Moussa Mchangama is the co-founder of the Copenhagen consultancy company In Futurum, advising companies on sustainability and social change. The team works with brands on strategies, sustainability frameworks, workshops and communication tools. That often involves diving into a company’s processes and DNA, and creating new understandings of how strategies, more sustainable production, better practices and value-based communication can drive change both internally and externally. In Futurum helps companies to develop strategies that future-proof their businesses and navigate the increasing demand for openness and consumer awareness of climate change. Their clients include Copenhagen Fashion Week, Marimekko, Soulland and CIFF. Moussa also contributes strategically to Mino Danmark, an organisation that works to promote the voices of young people from ethnic minorities in Denmark.
A lot of people are talking about diversity and inclusion in fashion. Why is the industry having this conversation now in 2021?
“I think many different factors have combined to create the focus. First of all, the fashion industry is highly visible. It’s under scrutiny and consumers are looking at the industry, so that’s one factor. Then another I would say is the fact that globally we are having conversations around injustice, with #MeToo and Black Lives Matter and lots of different conversations around power dynamics and power hierarchies. And the third thing is that the fashion industry can no longer run from the way it has built itself. This is long overdue.”
Why has it taken so long for fashion to wake up to these issues?
“I think the reason it’s happening now is mainly due to social media and the attention on the fashion industry. What companies can do without being criticised, that window has become much smaller, luckily. Because what the fashion industry has done historically isn’t okay. It’s an industry that’s based on heightened production of goods produced for the most part with some sort of exploitation along the supply chain. And fashion by its nature is an industry built on exclusion. It’s always been connected to wealth. It’s always been connected to showcasing that you were a trendsetter, that you are first, that you are not like the others. All these things mean that this industry has never been diverse. It has never been inclusive because that has never been the nature of this industry. And so, what is happening now is the industry is having to renegotiate its business practices and self-image - something that should have started a long time ago.”
Do you think that the visibility of the fashion industry means that it can push agendas forward positively?
“Absolutely. I do think, however, that what this industry is also really good at, unfortunately, is focusing only on the representation part, which is hiring models, for example. And not looking at who’s shooting the images, who’s doing hair and makeup, who’s working behind the scenes. They are hiring faces that can represent a company without looking at who’s working in the offices. And how is all of this connected to who is actually producing the garments, who has grown the cotton? All these things are connected in a global structure closely connected to wealth and profit. And we need to take the conversation there and not just focus on the representation part. The representation part of it does however matter because this is such a powerful industry.”
When you work a brand on diversity, how do you begin?
“We always start with looking at the specific company, their brand DNA, their history, how their teams work and what they’re doing, how they’re in the market, their trust with consumers. All these things are the starting point for a collaboration. At the start we always insist on defining or trying to define what we’re talking and dreaming about. Diversity, inclusion, representation, equality - they are all positive words for something that most people believe that they want personally. But it’s not very tangible for most companies. And as I said, this industry is based on excluding people, whether in production, the offices, in consumption or representation. So, we will never get to a diverse place if we don’t talk about why it is not diverse in the first place. And that’s because of discriminatory practices, it’s because of bias. It’s because of the culture. It’s because of the language. It’s because of history, it’s because of a lot of trauma. It’s because it’s very difficult for people who don’t look like the average person working in the fashion industry to first enter the industry and then to feel safe and comfortable in the industry, all these things.”
What are the first steps you take?
“When we approach this, the focus is often on where the problems are and where the conversation is uncomfortable. We need to talk about why change isn’t happening, and that can be a long process, and a very unexpected one. Especially in the Scandinavian context, because we have this idea that we are already equal, that we only have a few fights left. But in reality, of course, the picture’s a lot different. And so, we often work very directly with creating an awareness around what it actually means to want to work towards diversity.”
What fears do brands have about tackling their policies – or lack of them – on inclusivity and sustainability?
“There is a lot of scrutiny on the industry and so there’s a lot of fear in companies of doing things wrong, of saying something that will get them into trouble, of doing something that people will call out. That concern is actually quite often a starting point because companies are realising now that they need help, that they need different kinds of experts and different kinds of advice in order for them to do things in tune with the demands of right now. On the other hand, the fear of doing something wrong is often also used as an excuse to not do anything new.”
How does sustainability fit it?
“Over the past couple of years, there is a growing awareness of the impact of the industry: that the textiles and production processes that a lot of companies use are incredibly harmful. The level of consumption, especially in Northern Europe, is incredibly harmful. We over consume to an extent that’s destroying the planet. And all of this - ALL of it - is deeply connected to social issues and injust practices because the fashion industry at its core is a people-centered industry with immense profits. But slowly, companies are running out of excuses for not doing anything. And so, when they meet us, what we need to do is figure out what they dream about? Why do they want to do this? Do they only want to do something because consumers expect them to? Or because they’re dreamers and innovators, and they want to change the conversation? Or because they’re realizing that the long-term future of their business relies on decisions they make today?”
That sounds intimidating for some companies?
“Absolutely, especially a lot of the bigger companies and fashion houses. They have established ways of working. And I think that the fear or the concern is connected to the realisation that what we have been doing for many years isn’t working anymore and that consumers are demanding something different. So, you have to change your ways. And that’s very difficult. It’s also very demanding and it takes commitment. And so, I think our job as advisors is to address that and to make people and companies feel more secure.”
How do individuals react in the process?
“Giving people that pause to think, and to learn new knowledge creates something very inspirational often – a completely new drive for people. Because on a personal level a lot of them are invested in the sustainability agenda; they care for the environment, for example. So, they think about where they buy their groceries, or the cleaning products they use, or the clothes they buy their kids. Then, all of a sudden, they start to see how these things are connected to the company they work for. But you need to take those first steps of learning and listening and of realising some things. It all starts from there.”
What you describe sound like a long process. I know it's hard to generalise, but for a midsize company how long does a consultation last?
“A minimum of three to four months, usually if we work with strategy. What is important is that companies actually take the time to absorb new knowledge at the beginning. And it’s our job to facilitate that, because that does demand quite a lot of trust. And then we go into sort of development mode, creating strategies and creating plans and creating tools that people can use in their daily practices. What we often see is that when we start doing that, employees will get a lot of new ideas. And so, it’s often a living process, a flexible process. We don’t have a script - and we also do short knowledge seminars and workshops on specific agendas, in particular for innovative companies that want to know what they should focus on next or that want to reflect critically on themselves.”
You started your company three years ago. What's changed in that that time?
“When we started out three years ago, it was much more difficult as advisers to make people truly understand that these are some of the biggest conversations within the industry – sustainability, social issues and injustice. So, it is so great that we talking about how much this industry needs to change. Because this is such a big industry with such a big impact on the planet.”
Is there a danger that we do a lot of talking but fail to follow through?
“Absolutely. We create a narrative that because we are talking about it a lot, that we are already changing it. But all growth and consumption figures estimate that this industry will still be growing rapidly in size over the next 30 years on a global scale. I think that a lot of people are hoping that there will be a quick fix for the issues that this industry is facing. But the reality of course, is that there are no quick fixes here. And that the central aspect is that we need to lower the level of production. That means lower the level of consumption.”
Is the industry good at seeking ways to change?
“Not always. I think fashion companies need to get more comfortable seeking out new knowledge. It’s something that a lot of people in fashion are not used to. Because the industry has been about creativity, about inspiration. It’s been about something very different. And fashion as an industry doesn’t have a very long history of gaining new knowledge, sharing information or collaborating around insights or research. I mean, this industry was incredibly late in getting on board with the internet, for example. Luxury houses backed away from e-commerce in the beginning because they thought it would dilute their brands.”
Is there a disconnect in the fashion industry between the progressive ideals of designers and people working at brands and then the owners of those businesses, who might be less willing to embrace new ways of thinking.
“Yes. It’s actually great that you mentioned this. Who owns the companies? There is a gap between people working in the teams and the mother company, where the owners will often tend to be much more conservative and older, and often male of course. The scrutiny that this industry is under demands that companies realise that younger people and younger talent coming out of design schools or marketing schools have a lot of the knowledge that you need. They are super critical of working within consumerist businesses and industries. They are super aware of social issues. They are super aware of injustice. They care deeply about the planet - and you won’t be able to get new talent if you don’t consider these things. So, it it’s necessarily just plain old survival. And I think that’s something that a lot of companies are realising now.”
Is there a worry that some fashion companies treat inclusivity and sustainability as a tick box exercise?
“I think a lot of younger companies are super in it for the long haul and are founded on awareness. It’s much more difficult for the established companies, especially the big ones, to address these things. What I will say is that a few years ago when we started seeing a broader representation in the industry what became apparent was that companies were booking new models and booking different people, but they didn’t realise that what follows has an impact on your company. There’s a push and pull effect making someone the face of your company. You have to decide whether or not you want to be accountable for what they might experience in the world as a person of color, for example. So, when this industry started using other people – and I’m specifically saying “using” other people – as models, consumers started asking questions about what that actually meant, and companies weren’t ready for that. They didn’t consider that. To them it didn’t mean anything other than now they were giving consumers what they thought they wanted, which was different kinds of models, but there are so many considerations that should go into that. And so, I think that’s where we’re slowly moving now. We’re unwrapping the box: what does it mean to do something different? And that I think is exciting.”
How should companies start this conversation internally, if they don’t have a consultant to guide them.
“That is a very good question. I think when you’re starting to consider a lot of these factors, especially connected to diversity and inclusion, you need to scrutinise why your company is probably not reflecting the values that you believe you have. So if you believe that you are a person who stands for equality or diversity or giving everyone equal opportunities, you need to critically examine whether your company actually reflects that and the chances are it doesn’t. And so just looking at that itself is a great starting point. And there are plenty of resources. There are so many seminars, webinars, there are so many conferences. There are so many reports. There’s so much written knowledge on a lot of these issues. So, you can just go out and find it - and locate resources of knowledge representing other perspectives or experiences. It’s basically just Googling. If you want to start by doing this, there are so many Instagram profiles that are actually giving out great knowledge for free that you can get inspiration from. But I think at the same time, you will end up at one point having to have conversations with others and that doesn’t have to be experts like ourselves, but other companies, researchers, your partners, your stakeholders, your production facilities, your designers.”
A fair like CIFF is a place where you meet industry colleagues, share ideas and inspirations. Can fashion companies help each other when it comes to sustainability and diversity?
“In terms of sharing, I think the field of sustainability is one of the first instances where this industry is starting to share. There has never been a culture of sharing in this industry. In the past companies never wanted to share their suppliers, never wanted to share their production, or never wanted to share any sort of information, because they felt could be a threat to their market. Now, they’re having to do so because of transparency reasons. So, I think for the first time there is a culture of sharing which is highly, highly important.”
When do you think the industry will know that has delivered on some of the agendas that you are working with?
“I think this is a process. What I will say though, is that as a company, it’s so important to break this down. If you’re done with your first step, the strategy, then comes the execution part, which is completely different. If you just work with 10 year goals that becomes way too intangible. It becomes way too fluffy for people. We need tangible steps in our everyday life. So, think long-term but create a plan that actually motivates your team.”