This Way Forward

Caterina Occhio is a woman of many talents. A former development aid expert for the European Commission and the United Nations, Caterina is now a full-fledged social entrepreneur who made her mark in the fashion industry by creating and contributing to women empowering and sustainable projects. She now has been appointed social sustainability advisor at Trussardi and just launched a brand-new project together with Eva Géraldine Fontanelli by the name of gOOOders. Caterina met with NOWFASHION to discuss what it means for a brand to truly be sustainable nowadays.

How did your previous career outside of the fashion industry contribute to what you do today?

Actually, I do not have a background in fashion – for almost 20 years I’ve been working as a development aid manager and social entrepreneur for various agencies and projects that were part of the European Commission and the United Nations. In my previous career I’ve dealt with women’s rights mostly outside of the European Union and was a specialist in labour market measures. This first stage of my career has been essential for what I do today: it allowed me to encounter a lot of local realities and communities that have showed me how craftsmanship could support their development, and allow them to build a sustainable, social, and economically viable future.

Tell us more about SeeMe and the concept behind it.

SeeMe started in the Medina of Tunis. I worked as an EU Policy Advisor in Tunisia for the national employment strategy six months before the Jasmin revolution started that led to the Arab Spring afterwards. When I started SeeMe in 2011 – which is an ethical jewellery brand crafted by Tunisian women who were all survivors of domestic violence – the concept that merged both fashion design and an ethical purpose was still quite new to the industry. In fact, as of today, SeeMe is still the only fair trade certified brand in the entire Middle East and North Africa region. At the time, I really had to explain to people what it meant to use fashion – jewellery, precisely – to create better living conditions and new economic opportunities for disadvantaged group, because the concept itself was not really common at the time. In fact, promoting ethical standards in fashion eight years ago was something that belonged to a niche market.

It seems like SeeMe was beneficial to raise awareness around how fashion can make meaningful and ethical impacts. You’ve collaborated with Missoni, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tommy Hilfiger – and today you work as a sustainability advisor for Trussardi. What did you learn from these collaborations, and how did they benefit both SeeMe and the established luxury brands?

These collaborations were a true eye-opener – not only for SeeMe as a brand and for the customers, but also for the luxury brands, which were given the opportunity to raise awareness around meaningful and ethical subjects. These brands were willing to open up – finally! – to the possibilities of creating a fair trade line with SeeMe, namely a capsule next to their commercial lines. In the past years, an increasing consumer-driven demand for ethical and sustainable fashion has led the change in the luxury industry – and it still does today. Back in 2014, when Suzy Menkes invited me to speak at the Condé Nast International Conference in Florence, I already forecasted this change, and it is happening right now. In fact, today, most brands are trying to find economically viable solutions to promote sustainability within their corporate world.

According to your experience, what are the main differences and challenges between advocating an ethical, empowering, and sustainable philosophy at an independent brand (like yours) and doing the same in a more corporate environment?

Working both with a small, independent brand and a corporate company is a mutually beneficial and complementary experience. Brands feel the urge to develop sustainable policies, which are not only environmental but also social. However, they often tend to forget that sustainability should have a positive financial outcome for both the craftsmen and the corporation. This can be a true win-win situation, which is what brands like SeeMe have proved so far. This is precisely the reason why traditional brands like Trussardi (ed. Caterina Occhio is the brand’s sustainability advisor) are willing to explore this way of working. People like me, who have had a grass-roots experience for the past two decades in supporting societal changes through craftsmanship, basically speak both languages: we understand the difficulties of working with grass-roots organisations, and at the same time we are able to translate this experience into a corporate language. So, this is precisely what I am doing at the moment: I am translating grass-roots experience in an ethical fashion into viable solutions for the corporate world that leads to win-win situations.

How did the gOOOders project start? What is its concept and which brands are currently participating?

It all started with a conversation with Eva Géraldine Fontanelli, the editor-at-large of Vanity Fair Italy, one-and-a-half years ago, when she came to visit SeeMe’s atelier in Tunisia. We started to discuss the opportunity to extend this experience and find solutions to challenging market axes, which are still a main issue for most independent and sustainable brands out there. In this sense, gOOOders was borne out of our sincere willingness and desire to promote meaningful craftsmanship and have customers access these products in a conversational manner. gOOOders is an international platform co-founded by Eva and myself that allows small brands and producers, who work on a sustainable and ethical basis, to finally reach their target customers in a meaningful setting that does not undermine their craftsmanship. We put an emphasis not just on the ethical side of their brands, but also on the actual designs and the beauty of their creations.

What is your selection criteria when you choose a brand to be part of gOOOders?

gOOOders is a lifestyle brand that started a few months ago and stages its pop-up shops in conscious, luxury hotels around the world in order to promote sustainable brands that are both beautiful and meaningful. So, when we select a brand to work with, Eva looks at the potential of the brand’s products and whether its aesthetics are strong and impactful enough for a sophisticated clientele, while I make sure that the brand respects our eco- and human-friendly company criteria. The two of us are fully dedicated to finding the best possible products that are produced in the best possible conditions!

From Kering to LVMH, almost every group and major brand is addressing the sustainability subject and making promises on this topic...what do you think about this “sustainability race”?

Indeed, a lot of luxury brands are running towards implementing sustainable measures in their companies – but to be honest, the language of sustainability is not a language that they have fully mastered yet, and unfortunately there’s still a lot of green-washing going on in the fashion industry. I fear sometimes that the word “sustainability” is empty by now. Fashion aficionados need to be aware that sustainability is not only about the recycling and repurposing of otherwise wasteful fabrics and materials. Social sustainability, in fact, is what matters first and foremost. Instead of focusing on using recycled plastic bottles to create new collections, some brands should really do their homework and focus on developing social compliance, which takes into consideration the entire supply chain and the people who make the products that we wear – because behind everything we wear, there are the hands of human beings who made it possible. So more importantly, in order to avoid the green-washing trap, customers should ask the brands who go green how much their employees are paid and in what kinds of conditions they work. It is also important for brands to invest in long-term cause commitments and avoid one-off charities or donations that are often meaningless in the long haul. Long term cause commitment is the only way to establish a deep form of understanding between the customers and the brands that are in line with their values – and this ultimately translates to customer loyalty.

Any news that you would like to share regarding gOOOders?

We are very proud to announce the launch of our e-commerce! Our brands have been hand-picked with a significant sense of beauty and purpose. The online store is essential for us because we want to make sure that the incredible brands that are part of our gOOOders family are available for purchase to everybody who wishes to support them; and also because the people behind these brands need to be put in the spotlight. gOOOders is a tribe of conscious travelers – we really believe that every choice we make is a vote for the future we all want to live in. The future is brighter than we think: a growing consumer segment is looking for meaningful and ethical products nowadays. So, wear your values, help ethical brands to thrive, and save the planet at the same time – it’s not much to ask, right? (laughs)

It is just the way to go – the gOOOders way to go.

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