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Zainab Salbi on the red carpet with Women in the World founder Tina Brown at the 2017 New York Summit. Salbi wore an ensemble by Urban Zen that night, another she considers conscious in its production. (Women in the World).

Power to impact

Zainab Salbi, avowed fashion lover, on what she learned about being a conscious consumer

May 26, 2017

A few years ago, I decided that I would try my absolute best to engage in conscious consumerism, a term that is defined in various ways. For me, it meant applying the concept to myself in a practical way that I summarized like this: Making sure the things that I buy  from my clothes, to my shoes and bags reflect my values. Now, I love fashion and did not want to limit myself to certain looks in order to be conscientious. So I started going to various stores that I like and simply asked questions before I purchased anything.   
“Were employees in the production supply chain paid minimum wages or livable wages? What are the environmental practices of the company? What  percentage of women make up the company management or board?” 
I figured that, as a consumer, I have the power to impact things if I use my money and my voice wisely, and if I am consistent between my love of fashion and my values and commitments to making the world a better place. 
At first, my journey took me to local boutiques and small designers and lots of “ethnic-looking clothes” that are made by local artisans. But then I met Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of PUMA and a committed conservationist and environmentalist who shared his experience of how he moved PUMA during his tenure from minimum wages across its supply chain worldwide to “livable wages.” The difference in cost was 20 percent higher wages — something he did out of principle as the right thing to do even when it had financial consequences on the company.  His audacity in implementing his values and beliefs on a professional and personal level was inspiring and it piqued my curiosity about what some larger companies are doing on a range of fronts, from water consumption to leather usage. 
This made me curious about brand name companies — something that I always held with cynicism as I thought of them as being supportive of a few causes publicly and symbolically in terms of the money and leveraging the heck out of it for their PR.  
The journey took me to a whole new world. At first I focused on smaller brands like Urban Zen, Maiyet, and stores or websites that curate ethical fashion such as ABC Carpet and Home to Hazel and Rose Boutique. I made it a practice to ask the sales people in every store I stopped by my usual questions about how, where, and what this product was made of. What I discovered was that most of the staff working in the stores do not know but, often, will go and make a phone call to inquire. I figure if all consumers start asking the questions, eventually we can make a difference. After all, we have the power of our purchase. 
But I also learned some companies are already doing it on their own and  are not talking about it. To my surprise, some were big name companies such as Gucci and Saint Laurent, the fashion brand owned by Kering Holding. The Kering CEO, Francois Pinault, led the buying of a gold mine to ensure ethical production of gold in all of their products. This captured my attention especially because I have been to some illegal mines and have witnessed the horrible practices they use with kids. I then learned that the various companies of Kering were not only changing their own production behavior, but also started questioning middle suppliers about their own practices and how they embroider at the very local level in countries like India are being treated. I know there are cost implications for such changes and if companies are doing that without even consumer knowledge or pressure,  it is even that much more admirable. 
But what really just blew my mind is when I learned of a new program launched by Kering in conjunction with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV) and the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) to develop an employee training program that seeks to combat sexual and domestic violence. They apparently have started the project in France in 2010 and in Italy in 2015 and now they are taking it to all their employees in the U.S. with the next phase to expand in China. This is not an optional training, nor is it an H.R.-driven course. It is rather a training that all employees of these luxury brands must undertake, including the store managers and employees.  
When I asked Monika Johnson Hostler, president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, how this whole process started, she said, “We didn’t approach them. It was they who found us and approached us to do the training.” When the organization members heard that, their first response to Kering was “are you sure you want to do that?” 
“We get invited by the military and college campus to do training. These are the places where large numbers of sexual violence offenses are committed. This is different than doing the training in the workplace where it is more about raising awareness and recognizing that everyone can be a victim of violence,” Cindy Southworth explains. She adds, “The difference between other companies and Kering is that the others do give money on issues related to sexual and domestic violence to local communities in areas where they operate in and usually to shelters. Kering, on the other hand, is the first company to use sexual violence — beyond domestic violence — offered to all its employees as a discussion not of the ‘others’ but something that could happen to everyone.” 
When asking Celine Bonnaire, executive director of The Kering Foundation what drove them to this approach, she explained, “In France, one woman was killed every 2.5 days by her partner.” This issue was always thought of something happening to  others outside of the luxury world. Marie-Claire Davau, the sustainability officer at the corporate level adds, “Francois Pinault put an end to the taboo of discussing sexual violence in the workplace. He believes that you must be an actor in ending violence against women. The facts about violence against women are clear. Between that and the fact that the majority of our employees and clients are women, it was clear that we needed to embark on this issue.” He happens to also be the father of two daughters and married to Salma Hayak who is a passionate advocate for women’s rights.  
It took me a year of exploring Kering’s practices, assessing for myself if I felt its efforts are authentic or not, meeting various members of its company, including Francois Pinault himself, to reach a conclusionI finally decided what I saw felt genuine, courageous and represented bold actions taken by a company whose leaders care for its own values, and was not just out to impress the world or get more consumers. As a matter of fact, the average consumers’ action has yet to indicate whether they’re interested in purchasing from conscious companies. The day every consumer realizes the power they have in the simplest of purchases, is the day we can make true impact on companies’ behavior and ensure good representation and treatment of the women who work across all levels in production- mostly the ones we do not see who are sitting behind the sewing machines. 
As for me, this year I entered a Gucci store for the first time in my life and I indulged myself with my very first purchase of a Gucci bag. As I paid for my expensive accoutrement -– something that is not easy for me — I knew that the company has been conscious in its water usage during production, in its environmental practices and definitely inits gender practices. I would rather have one ethically-made handbag with a hefty price than 10 handbags that have made far more damage to this Earth than we are willing to admit to ourselves. 

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit