ADMIRED WOMEN

IN BUSINESS

2021

Umaimah Mendhro

There are many reasons why an increasing number of people are mastering the art of mindful living. Some may think this lifestyle includes only things such as meditation and yoga, a healthy and mindful diet, and essentially smelling the roses while trying to live a present and stress-free life. Far from a fad, mindfulness can be an invaluable life philosophy which can envelop every aspect of life— including shopping and style. To some, this may sound trivial, but mindfulness in fashion is as important as mindfulness in every other moment of your life.

We have all been guilty of committing one particular crime: being caught in the frenzy of marked down items and annual sales. We purchase things we don’t need. Why? Because they are on sale. We need to stop aimlessly shopping because it goes against everything mindful living represents.

That is why there are so many movements and strides in the fashion industry to encourage sustainable fashion that considers the sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing and recycling textiles after use. As consumers and organisations, we need to take our share of responsibility and be savvier when producing or consuming fashion and lifestyle products.

The task seems daunting because the fashion industry is massive. The global apparel market was worth $1.46 trillion in 2020, and it's anticipated to increase to roughly $2.25 trillion by 2025. Bringing meaningful change to something that is such an integral part of our lives is no trivial task. However, if we want to continue enjoying the joy of self-expression through fashion without destroying the planet, change is more important than ever.

To understand the impact of the fashion and lifestyle industry and how we can mitigate some of the problems, we sat down with Umaimah Mendhro, CEO and founder of VIDA, a brand that is trying to change how we create sustainable fashion and lifestyle products while empowering artists with the help of technology and innovation.

“Self- expression can be joyous and is incredibly important, and yet it is easy to forget about the damage fashion inflicts on nature when we're drawn in by its power. Today the industry's processes and practices often harm environments, ecosystems and human communities around the globe. What many people don't understand is that fashion is the one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Billions of dollars of inventory is sent to landfills or incineration instead of being reused. The modern linear system of manufacturing and the promotion of fast, disposable fashion put pressure on non-renewable and threatened resources, especially water, and produce huge quantities of waste, most of which goes to landfill or for incineration,” states Umaimah.

The status quo cannot go on forever. Fashion needs to stop being disposable. But what measures can the fashion industry take to reduce its impact on the environment? For Umaimah it is a complex equation that includes manufacturing and consumer responsibility. “There are many movements in the fashion industry which encourage sustainability and that carefully source raw materials and promote recycling textiles. We need to demand more of this as consumers. Second, we must reduce the massive inventory burden the fashion industry imposes on the planet. At VIDA, we produce our fashion products on-demand, meaning that they're manufactured only after the order has been placed. This helps remove a tremendous amount of waste from the system. Traditionally, raw materials and inventory of finished goods were considered assets. Today they have become an environmental liability especially in the fashion industry. Lastly as consumers, we need to take our share of responsibility and be savvier when entering a store and choosing garments,” affirms Umaimah.

Companies like VIDA are trying to turn the way clothing is produced on its head. Rather than having a merchandising team speculating about upcoming trends and customer appetites and then investing in and producing inventory accordingly, VIDA only produces products that customers have purchased. VIDA is giving customers the power to drive the merchandising decisions, not the other way around. That's an inherently radical idea for the $1.3 trillion fashion industry, which was built off a linear produce-use-dispose model. However, its impact on the environment and our health is forcing a rethink.

Technology is an important part of why this rethink is happening. Young people who are connected 24/7 have become a potent influence on people of all ages and incomes and the way those people consume and relate to brands. Ethics form an important part of this phenomenon. 2020 was a record-breaking year for SEC fines and fines related to corporations. Young consumers have grown up watching a parade of breaking news of unethical behavior.

Umaimah Mendhro
Umaimah Mendhro

“Businesses cannot afford to ignore the social impact of their business or the interests of their wider stakeholders. More than ever, people seek personal fulfillment from their work and make buying decisions that create a lasting impact on the world. The positive impact of diversity, inclusion and environmental sensitivity is no longer debatable.”

Without question, ethics have become an increasingly important concern for consumers when interacting with companies and brands. They expect bold action to address moral blind spots. And they want to know that the brands they are buying from have a net positive impact on human beings and the natural world. This holds especially true for the fashion industry, one of the poster childs for unethical behavior. “Despite the glamour, most of the apparel industry is a world of misery and exploitation, cramped floor conditions and low wages. Manufacturers farm out work to hundreds of competing sub-contractors who hunt around the globe for ever cheaper labour, often finding it in places with dubious labour law enforcement. In addition to these unethical labor practices, many fast-fashion companies display little remorse in copying designers, cheating them out of their livelihood,” laments Umaimah. Thankfully, some brands have the right idea and are paying close attention to both ethics and technology in order to solve these issues. “For me, ethics and technology are intertwined. Some people say that technology is unbiased, clinical and fair to everyone. That is a flawed assumption. Technology is like any other power, without heart it can destroy us all. That was one of the fundamental reasons why I started VIDA. To change how we approach fashion not just from the point of view of manufacturing and distribution but also in how we interact with creators and designers. Technology plays a big role in that. The VIDA Design Studio platform ensures that designers retain complete creative control and ownership of their work every step of the way. This has allowed us to become a hub for creative individuals to design the unexpected, one of a kind pieces that are brought into the world sustainably and ethically. We take care of the manufacturing, shipping and fulfillment, so that creatives can focus on what they do best, creating groundbreaking pieces of art and self expression.” says Umaimah.

Starting with a Dream
Dreams are the fuel that drives the success of every entrepreneur. Some of us will think about the fast cars that we get to enjoy. Some of us dream about the house with the white picket fence and the 2 children. And some of us will dream of being in business. Dreams of creating that company that we’ve always wanted to run. Dreams of making waves in a certain industry. Dreams of building a legacy. To those of us, becoming an entrepreneur is the ultimate dream. And most often these dreams are a result of our lived experiences.

For Umaimah, it was her childhood growing up in rural Pakistan that drove her to become an entrepreneur. “I grew up in a part of Pakistan where access to formal schooling was minimal. What was not minimal, however, was access to incredible local craftsmanship which inspired me to sew, paint, print, sculpt and create. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to build a company that makes a meaningful impact in the world. I moved to the United States to earn my BSC from Cornell University in Human Development and, later, an MBA from Harvard University. When I finished my studies, I joined Microsoft as Director of Product in Microsoft's Startup Business Group and later worked as a Director at West where I led product strategy for some of the most promising pre-IPO tech startups. After years working in Silicon Valley, I decided to start a company to connect customers to creatives through an on-demand manufacturing supply chain. I wanted to bridge the gap between supply and demand and utilize my experience in technology and passion for art and design. Consumers today don’t have access to really creative and sustainable products that tell a story from all parts of the world. That was what I thought was the crucial ingredient that was missing from the fashion industry and what I wanted to address with VIDA,” reminisces Umaimah.

Telling stories with Technology
We are always inspired and astounded at the constant development of technology moving the fashion industry into a more efficient and creative future. Refining and developing manufacturing processes allows designers limitless possibilities. The ever-growing digital world opens up new opportunities, both in the creative process and the way we interact with and discover fashion. Incredible products are growing out of interdisciplinary collaborations, using the skills of scientists, computer engineers, manufacturers and designers.

“People today are paying close attention to the businesses they shop with in an effort to minimize the impact their purchases have on the planet. Fashion industry technology trends are beginning to reflect this, with the development of new, emerging technologies in the fashion industry focused on tackling the causes behind fashion’s sustainability struggles. Evolving technology affecting materials, products, and consumer experience promise to have an enormous impact on reducing waste over the next decade. For example, by using advanced 3D rendering technology at VIDA our designers and consumers can see how a product is going to look. When combined with changes to materials that add longevity and require fewer resources to produce, we have been able to drastically reduce waste and consequently our impact on the environment,” says Umaimah.

Creating Change
Without communities and individuals, businesses would not exist. Whether in the role of employees, consumers or investors, businesses need people if they are to grow and thrive. Despite this, many companies limit their focus to revenue generation, and as such, do not fully account for the dependency and impact that their operation has on society.

The fashion industry is particularly guilty of this. However, society is increasingly beginning to demand that companies start to look at their wider impact; from socially minded entrepreneurs, to surveys clearly highlighting that many of today’s young people do not believe that growth and having a positive social impact need to be mutually exclusive, there are clear trends forcing all industries towards more socially-responsible business models. As Umaimah explains, businesses can no longer brush away the effects their practices have on the wider world. “Businesses cannot afford to ignore the social impact of their business or the interests of their wider stakeholders. More than ever, people seek personal fulfillment from their work and make buying decisions that create a lasting impact on the world. The positive impact of diversity, inclusion and environmental sensitivity is no longer debatable.”

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