In conversation with

Amirah Jiwa

Impact Strategist

Introduction

Introduction

What brand doesn’t want to make a positive impact? Whether you’re a fashion brand or a new app, it’s likely that sustainability, diversity and social impact will make it into your brand purpose. The problem is when these feel more like marketing campaigns rather than real, actionable values.

Enter Impact Strategist Amirah Jiwa, who has worked with companies like Sephora and Away to help them understand what issues are truly relevant to their brand – and how to communicate them.

“The ultimate goal should be a commitment to continually looking for ways to do things better, because sustainability is more of a lens than an end goal. There will always be more to do when it comes to impact — and that’s a good thing!”

We spoke to Amirah about what genuine impact looks like for a brand, how to communicate your sustainability story and integrating social impact into your business strategy.

Question and Answer

You’ve worked within social impact at different brands (like Sephora and Away) and as a consultant. What attracted you to this role and what does your day-to-day look like?

It varies a lot which is one of the reasons I really enjoy what I do! At a high-level, I’m helping consumer companies think about what issues are most relevant to their brand, business models, and industry and how they can take incremental and/or major action to address those issues. I also help them come up with compelling and clear ways to communicate the actions they are taking to their employees, customers, or the wider public. What that translates to day-to-day is hosting workshops, researching and making introductions to potential partners (nonprofits, factories or material suppliers, recycling partners, etc.), analysing data, writing copy for websites and reports. And of course lots of calls and emails!

Impact doesn’t just mean environmentally-friendly policies - what other aspects are really important for brands to get right?

There are so many aspects that the words ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ don’t really mean much unless the brand or person using them explains exactly what issues they are focusing on. When it comes to environmental sustainability you can look at materials, manufacturing, and waste through the lenses of carbon, chemicals, water, plastics, or land use. On the social side, you can consider things like wages and working conditions; diversity, equity, and inclusion for your team; how accessible your product is and to who; and whether and how you engage in political advocacy. It’s almost impossible to get things right on every issue, all the time, but you should monitor where you are on as many as you can, even while prioritising a few.

“Many brands that have raised the bar for what sustainable business can look like — think Patagonia, Ben & Jerry's, or Eileen Fisher — don't claim to be sustainable brands. Instead they use language like 'cause no unnecessary harm' or 'lead with progressive values' or 'make sustainable progress' as their goals.”

What is the biggest trap brands fall into when thinking about social impact or sustainability?

The biggest trap is thinking that it’s possible to be a truly sustainable brand. You can provide a better or *more* sustainable option, but ultimately the production, distribution, and use of pretty much any product (physical or digital) likely extracts more from people and our planet than it gives back. And, there are often tradeoffs between different ‘sustainable’ options.

Many brands that have raised the bar for what sustainable business can look like — think Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, or Eileen Fisher — don’t claim to be sustainable brands. Instead they use language like ’cause no unnecessary harm’ or ‘lead with progressive values’ or ‘make sustainable progress’ as their goals. The ultimate goal should be a commitment to continually looking for ways to do things better because sustainability is more of a lens than an end goal. There will always be more to do when it comes to impact — and that’s a good thing!

Brands often tout sustainability as a ‘key value’ but don’t always follow through when you dig under the surface. What does it really take for a brand to invest in a truly sustainable strategy?

A brand that is looking to truly invest in sustainability needs to be willing to look as closely at the areas it’s falling short on as it does as the areas in which it’s making progress. You can’t fix everything and no brand is perfect but it’s important that you dig around internally to identify your blind spots when it comes to sustainability so you know what needs to be addressed at some point in the future. If you don’t do that, your customers may do it for you.

At what stage can a brand start talking about their sustainability story? When it’s just a vision? When they’ve actually done something?

I’m a huge advocate for talking about sustainability early on. Too many brands wait until they feel like they’ve done something big enough to generate buzz, but that can leave your consumers thinking that you’re not doing anything at all – or aren’t even aware of any negative impacts you’re making. As soon as you’ve identified an issue and put a plan in place to make some progress against that issue, communicate that. Don’t try and make it into a story about being the first or doing the most, but include the basic information so people can find it if they’re interested.

What are the watch-outs when communicating about sustainability and social impact?

The main watch-out is getting the level of detail right — you want your comms to be clear and easy to understand but still retain necessary nuance. Try and avoid generic, high-level claims and instead keep things specific. Less: ‘we use sustainable materials’, and more: ‘everything is made from renewable or recycled materials’, accompanied by a link to more detail on exactly what those materials are.

You need a messaging hierarchy when it comes to sustainability. Snappy, concise summary statements should never be the extent of your impact comms – you always want to have somewhere where people can get more detail backing up any claims you make. At the same time, you also want to make sure that additional detail isn’t full of buzzwords or only accessible to industry insiders. It needs to be clear and accessible without oversimplifying. This can be a really tricky balance to strike!

Can you tell us about a brand you’ve worked with or particularly admire for their social impact and sustainability credentials?

One of my favourite companies with sustainable creds is activewear brand Girlfriend Collective. The brand started off with a clear and razor-sharp focus on reducing waste by using recycled materials for all its products and packaging to reduce plastic waste. And it has continually deepened its impact in this area by creating products (washing bags and filters) that help customers reduce microfibre shedding and creating a program that recycles its own products into new ones to go beyond using recycled materials they’ve bought from someone else. So they have their core focus issue but don’t ignore everything else. They also produce in a factory that has a social certification, make clothes in a more inclusive range of sizes, and feature people of lots of different ages, skin-tones, and shapes in their content. This combination of depth and breadth suggests a meaningful and holistic commitment to sustainability.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a brand who wants to focus on social impact within their business strategy?

First, ask lots of questions. Your initial goal should be getting as much visibility into your existing supply chain and operations as possible because you can’t evaluate your impacts (positive or negative) if you don’t know what they are.

Second, once you have as much information as you can uncover, work out what your ‘material issues’ are, basically the issues that matter most to your business. These may or may not align with what’s most trendy or what consumers care most about right now, but they should be the issues you prioritise.

Third, get as specific as possible about what issues you are prioritising and how in any internal or external communications.

Are there any books, podcasts or articles you would recommend to help people understand more about social impact strategy?

There is so much going on these days when it comes to impact and sustainability that I find newsletters and digital platforms are the best way to keep up with the latest news and innovations. But I value fiction’s ability to help us understand how social and environmental issues affect people on a more human level. Though the books I read don’t directly relate to sustainability, I find that they can inspire a desire to make the world more equal and better for everyone.

Amirah's Storylist

Books

  1. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
  2. Weather by Jenny Offill
  3. White Tears by Hari Kunzru
  4. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Newsletters

  1. Reconsidered
  2. The Climate Crisis
  3. Heated
  4. Vogue Business Sustainability Edit
  5. Links

Magazine

  1. Courier
  2. Atmos
  3. Ethos

Digital Platforms

  1. Parametric Press
  2. Fast Company
  3. The Craftsmanship Initiative
  4. Fashion For Good
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