A focus on fashion led this foundation to take on climate, inequality

Laudes Foundation is working to make the fashion industry fairer and more sustainable. Photo by: Artem Beliaikin

SAN FRANCISCO — C&A Foundation has relaunched with a new name and an expanded mission.

The Laudes Foundation — building on the work of C&A Foundation, which collaborated with brands and other stakeholders to take collective action on making the fashion industry fairer and more sustainable — is broadening its mandate beyond fashion to deal with deeper and more systemic issues of production and consumption across industries.

“If you aren’t looking at the underlying system behind fashion ... then we may just be treating symptoms.”

— Leslie Johnston, CEO, Laudes Foundation

“We actually are looking at two meta challenges — both climate and inequality,” said Leslie Johnston, CEO of Laudes Foundation. “Both of those reinforce each other. A lot of philanthropic funders tend to focus on one or the other. You don’t see a lot of players focus on both head-on.”

Going forward, the Laudes Foundation budget is expected to increase beyond the annual $50 million to $55 million funding levels of C&A Foundation. Johnston is in the process of developing a strategy to transform the way the global economic system defines value. One of Laudes Foundation’s stated goals is to redirect investment capital to encourage business practices with a positive impact on people and planet.

“We’ve been working for the past five years trying to make fashion a force for good,” she said. “The types of challenges we’ve been tackling are big, deep, systemic challenges.”

But from eliminating slavery in supply chains to embracing the circular economy, these shifts are not constrained to a single industry, Johnston added.

“If you aren’t looking at the underlying system behind fashion — this market capitalism that has made lots of people wealthy but also has created a lot of disparity and, of course, the climate crisis — then we may just be treating symptoms,” she said.

A year ago, a group of academics launched the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion with a manifesto noting that the growth logic of the capitalist system is the core problem that prevents the transformation of the fashion industry.

“The manifesto for me was a bit of a trigger point,” Johnston said.

C&A Foundation applied an organizational theory of change, with an approach focused on demonstrating models to transform businesses and supply chains, strengthening platforms and institutions to drive change across the industry, and advocating for policy and behavior change from suppliers to consumers.

Johnston is proud of the impact C&A Foundation has had across five key areas: boosting the availability of sustainable cotton; improving working conditions; tackling the root causes of forced and child labor; supporting efforts to change the way clothes are made, used, and reused; and supporting communities where C&A operates.

But despite grants that have helped develop ideas into fully funded initiatives across each of these five areas, the systemic problems with the fashion industry had not changed since C&A Foundation was started in 2014, leading the organization to take a step back.

“Instead of having a broad statement around making fashion a force for good — which I think is a very compelling rallying cry and got a lot of uptake — we asked, ‘How can we change the system so that the industry balances returning value to shareholders with protecting values for workers, producers, and nature?’” Johnston said.

This guiding question helped inform the Laudes Foundation’s mission, and while the strategy is still coming together, all of the foundation’s activities will be carried out through a climate and inequality lens, she added.

Laudes Foundation is among a number of philanthropic activities of the Brenninkmeijer family, who founded C&A, an international chain of retail clothing stores. Over the next six months, Johnston is developing a five-year strategy to influence capital across the global financial system and transform fashion as well as the building sector, which is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These are two industries the Brenninkmeijer family knows well, and from there, Laudes Foundation may expand to other areas.

“The core of what we’re trying to do is actually challenge this concept of value,” Johnston said.

The launch of Laudes Foundation is the kind of effort that may help enable the transition from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, a major theme of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, she said.

“The system, which has prioritized short-term profits, short business cycles, shareholder value above all … is not helping people to thrive and it’s not protecting nature and we need to change that, and to change that we need to redefine value,” Johnston said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.