An Interview with Robert Bergmann of Responsibility in Fashion

Thanks for inviting me to talk with you… and thanks for the great work you’re doing up in Canada.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

I come to this work in a bit of a nontraditional way— from fashion creative, advertising, and marketing. After 24 years in the industry, as creative director of Vogue Brazil Magazine, years designing the graphic look of New York’s fashion week, and almost 20 years working for the CFDA on Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, the CFDA fashion awards, etc.— I was invited to work with CFDA’s Sustainability Committee to brand, message, market and basically help evolve the program.

Several meetings and a few dozen sustainable fashion events later, I was in Bangladesh at the Rana Plaza disaster site, meeting with and photographing the victims and families. As a Tibetan Buddhist, this was my defining moment— the experience that convinced me that I had to do something about the inhumanity I saw firsthand. Nothing compares with the experience of being face to face with the profound suffering created by the industry I’ve worked in for over two decades. That’s when I realized the magnitude of the crises that the industry faces and that I needed to do something.

After returning home, I started to see that the industry lacked motivation to make broad and sweeping changes. From the questions asked at panel discussions, lectures and talks, I started to recognize that the industry lacked basic information. I started to see profound confusion around the issues. I started to see the proliferation of greenwashing and manipulation, of denial and indifference— and after meeting and getting to know the amazing people and organizations at the forefront of the valuable work across the industry, I started to see that what was needed was motivation, marketing, information and clarity— and I started to see that this was much more than an American crisis, it was a global crisis. So I started working with Loomstate’s owner and CFDA member Scott Hahn and the CFDA’s Executive VP Lisa Smilor, and with the financial support of the CFDA, I began the process of founding Responsibility in Fashion, an organization that— rather than focusing on one issue, on measurement or on certification— focuses on the big picture with the goal of motivating the industry to get together and raise the collective ‘standard of responsibility.’

One of the Rana Plaza families. This family lost their mother. Photographed in the footprint of Rana Plaza. The building is still there, but in the form of piles of concrete and bricks covered in fashion labels, zippers, thread and buttons— with the bodies of the victims that were never recovered beneath the rubble. Rana Plaza Disaster Site, Savar, Bangladesh. Photo: Robert Bergmann

What is Responsibility in Fashion?

Responsibility in Fashion is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to raising the standard of responsibility in the global fashion industry through collaboration, innovation, inspiration and open-source information.

What inspired the title of the organization?

We spent a lot of time in the naming process. After taking a long look at the existing “ethical fashion/sustainable fashion/eco-fashion community,” we saw that over the years that the sector grew, its naming and terminology had grown into a bit of a monster. Sustainable fashion, ethical fashion and eco-fashion compose 3 different parts of one very big and complex crisis facing today’s global fashion industry. We needed a word that can do more than embrace all 3 parts of the crisis (sustainability, ethics and ecology), but one that goes far beyond just talking about the problems— a word that inspires a call-to-action— a word that people immediately (and emotionally) understand that they have a part to play in the solution— and that word is Responsibility.

There have been large tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires (2012). How do tragedies shed light on work conditions in garment factories?

Unfortunately, it took Rana Plaza to draw our collective attention to the problem of unsafe working conditions, and that attention then exposed several of the industry’s other problems. But in the 3 years since the disaster, press coverage has slowed to a trickle, only 7 of the estimated 3500 factories in Bangladesh have actually completed necessary their corrective action plans, more than 40% of Bangladesh’s 3500 garment factories have seen no reform in any form— and the minimum wage, which the vast majority of Bangladeshi garment workers receive, is still only at one-fifth of a living wage. So you can’t help asking yourself, “How many Rana Plazas would we have to see before the industry really takes action?” That’s exactly why we started Responsibility in Fashion.

How can individuals, designers, fashion industries, and consumers begin to work to implement those rights so that these vulnerable populations, women and children, in many countries of the world have better quality of life?

Regarding brands and the industry: We know that nothing is going to change in the industry until people start doing something… and they can’t do anything unless they know what to do. So, addressing that issue became our first program. We heard the same question asked at every lecture, talk, and panel discussion we went to— “Where do we go for basic information on how to start?” And every time, at every event, the question was answered with basically a shoulder-shrug. So that became our first initiative— to create our Responsibility Toolkit, with essential information, resources and steps. Now, there’s a place on the internet where the entire industry can get the basic information they need, links to resources, organizations and consultants and steps, free of charge, no matter their financial means.

Next, we’re working on several programs— one with the CFDA/Lexus Fashion Initiative to reduce the waste and improve the responsibility of retail packaging, and we’re starting a collaboration program with the NYU Stern School of Business on a press and outreach program.

Regarding consumers: we’re on that— We have the beginnings of a great solution for helping to empower responsible brands that want to connect with consumers.

The sister of the one of the many victims of the Rana Plaza disaster who’s bodies were never recovered, who still frequent the site hoping to get information — and one of the thousands of fashion labels that still litter the site. Rana Plaza Disaster Site, Savar, Bangladesh. Photo: Robert Bergmann

Any other work at this time?

I’m the creative director of my design firm MPAKT and I’m also in the process of starting a home and personal care brand.

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

Check out our Network of Industry Thought Leaders. Basically leaders in the sector.

Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, you?

Through our website.

Family of the Rana Plaza victims, fashion labels, The remains of the building. Rana Plaza Disaster Site, Savar, Bangladesh. Photo: Robert Bergmann

What seems like the greatest struggle in business for you?

Finding enough time in a day to get everything done.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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