Mariam Naqvi wants to give shoppers the story behind their clothing choices right at the point of sale. In order to do that, this visionary Norwegian diplomat turned social entrepreneur founded Fashion Footprint, with a mission to provide tools for transparency and support for social causes. Currently in beta testing , the Fashion Footprint app that can scan clothing tags and provide ratings information on everything from factory safety to worker health. The idea of fashion traceability isn’t new, but Fashion Footprint takes a unique approach of story telling, rather than shaming, in order to encourage positive shopping behavior. We spoke Naqvi to learn more about the inspiration and purpose of her startup.
Can you tell us how your experience meeting the rape camp survivors in Sarajevo, who were also experienced knitters, inspired the start of Fashion Footprint?
Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country that has received a substantial amount of development aid over the past twenty years since the war. Despite these funds, mass unemployment remains a huge problem and women with little formal education are particularly marginalized. The wartime rape camp survivors had been receiving social benefit and aid funds for decades but this aid had not contributed to their reintegration into society or to overcome their victim status. When visiting their association, and many similar women’s associations throughout the country, we were struck by the creative energy of the women. It seemed a waste to not channel this energy and the women’s creative skills also towards economically productive activities. Through the knitting project initiated by the Norwegian Embassy, we saw former victims rediscover their identities as creative, productive and independant individuals. The Norwegian designers who took part in this project were so inspired they started a new company – Project Sarajevo – which now sells hand knitted scarves made from 100% Norwegian wool – a fully traceable and sustainable fashion product! The project opened my eyes to the transformative social potential that lies in the fashion industry to change lives. As a result of this experience, I decided to take a break from diplomacy and start Fashion Footprint.
Your traceability tool is under development. Are there any sneak peaks that you can share as to how it will be used by shoppers?
Yes, the Fashion Footprint Traceability Tool is under development and the pilot we are currently implementing with ten Norwegian designers will reveal the full potential of this tool for shoppers. The current version of the tool allows consumers to access basic production-related facts through scanning a QR-code using their smart phone or typing a url into their web browser. Future versions of the tool will also explore other technologies and more interactive information, including audio-visual content. Our aim is to make it easy and accessible for consumers to make ethical shopping decisions in stores and online.
How do you determine a company’s performance in the five rated areas: Brand Engagement, Health & Safety, Workers, Accident Prevention and Ecology?
We have developed a Self Assessment Questionnaire which participating brands are required to submit before being eligible for the scheme. Under each category there are five questions that together contribute to giving us an overall picture of production conditions including worker’s and building safety, labour rights, accident preparedness and basic environmental standards. In addition, we are currently exploring collaboration opportunities with companies that specialise in databases for advanced supply chain management in order to increase the depth of our assessment tool. We have also partnered with international NGOs and think tanks that will provide us with useful expertise. In the period that lies ahead, we plan to test and further strengthen the tool. We aim to have the final version of the tool ready for the market in spring 2016.
Fashion Footprint is also involved in community projects, such as helping to train Romanian women to be seamstresses. Can you tell us more about how these projects are important to your social mission?
The mission of Fashion Footprint is to help create opportunities for the fashion industry to leave a positive social footprint. By combining the needs of the industry with wider social needs, such positive synergies can be created. The knitting project in Bosnia showed me how the Norwegian need for hand made quality knitwear could be combined with the need to create employment for women and lead to a positive output and win-win situation. In Norway, we have in recent years faced the challenge of integrating Roma immigrants from Romania into our society and workforce. The Roma come to Norway in seek of an income and end up begging on the streets. By providing on-the-job training opportunities, they can earn a living with dignity while performing jobs our society needs.
The ultimate aim of the project is to help create job opportunities for these women in the communities they come from, so that they can be reunited with their families and children again. This is a big challenge, as the Roma for cultural and historic reasons are subjected to discrimination in the societies they come from and thus also kept out of the workforce. Through the project of the Norwegian Church Mission, the aim is to create transitional job training centers in Romania where Roma women can be trained in order to eventually be included into the formal workforce.
You have said that Fashion Footprint is not in the “name and shame” game. How is your approach different?
There are many players in the field of ethical fashion and every one of them plays an important role. When identifying our business concept, we found that there was a space in the market for sharing positive stories from the fashion industry in order to encourage positive behavior. In the last couple of years, a lot of important strides have been made, also by mainstream and high street fashion labels. We believe these stories deserve to be shared with the consumer. At the moment, consumers get very little information about the clothes they buy. In contrast to food, the narrative surrounding clothes is focused all on form and none on content. As a result, the average fashion consumer is not aware of the stories each and every piece of clothing tells us about our world. As consumers gradually grow to appreciate the added value of basic supply chain information and more and more brands begin to open up, our vision is that a momentum will be created which those on the outside will also feel compelled to join.