Partnerships and Regenerative Systems With Kristine Kim
This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
I’m delighted to welcome Los Angeles-based Value Chain Strategist, Kristine Kim. Having specialised in Labour Relations and Sustainable Design Practice, Kristine uses her knowledge to help fashion brands evaluate and improve their supply chains. Kristine collaborates with factory owners, labour unions, governments, and academic institutions to help her clients create strategic roadmaps that result in positive environmental and social outcomes. Today, Kristine shares how fashion companies can benefit from strengthening supplier relationships and implementing regenerative systems.
AC: Hi, Kristine! I’d like to say how we got introduced, which was only a few weeks ago, through one of our earlier guests – the wonderful designer Shaina Mote, who I believe is also one of your consulting clients. She spoke so highly of the positive effects of your consulting on the sustainability and ethical practices of her brand. So I’m excited to hear your thoughts about the current state of fashion and what independent brands and retailers can do to grow healthier companies for the future.
Let’s go back to the beginning. I believe you have a Masters degree in Sustainable Design Practice from Columbia University and a Bachelors degree in Industrial Labour Relations from Cornell University. Could you tell us about your background and what led you to pursue these particular subjects from an early age? I’d also love to hear how your career unfolded.
Kristine: I’m from Los Angeles and in high school, I was a competitive debater. I was also a competitive debater in college, through debating in high school I was constantly engaging in argumentation around social justice issues. Early on I was very ideologically attached to workers’ issues and workers’ rights. To me regardless of the cultural, religious or country-specific context you always had workers present and more often than not they were vulnerable, not well protected by either public or private institutions. So I felt very compelled to pursue some sort of social justice career, specifically for workers. I went to Cornell University and studied Industrial Labour Relations when I graduated I felt that I would pursue this career through law and after a couple of years I determined that this was not the trajectory for me and I pivoted to fashion, which has been a personal passion of mine since I was young. I started all over again, starting from the bottom in product development, research and development and eventually found a way to integrate my social justice ambitions through fashion and that’s when I started working in sustainable sourcing for a fairly large multi-national brand in New York. This was at a time prior to brands having any sort of sustainability focus or agenda in place so it was a lot of learning on the job and poking around in the dark. The brand I was working for was very supportive and I had this unique vantage point of a behemoth global manufacturer and looking at a very intricate and complicated supply chain that’s involved with that type of business. This was also about a couple of years after the Rana Plaza disaster happened in Bangladesh. I very naturally became involved in the brand’s global advocacy work around understanding what had happened and to avoid future incidents. Coincidently, the work that the brand was doing was tied with my undergraduate alma mater, it felt like the right fit for me and at that point, I knew that I wanted to work in this space of improving environmental and social aspects of this very large industry. At that point, I decided to go back to school to Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs and I focused on sustainable development, basically how to create, design and monitor programs around the United Nations’ sustainability goals. That was my education in how to become a development practitioner, how to be a project manager and make programs that achieve various Sustainable Development Goals in any number of communities.
I focused on this concept of a value chain, which is essentially a supply chain but through the lens of value generation, whether it be social, environmental or financial. Looking at all the different tiers of any given supply chain and seeing how they are interlinked and how they can collaboratively help to create more value production across the supply chain. You will hear me refer to ‘the fashion value chain’ in that way to distinguish between the supply chain.
“Mental wellbeing is the next innovative frontier for workers’ rights and workers’ issues within the global fashion industry.”
To terminate my Master’s studies I returned to the fashion sector and I conducted primary research in Jordan on the mental wellbeing of garment workers for the International Labour Organization (ILO). That was an affirming experience for me, I knew that this was the type of interdisciplinary work I wanted to do. I also think that mental wellbeing is the next innovative frontier for workers’ rights and workers’ issues within the global fashion industry. That was a great experience and now I’m back in Los Angeles building a consulting business but I’m also complimenting that work with Los Angeles-based garment manufacturing. It is the largest US garment manufacturing sector and it’s struggling. It’s still got around 30,000 garment workers in it but a lot of the manufacturing has gone overseas. So working in my hometown, helping to create more value for the stakeholders here while considering my work internationally – they help to inform one another and validate my work at both scales.
“It was very simple for me to grow attached to this universal concept of upholding employee welfare and pursuing dignified work for all people.”
AC: That’s an amazing trajectory and it’s so interesting to hear how in-depth your work is because you’ve seen it from so many aspects. Going a few steps earlier, what ignited your interest in workers’ rights as a teenager? What inspired you to do this?
Kristine: The topics that I would debate and contemplate in high school were about government legitimacy, moral obligation to intervene in international conflict, these types of topics that seemed very nuanced and specific to that cultural or country context. I grew fatigued and frustrated by having to constantly navigate these nuances in terms of determining what was perhaps the ethical or morally just thing to do. With workers’ rights, it’s very universal. Workers are everywhere, they’re foundational to every economy, they’re the life, blood and backbone of any country’s economy so there wasn’t any specific nuance that required protecting them. More often than not, these workers are left exposed by their public and private institutions and there’s always a need to do more to protect and uphold them. From an ideological, and maybe conceptual platform, it was very simple for me to grow attached to this universal concept of upholding employee welfare and pursuing dignified work for all people. Work is such a big part of identity and sense of self that if you don’t feel satisfied by that large aspect of your life, it’s hard to have positive welfare for yourself as an individual and as a greater community. That was the thought process as young Kristine thought about what to study in college.
AC: We are talking at the time of the Covid-19, it’s August 2020 and things are still unravelling and feel very unstable. I’d love to find out how your work has been affected by the pandemic – what’s changed for you right now?
Kristine: Most people would agree that the entire global fashion industry has imploded because of the pandemic on, basically, every possible level. While a lot of these issues were pre-existing I feel the pandemic has laid them bare and accelerated the call to action, this need for evolution and change. The supply chain is very complicated and convoluted, there are a lot of hidden tiers to the supply chain. I feel that customers are starting to grow aware and educated on these hidden tiers and how they’ve been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. With brands cancelling orders, the vast majority of these mass–producing brands manufacture in developing countries where the health concerns are not so much Covid-19 it’s more the lack of income and the threat of starvation. These communities are very hand-to-mouth, they live off their daily wages and if those are suddenly taken away from them for an indefinite amount of time the concern is more – can they survive and can they afford to live? More than the threat of Covid. So this lack of transparency, the opacity of the sector is coming more to the forefront of the conversation and customers are demanding answers and wanting more principled-practices from their brands in an unprecedented way. The pandemic is showing and accelerating the need to change. On the brand side, you see that they’ve also had to make changes to survive from a financial point of view. What we have is crisis and disaster, and a real opportunity for brands, factories and governments to properly take stock of how the current practices in the status quo are no longer serving them and how to evolve, adjust and adapt to a more functional, responsible and regenerative system. Despite the tragedy, there is quite a bit of opportunity and hopefully, the fashion sector will rise to the occasion and take advantage of this moment.
“Treat all tiers of the supply chain ethically and humanly: we are all equal whether you’re a cotton farmer or a fashion designer.”
AC: From your perspective, what could independent brands do right now to make sure they don’t miss this opportunity to improve things and not fall back into the same habit of turning the other way?
Kristine: The real problem that I see, and this is also a problem for smaller brands because they don’t have as much leverage with their manufacturers, it’s just the lack of data. It’s the lack of information and transparency across the entire sector. I would encourage independent brands to really press upon their manufacturers for information on their working conditions and their work practices. Ask them: ‘What kind of social distancing protocols are in place in the factory?’ ‘Are personal protective equipment given to workers for free?’ Everything that they need, do they have to pay for it? Ask questions about how the workplace and their product is being made. At the end of the day, despite being not as big or not having as much leverage as a multinational, brands are at the top of the food chain in the fashion sector and they get to call the shots down the value chain. The manufacturers, the textile mills and the farmers, they all have to fall in line with the requests of the brands. Pressing upon them for information and an indication that if you’re going to get information that you don’t like you’re not going to abandon them. The hope is that you will find solutions together as business partners, to create more favourable conditions through which your product is made. Manufacturers are often too nervous to reveal their practices because it’s so often the case that brands will get up and leave and go to a different manufacturer. So really emphasising to them that the request for information is not to run down a checklist and say ‘If you don’t fall under this criteria I will abandon our business relationship’, but more that you want to collaborate and mediate together to find a good sustainable solution for everyone involved in the production of your goods. That type of goodwill partnership is what will determine the people who will come out of this successfully and those who may not.
AC: Stepping away from the issues of Covid-19, I’d love to find out more about your work as a consultant. There are so many people that I talk to through Advance Copy that are looking for somebody with your skills and depth of knowledge. Could you explain how you work together with your clients and how you help them on their journey?
Kristine: I use a value chain approach, I work with brands but I also work with labour unions, factory owners and multilateral organisations so I don’t look at any one client’s problem in a silo. I think there is a holistic lens that you have to address these solutions through because all the different tiers are inextricably linked to one another and generating value at one tier will inevitably create value up and down the value chain.
I have two core principles that I work through. The first is a systemic holistic lens to address my solution designs for any client. The second one is to treat all tiers of the supply chain ethically and humanly: we are all equal whether you’re a cotton farmer or a fashion designer. I bring a very interdisciplinary approach to my work. I essentially blend my experiences from the fashion sector and from international development to create bespoke solutions for my clients that adhere to these two core principles. If we take the example of a fashion brand as a client, what I would do first and foremost is to get an understanding about the central heartbeat of that client, understand what their purpose is, their value and principles are and design a strategy from this central lens of principle. The client’s priorities can either be social or environmental, I work with those principles to create sustainable systems and incentive structures to make enduring change across their business. A big part of that is the development of partnerships because this supply chain is so vast and complicated that to address these large, deep–rooted problems you need the strength of unprecedented collaborative partnerships, where everyone understands that if you collaborate everyone can benefit from the solution. I don’t design – and am not attracted to – solutions that require trade-offs between different parties, I believe in solutions that are beneficial for all. Building partnerships, finding a sense of purpose and then building out the pragmatic structures and systems to create regenerative and sustainable outcomes is the general way that I approach it. Ultimately it has to be holistic, humane and just for everyone involved.
“To address these large, deep–rooted problems you need the strength of unprecedented collaborative partnerships.”
AC: You use words like ‘holistic’ and ‘partnerships’ when talking about farmers and manufacturers, the workers who are perceived as being ‘further down the food chain’. The language you are using is usually reserved for addressing the final customer, terms which are associated with the external brand image. Do we need to change communication around sustainability? Has it become so hijacked with concepts that are hard to solidify, that have almost become the opposite of the positive change that we set out to do in the first place?
Kristine: I struggle with the term ‘sustainability’ just like anyone in the field does. There has been an impressive amount of greenwashing with sustainability being the umbrella term. The issue with a lot of this language is that there is no uniformity, there is no regulatory universality around how it’s been applied and used. Until there is some sort of regulation that makes certain terminology liable to a definition or abiding to a practice, I don’t think there will be much uniformity and that extends to practices. In a sense, this space is very exciting because it’s very dynamic and ever–evolving, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of the conversation constantly. Now, the new trend is around circularity and you are seeing a different systemic lens compared to sustainability. For example, in the sustainable conversation polyester is seen as a good alternative whereas in the circularity conversation it’s not because it creates another dead-end product that doesn’t continue to regenerate value across the supply chain. We’re seeing this constant transformation and evolution of the discourse that I think is wonderful and keeps the conversation and the growth very exciting but at the same time, there will be a point at which it would be more beneficial to have standardisation around some of the terms and practices. That can’t quite happen until legal regulation materialises to enforce that.
“You can use the factory setting as a development incubator.”
AC: It feels like, at least in Europe, we are still a long way away from a fully functional legislative system that would protect workers and keep fashion brands accountable to their claims. In the meantime, is there anything you would recommend doing on a grassroots level, as customers and business owners, to try to decrease the unethical and unsustainable activities of fashion companies?
Kristine: For the work that I do with fashion brands, a part of the design of the system and the programs for change embed a monitoring and an evaluation aspect to it. To have ways of tracking the progress of these systems, of these new changes that we’re integrating into their business, and having a way to report on that progress in a quantitative and qualitative way. That is how you hold yourself accountable to yourself and your customers. You set certain goals that you try to accomplish by a certain year and just by being transparent about the progress you’ve made, or haven’t made, but just laying it bare. The measuring and evaluating protocol is critical to any sort of claim you can make to ethical or responsible manufacturing.
AC: Have you witnessed good examples of such changes?
Kristine: I can give you an example of a program that I think is innovative and successful. It’s a program called Better Work and their premise is to promote partnerships across the brand, the labour union, the factory owner and the national government to come up with solutions that improve working conditions and provide decent work for their employees and it benefits everyone. A common argument is that you can make more money if you use cheap labour, environmentally depredate where you produce and that’s commonly thought off as a tradeoff. What Better Work has done is that because of their measuring and their evaluating of their programs’ progress they’ve shown over many years is that it’s not necessarily true. You can have improved working conditions, increased wages and you can also generate revenue for your business partners; for brands and factory owners. Because you have more satisfied employees you have lower turnover, higher productivity and better quality products. These types of solutions that incentives everyone to tweak their behaviour in a collaborative way that yields improved results for everyone from a value perspective – those are the types of solutions that are sustainable and the ones that will start to push the needle in terms of the evolution in the industry.
Similarly, Gap Inc. has a program called P.A.C.E. which is about empowering women in their supply chain. What I love about the global fashion sector is that because it’s predominantly manufactured in developing countries there is a real opportunity to use the factory as a Trojan Horse for development. Majority of the workers in cotton and silk factories are young uneducated women, giving them financial agency and training opportunities through a program like P.A.C.E. – where they learn managerial skills, they’re taught financial literacy, health and hygiene – they are injected with more value as members of their community and they bring that to their families and their communities. A woman who has more income is more likely to invest that money in her child’s education or health and that has a ripple effect in those developing communities. So you can use the factory setting as a development incubator for these countries. The opportunity in the fashion sector, in terms of sustainable development, is tremendous it’s a matter of finding the right angle, the right partners to push these agendas through. Brands have a unique platform for that because they are at the top of the food chain and can make the changes that will trickle down the entire value chain.
“There has to be more of an intention, more thoughtfulness around why any business is in the industry.”
AC: You’ve spoken about the efforts that we need to put in to make the fashion industry a more equal and healthy place – what should we envision and aim for, what does that ideal scenario look like for you in the long-run?
Kristine: I think fashion is unique in that customers have a lot of agency, they can demand that their brands and their corporations do better in a way that might elicit a response faster than it would by going through our public institutions. Brands are very reputation sensitive and reactive to their customers’ opinion, the relationship between the two is very emotional and can be very loyal. I think the levers of change through the customer are unique within the fashion sector and now with almost a direct line to brands through social media you see them reacting very quickly. The customers’ education and awareness and the brands’ willingness to react and respond and be more transparent are two components but I think another big one is governance. Governance structures also have to follow because as much as the brands are willing to adapt to the customers’ evolving value proposition around the product it’s now more than just the style, the design, the feel and the fit. Now customers want an ethos, a principle around the culture that they’re buying into that they identify with. As much as brands will react to that the only way to get companies to change is through legal regulation for there to be legal oversights. As of now everything that companies do internationally is voluntary, there is no universal way to keep companies accountable for their practices.
As much as I want brands to champion the right thing and for customers to keep asking these questions and demanding that their brands do better, the governments have to start passing legislation that would hold companies and their partners accountable and responsible for their practices and how they affect their communities environmentally and socially. I think right now the fashion landscape can’t go down. It’s a tough business, people who are in the industry right now just to make money, I don’t think it’s the easiest way to make money. Brands and retailers have to ask themselves ‘What is it that I want to do in this industry beyond making money and how am I going to go about it?’ Because the value of the product is changing, it’s no longer just about the product, it’s about the full production package of that product and what it does for the communities that it’s being manufactured in. I think there has to be more of an intention, more thoughtfulness around why any business is in the industry. The status quo was this mindless running, chasing, producing as much as possible, as quickly as possible for as cheap as possible. It was intentionless. I think ideally the way that the industry will evolve will set a new benchmark for how goods and services ought to be transacted – in a collaborative, thoughtful, value–generating way. I feel like capitalism is behind us now, at least in the fashion sector, that’s my hope.
“Clothing is moving in a different direction…it feeds our sense of principles and our sense of purpose.”
AC: I also hope so and I think that the upside of the pandemic and lockdowns specifically is that it’s allowed us to evaluate and realise just how little we need to be happy. That we can let go of so many things, from many social interactions, office environments, shopping, holidays. As hard as it is, a lot of that behaviour was too damaging to the environment and often based on superficiality. If we can learn from this time, pause and reevaluate and filter out all the noise to get closer to what speaks to us on a more meaningful human level, then we could move past the unhealthy habits instilled by capitalism. In this case, what would be the next chapter – will we need fashion, something that’s not purely utilitarian?
Kristine: I think we need something different now, the value of the good is changing. Before it was primarily about creative expression and identification to a brand to conjure a dream, confidence–building etcetera. Now, I feel like clothing is moving in a different direction, it still does that, but it feeds something else in us too it feeds our sense of principles and our sense of purpose. So if I invest in a garment that represents these beliefs and these values I’m fed creatively in terms of self-expression but also in terms of my internal compass, I feel there is a more dimensional sense of satisfaction, a sense of value that comes from a garment like Shaina Mote that I know has been made with so much intention and so much responsibility and purpose but it’s also this dreamy, brilliantly crafted and designed garment. It does so much more for me than a more two–dimensional garment that is just concerned with aesthetics. Clothing is different, it’s not an essential good like food or electricity it has a very emotional connection to the customer. While at times it may feel superfluous I think it will never go away, the love between clothing and customers will always persist. It’s just a matter of what value it brings – that’s where the conversation is changing. Maybe fast fashion will go but I think that ultimately the fashion industry will adapt and evolve. That’s what creative people do. They come up with really wonderful innovative solutions to the problems that we’re confronting and it can be a release, an escape and a fantasy. I’m confident that the new fantasy will manifest and we’ll be able to put that on and feel like we’re in a better world even if just for that day. I think that clothes will always be around to make people happy.
AC: Thank you, Kristine. I think that’s a nice optimistic note to leave people pondering on today. I hope your insight will leave our readers and listeners inspired to strive to make the world a more fair and happy place for everybody.