashion’s biggest problems lie in getting creative and thinking out of the box. A social impact strategist, she’s worked on numerous creative projects over the last 10 years to help get people thinking holistically about social change.

Her work, which includes thought-provoking large-scale art installations which draw attention to issues like clothing overconsumption, to talks and campaigns to raise awareness of #whomadeyourclothes, has been featured in the likes of BBC World News, Huffington Post and numerous news outlets around the world. We caught up with the entrepreneur to talk about the future of fashion. 

Sustainable fashion entrepreneur Laura Francois wears Dorsu t-shirt, available on ZERRIN

You’ve worked in social impact now for over 10 years. How did you first get into this line of work and what keeps you in this field? 

“It’s interesting because I used to think of social impact as a space, a defined type of work in philanthropy or development or social services. But I now see it much more as an overarching way of doing your work in whatever industry you’re in. I started off in the creative arts and in philanthropy working for many years in palliative care. I was stuck on the idea that human dignity can’t be bypassed in life, business or even in death. That fire hasn’t stopped burning for me, and in many ways it has directed the course of my professional life. I wouldn’t have explored the garment industry if it wasn’t for this deeply rooted determination to have human rights and dignity as a top priority.” 

That’s a really meaningful connection. Human rights in the fashion industry needs better addressing, too. We’ve always admired the work of non-profit organisation Fashion Revolution for the message they spread about this. Speaking of which, you’ve been leading this movement in Malaysia and Singapore the past few years. How do you feel it’s grown in Asia as compared to the rest of the world? 

“There’s no denying there has been a global awakening of some sorts. I still remember feeling as though movements like Fashion Revolution weren’t being heard when I first started in Malaysia. But the momentum has shifted, and I think there is a trendiness in this idea of a ‘revolution’. The awareness is growing, especially with the youth in Asia, emerging designers, budding entrepreneurs; they have pushed this forward. They’re the ones moving the needle. 

That being said, there’s a difference between awareness and action. They are separate parts of our brains, and the connection between the two isn’t automatic. This is true globally. Awareness can lead to more sales of fast fashion t-shirts that say ‘Feminist’ or ‘Woke’, for example. The irony is painful!”

ZERRIN's interview with sustainable fashion entrepreneur Laura FrancoisLaura wears her upcycled relaxed white t-shirt by ethical brand Dorsu

That’s very true. We need awareness, and the right type of action. Out of all the fashion-related projects you’ve worked on, what’s left the biggest impression on you personally and why? 

“They’ve all been so interesting to me in different ways! But my latest project, Common Threads, has reminded me to continuously question what I think I know. It’s a project that took me over two years to produce and involved tracking down over 100 garment workers in Cambodia who were victimised by the industry. I wanted to understand their side of a very complex story (though not an uncommon one). 

I had so many ideas of what it might sound like, mostly based on narratives that movements like Fashion Revolution disseminate. But the local systems on the ground can often be so multifaceted. For example, many of the workers I spoke to feared what would happen when the garment industry pulls out of Cambodia due to the increasing wages, something we’ve all been pushing for. The gender divide in education, the lack of farming land available leading to a lack of jobs — all these external factors play into the complexity of the garment industry. 

My biggest takeaway from this project was to make sure to explore the shades of grey behind the issues we’re advocating for. Individual stories are difficult to quantify, and their impact is hard to measure. But some of the most important things in life are immeasurable. I’m starting to think of impact that way too.” 

Her latest project, Common Threads, was sparked by the discovery of worker ID tags at an abandoned garment factory

Is there a side of the industry that you feel needs the most focus — environmental or social justice?

“I think the danger is in separating the two. I think fashion needs to focus on what happens after the ‘consumerism’ chapter ends. Many emerging economies rely on the garment industry, but that doesn’t mean we should keep producing at the same rate. Let’s get creative about how industries can cross over and not leave anyone behind. I believe there’s a world where focusing on solving environmental issues creates social value.” 

What’s been your take on anti-consumption movements sparked in 2019, eg. those by organisations like Extinction Rebellion?

“Part of me loves it. Part of me cringes. I still have a hard time grappling with my personal beliefs on consumption. Should we all just stop buying, period? I often think we’ve reached the point where that’s the only viable solution. Trouble is, I don’t think the majority of the world will buy it. Pun intended.

I’d love the conversation this year to be taken a step further. How might large fashion companies (the ‘bad guys’) contribute effectively to solution building beyond just halting production and sales. What other business models exist? Business doesn’t have to be inherently terrible!” 

"Should we all just stop buying, period? I often think we’ve reached the point where that’s the only viable solution. Trouble is, I don’t think the majority of the world will buy it. Pun intended."

Laura Francois, social impact strategist and sustainable fashion entrepreneur

It’s clear we can’t consume our way to a more sustainable world. That being said, how do you feel the fashion industry needs to redesign itself to respond to today’s global challenges? 

“The fashion industry prides itself as being a ‘creative’ one, with fresh styles coming out every few weeks and new catwalk experiences and campaigns. What if some of that creativity were harnessed and redirected to design better value chains, more creative ways of engaging with stakeholders or new business models? Challenges are opportunities disguised. I think we’re all looking for something to look up to these days, especially with the overwhelming eco-anxiety creeping in. The industry needs to first see this as an amazing chance to redefine what fashion means at its core. That’s exciting! Spending more time designing that than product design, I think would be a great start.” 

"The fashion industry prides itself as being a ‘creative’ one, with fresh styles coming out every few weeks and new catwalk experiences and campaigns. What if some of that creativity were harnessed and redirected to design better value chains, more creative ways of engaging with stakeholders or new business models? Challenges are opportunities disguised."

In your opinion then, where does real systemic change lie, with our consumer mentality, or big brands? 

“I think it’s both. But unless you have the CEO’s of these large brands on speed dial, it’s best to stick to what we can control. Big brands report to stakeholders that have lots of say in how they steer the ship. That plays a massive role in how the entire system shifts as well. I think it all adds up. Demanding for change not just of products but of entire companies, leading by example and spreading awareness online and offline — these are the things we can do.” 

Tell us — what are you most excited to work on in 2020?

“Developing more workshops and courses on the topic of creative impact. Working between Asia and North America, and exploring the impact of intangibles like creativity, art, innovation on global challenges. I’ve always been a process, framework type, and measuring impact has been key to the last few years of my work. How can we say something is sustainable? How sustainable? But funny enough, it’s made me realise the importance of looking beyond the numbers. I’m excited to see where that journey goes.”

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