Greenhouse Pioneer: Leslie Johnston, C&A Foundation

Leslie Johnston

C&A Foundation is a corporate foundation here to transform the fashion industry. They work with change-makers all over the world, giving them financial support, expertise and networks so they can make the fashion industry work better for every person it touches.

We spoke with Leslie Johnston, Executive Director to find out more on the driving force behind her development of the foundation’s first global vision, mission, and strategy, anchored on making fashion a force for good.

Tell us, in 20 words or fewer, about C & A Foundation – what’s your mission? 

We work to transform the global apparel industry, so the millions of hardworking people who depend on it can thrive.

What drives you? 

I am driven by the urgency to address the deep injustices – to people and planet – that we find throughout the global apparel industry. I believe there is a way – with better design, circular thinking, and a relentless prioritisation of human dignity – that we, collectively, can correct this.

What is your greatest achievement to date? 

Personally, I survived a plane crash in Africa (while pregnant with my first son). Every day, I am thankful to be here – with my sons (crash survivor is now 12) and his brother (10).

Professionally, I am honoured to have had the opportunity to build the global C&A Foundation – with its ambitious vision for fashion – from scratch. In just under four years (after our public launch in November 2014) our now 53-strong team has supported efforts, sometimes disruptive, to challenge the way the fashion industry works. One of our potentially game-changing initiatives is Fashion for Good, the first collaborative platform to bring together multiple brands and retailers to accelerate the innovation needed to tackle fashion’s environmental and social challenges. Likewise, Better Buying, a TripAdvisor-like platform for factories to assess their buyer’s behaviour will, I hope, improve purchasing practices in the industry and positively impacting the conditions for the garment workers.

What are the challenges you face?

To transform the global apparel industry, we need to change its underlying business model, which means shifting power dynamics, giving a voice to the voiceless, and creating incentives for business to embrace and embed sustainable and sustaining practices. This is not easy. But I remain patient and optimistic.

What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited?

Our flagship investment in circular fashion, Fashion for Good, only launched one year ago and is already supporting its third cohort of 15 innovators – each of whom bring great potential to change this industry for the better. I’m inspired and energised not only by the creativity coming from these cohorts (e.g., sustainable glitter, anyone?) but also by the partnering brands and retailers – C&A, Adidas, Target, Zalando, Galleries Lafayette, and Kering – who have committed to partnering with these innovators to bring much-needed technological innovation to their supply chains.

Where do you want to take C&A Foundation next? 

With less than four years under our belt, it’s still early days for C&A Foundation as we work to effect change across some pretty daunting areas – from mainstreaming sustainable cotton to eradicating the forced and child labour found in this industry.

But it’s also clear to me that such change won’t come as long as the global apparel industry continues to get bombarded by multiple sustainability initiatives. We need coherence and convergence in order to tackle the deeply rooted, systemic issues in this industry. Looking forward, I see us deepening our support to organizations and platforms that can create such cohesion. For example, we are supporting a new initiative, the Open Apparel Registry by SourceMap, whose vision is to identify every apparel factory in the world and enable industry players to link factory-specific data to the registry. This will ultimately create more credibility for the more sustainable factories and enable closer collaboration across key stakeholders.

What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?

Support those clothing brands and retailers who choose a more sustainable path. Look for certifications – such as Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM, organic and Fairtrade – and other markers (recycled polyester, responsible down, etc.) Embrace clothing as a service, such as what is offered by forerunners like Rent the Runway. Make sure your favourite brands score well on rankings such as Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index.

How is what you are doing inspiring change in others?

In C&A Foundation’s theory of change, we have identified three ways in which we operate: 1) We demonstrate that change is possible (through proof of concept, prototyping, etc.), 2) We strengthen the field and important platforms who are working for change, and 3) We advocate for enabling policy to incentivize sustain the change. I believe that this first approach is critical to inspiring change in others. It’s hard to change if one does not believe change is even possible.

Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book for our readers? 

Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life should be required reading for anyone trying to change a system. As Arun Ghandi eloquently says in the forward:

“This world is what we have made of it. If it is ruthless today it is because we have made it ruthless by our attitudes. If we change ourselves we can change the world, and changing ourselves begins with changing our language and methods of communication. I highly recommend reading this book and applying the Nonviolent Communication process it teaches. It is a significant first step toward changing our communication and creating a compassionate world.”

What do you listen to when you’re cooking dinner?

I love podcasts – particularly How I Built This, which traces the journey of entrepreneurial visionaries such as Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia or Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and the Ted Radio Hour (to which I subject my children who can now recite – word for word – the full introduction to the programme.)

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? 

In 2001, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, I was living in San Francisco, working at a failing technology start-up and questioning what path I wanted to take next. “Find your purpose,” urged a colleague. And I did, eventually moving to Africa to spend the next decade using my private sector skills to help enterprising Africans build successful businesses that create jobs and alleviate poverty.

Can you leave us with who’d be your Eco Hero? 

William McDonough. I have had the honour of working closely with him as we co-developed the concept of Fashion for Good. He is an early eco-pioneer who, along with Michael Braungart, showed us that – through better design – a better world is possible.

Greenhouse’s mission is to help green pioneers increase their impact through communications. If your organisation is working to build a more sustainable fashion sector, get in touch and let’s team up for in the fight against climate change.