Richa Agarwal Looks to Policy & Education for Fashion’s Future

Richa Agarwal in Paris at the OECD on the need to examine and compare the compensation of workers and CEO incentives against the need to ensure a living wage

As a committed social entrepreneur, BF+DA Managing Director Richa Agarwal has worked at the intersection of the global apparel industry, education and human development and has led global teams for various organizations including fashion companies, international NGOs and foundations. At the BF+DA, she fused her design and engineering background to catalyze cultural change so that each businesses value could be measured by a triple-bottom line benefiting all stakeholders.

As CEO & Founder of Global Shokunin, a Visiting Associate Professor at Pratt Institute as well as a Pratt Net Impact Adviser, Richa has had leadership roles that range from her work at Polo Ralph Lauren and Eileen Fisher to the the Gates Foundation, NYC Braintrust and World Economic Forum.

We caught up with Richa to learn more about her views of the fashion industry, sustainable business models that work and how tech is factoring into the apparel equation.

What would you say your tenure in the fashion industry has made you most aware of?

People are the most important part of the sustainability equation. Change is hard for people and changing an entire industry means changing people’s hearts and perspective. The triple bottom line (people, planet and profit) approach is something all industries are grappling with including the fashion industry. Sustainable-fashion has become an oxymoron as the industry continues to produce apparel at an accelerating speed and volume. Despite the predicted “retail apocalypse,” the retail sector is thriving and seeing an annual uptick of 3 to 4% in global sales as per McKinsey’s 2019 State of Fashion Report, proving that there are buyers and sellers with a voracious fashion appetite. This consumption will only grow as the global population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050. In order to become sustainable, fashion companies need to start self-disrupting by evolving to circular and service-based business models, from the traditional product-sales model.

How do you feel about the current state of sustainability in fashion in how brands are implementing real-world solutions from the perspectives of policy and education?

Sustainability has become a marketing tool and buzz word being leveraged by many companies to sell more product. There are lots of glossy anecdotal stories and sustainability initiatives anchored in 2020 benchmarks (which are quietly drifting to 2030 on company websites), encouraging customers to buy more from the respective brands. However, these privately held companies don’t substantiate their sustainability claims and fail to disclose any meaningful data or progress. The global macro trends around climate change also don’t indicate that the fashion industry is becoming more sustainable. What is needed is cross-industry collaboration to share best practices and transparency around company performance in order to accelerate innovation, and spur healthy competition. Globally, we lack the policy framework that mandates companies to follow science-based approaches and targets, and require public reporting of metrics on energy utilization, resource consumption and CO2 emissions. Over the next decade, the companies that will thrive are the ones working on effective water management tools and resource conservation, conscientiously migrating towards service, resale and circular based business models, and away from the tradition product-sales.

In a perfect world the fashion industry would...

Care equally about profit, people and the planet by modeling it across the supply chain. We live on the same planet and share resources. The boundaries we have are superficial based on the false belief that the world economy is a zero-sum game, and winner takes it all. If this were the case, there would be a fixed economic pie and the world economy would be a stagnant number, but we know that this is not case from the global growth in every country and sector including fashion. The time to shed this belief is long overdue and to recognize that the natural resources and all people across the planet contribute to our shared prosperity. The future of humanity is based on collective action and recognizing that to overcome the climate crisis we need creative collaborative approaches and be open to learning from each other.

What’s next for you after the BF+DA? 

The extended BF+DA community is engaged in changing the paradigm of the fashion industry. I look forward to my continued partnership with this community in advancing the vision of a sustainable fashion. Utilizing my expertise in apparel technologies, I continue to provide consultation to fashion companies that are adapting 3D and virtual prototyping and implementing PLM systems to evolve their business cycle. These technologies have great promise in effective resource and time management across the supply chain and will also lead to more transparency across the sector. I am passionate about human rights and care deeply for the people in the supply chain. With automation of the apparel manufacturing industry, a lot of jobs will disappear so we need solutions that will enable livelihoods by investing in reskilling and upskilling. This is a great education opportunity and I look forward to contributing to this important initiative, in addition to teaching classes in International Business and Design Management at Pratt. My e-commerce venture, shopshoku.com connects artisan communities using traditional skills to create Fair trade, low-carbon handicrafts, to global audiences. I welcome collaboration and conversation so if you would like to discuss ideas, please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.