#124, Maxine Bédat, Founder and Director of the New Standard Institute

Maxine Bédat is the founder and director of New Standard Institute, a research and action think tank using data to drive accountability in the fashion industry. Prior to NSI, Maxine co-founded and was the CEO of Zady, a fashion brand and lifestyle destination creating a transparent and sustainable future for the apparel industry. For its work in sustainability, Zady was named one of the world’s “Most Innovative Companies” in retail by Fast Company. Bédat has been recognized by Oprah in her Super Soul 100, for leaders elevating humanity and serves as an ambassador for Rainforest Alliance. She has spoken at some of the world’s leading conferences, including the WWD Apparel/Retail CEO Summit, and has been regularly featured as an expert by Bloomberg, Forbes, Business of Fashion, CNN and the Huffington Post. Bédat began her career in international law working at the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal and received a Juris Doctor with distinction from Columbia Law School.

Host Raj Daniels 02:12

If you’re asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Maxine Bédat 02:21

I used to be a ballroom dancer. That seems to be something a bit out of the ordinary. My path to what I’m doing now has been long and winding and yes, it included a stop as a ballroom dancer.

Host Raj Daniels 03:36

Can you give the audience an overview of the New Standard Institute and your role at the organization?

Maxine Bédat 03:43

The New Standard Institute is a think and do tank that is focusing specifically on the fashion industry, and to hold it accountable with regard to the industry’s environmental and social impact. So what we do is, at the moment, sustainability, especially in the fashion industry, is a very vague, wishy-washy term that has come to mean just about anything and nothing. What the New Standard Institute does is bring together the existing data that we have available on what the actual impacts of the industry are, kind of serve as a clearinghouse of information for others, whether it be organizations or media, or brands themselves to know what the industry’s impact is, and to use that data then to drive systems change within the fashion industry.

Host Raj Daniels 04:46

I love the think and do tank. How do you collect the data?

Maxine Bédat 04:53

We have looked through first starting with peer-reviewed journals. And what is interesting about fashion is that it encompasses so many what are traditionally siloed topics. So whether it’s climate change, or agriculture issues, or water issues, which would include things like microplastic pollution, but also chemistry and chemical impact labor issues as well. 

We’ve kind of done a deep dive across all of these different impact area categories, and examine what data is available in the literature, and then what is available from other organizations in the space. And then finally, we’ve actually gone out and travel to the supply chain so that we have a network of whether it’s farmers, or mill executives, mill workers, garment workers, garment executives, and brands themselves. So we have a full network and understanding of what is happening, both from an academic point of view, but also from real-world all the on the ground as well.

Host Raj Daniels 06:12

So you mentioned microplastic, can you tell us what’s the relationship between fashion and microplastics?

Maxine Bédat 06:20

First of all, just to kind of start out and thinking about microplastics, we have to think about the macro plastics. Because I think when people consider plastic pollution, they imagine the things that they can see, they think about that water bottle bobbing up and down in the water, or the garbage patch. But the majority of the plastic pollution that is out there is actually these microplastics, these things that you cannot see, except for under a microscope. And within the microplastic pollution textiles is actually 34.8% of all microplastics. So it’s a huge driver of plastic pollution and microplastic pollution in particular. And that is because there has been an enormous shift in the past 20 years away from natural fibers to synthetic fibers, which are plastic base. 

So the primary one is polyester, and polyester today, which is again, a plastic that is created from fossil fuel is in the majority of clothing. And that is when you chart the graph of that just an astronomical rise and a dramatic shift from the world we had before where fibers came from the ground, either a cotton plant or flax plant to something that is fossil fuel-derived, and it’s happened within a generation.

What the fashion industry has done has started this race to the bottom, that pit countries against one another of who can have the lowest standards.

Host Raj Daniels 07:57

When did the change to polyester happen? And why did it happen?

Maxine Bédat 08:02

Well, if you chart the rise of polyester, and you chart the rise of fast fashion companies like H&M, Zara, and these even faster fashion companies that are coming up, it matches pretty closely. Polyester is a cheaper fiber. When you are creating a business that is dependent on producing cheap clothes, you use the cheapest fiber. So it’s really been this move to seeing clothing as disposable, and these business models of disposability that have aligned very closely with the dramatic rise of polyester, these plastic-based fibers.

Host Raj Daniels 08:51

You know, you mentioned, I think H&M and most recently, my older daughter, she was looking at a website named SHEIN. And she was telling me the prices of some of the clothes that are on that website $7 for top, how does a company manage to get that produced and sent all the way to America for $7?

Maxine Bédat 09:10

It means they’re cutting corners wherever they possibly can. And so that is twofold. You go do your production in a country that has the lowest environmental standards and you go to a country that has the lowest labor standards. And the fashion industry is, I think an interesting one to study because at least on the cut and sew side, the way we produce clothing hasn’t changed. What we made it out of has changed but how we produce our clothing hasn’t changed in the past about 100 years. It’s still produced primarily by women sitting at sewing machines. Those businesses are pretty easy to set up because it only requires a sewing machine which is not expensive. 

What the fashion industry has done has started this race to the bottom, that pit countries against one another of who can have the lowest standards. And this is how you get a top that costs $5 or $7 is that you are using the very cheapest material, you are not implementing environmental regulations. So, chemicals are being used and not being filtered out and entering the water supply. And you are certainly not paying your workers anywhere close to a living wage.

I think as a starting point, however, what we can do is demand as people who consume these products that the brands are actually disclosing what is happening in their supply chain.

Host Raj Daniels 10:38

You know, there’s a lot of talk in the environmental movement about externalities. And I feel like as you were talking, I’m just thinking of the pollution you mentioned, or the low wages, the other externalities that people on the planet is being forced to bear. And again, we can’t see it, you know, we’re in the consuming and but maybe it’s a more philosophical question, but, how do we turn this back? How do we stop this? And, and obviously, education is one of the pathways to do so. But if you had the power to do so, how would you prevent this or stop this or slow it down from happening?

Maxine Bédat 11:14

It’s beyond a philosophical conversation. It’s a regulatory conversation. We create the rules in which these businesses operate, and we can change them. And so we can insist that companies that are importing product into the United States, and having access to our markets that they are produced in certain ways. In fact, we already have laws on the books for things like products that are produced with modern-day slavery. So technically, it’s illegal to import a product produced by modern-day slavery, it’s just unfortunate that there’s not a lot of resources in that department in the United States, to ensure that rule is actually implemented. So it’s really a matter of regulatory shifts, ultimately, and we have the ability to change these regulations. 

I think as a starting point, however, what we can do is demand as people who consume these products that the brands are actually disclosing what is happening in their supply chain. So disclosing what their environmental and social footprint is, and setting public targets for what they’re going to do to achieve reductions of those impacts. So it can you know, ultimately, I think these are regulatory issues where it’s just the rules of doing business. But as a starting point, we can really make our voices heard with brands directly by insisting and demanding that they be transparent and disclose what their impacts are and where they’re going.

Host Raj Daniels 12:57

So speaking of transparency, can you share with the audience what shadow factories are?

Maxine Bédat 13:14

In the 1960s, in the United States, if you were wearing clothing, you were likely wearing clothing on one hope the clothing that one was wearing was likely made in the United States. So something like 95% of the clothing that Americans wore was American-made, and globalization opened the world up. And there were many benefits of that. But what happened is the clothing very quickly started getting produced in other countries that were cheaper, primarily cheaper labor. We talked about this kind of race to the bottom, that race kind of started to take off. And so today 98% of clothing that Americans wore are not made in the United States. So a complete reversal from the 1960s. 

So in this race to the bottom, in the 90s, what was uncovered by the media, with the kind of unsavory the downsides of this globalized supply chain, were these sweatshops. So Nike got in big trouble for it. And there were 60-minute programs and people began to realize this very unsavory process behind how we were getting our clothing. And from that what happened is brands started to develop these codes of conduct for the factories that they worked with. And basically, it was, you know, saying you have to have, you know, chemistry management and certain labor standards. And this is what they then started to ask of their suppliers. But at the same time, they kept asking for price reductions from their suppliers. So it was asking for high standards, but then not really putting their own money where their mouth was. 

What has happened is there’s an entire kind of auditing regime around ensuring that these standards are being implemented, or at least providing cover for the brands that they are attempting to implement. And to skirt around this auditing regime. factories have used what is called shadow factories, which are not audited facilities most often, which then have lower standards, and you can’t find good numbers around, you know, how many shadow factories there are, because the whole reason they exist, is because they are meant to not be seen. 

But I think it’s important to note it is so often, the brands will say like, oh, our suppliers are not, they are breaking the rules. But it is important to note the price pressure, and the very small margins that the factories are already operating under, and how those two things, if you want to keep reducing your prices that you’re giving to factories, eventually they’re going to have to break rules.

Host Raj Daniels 16:50

If you were to, let’s say, suggest or recommend people become more thoughtful regarding their consumption habits, what would you suggest from a step by step process or something that you could say to a person, here, try this instead?

Maxine Bédat 17:04

Well, I think in order to answer that question, I think I would answer it in two ways. One is I would spend some time in my closet, actually looking at the tags, what are things actually made out of getting a better understanding of what one actually really likes? Because I think, you know, I’ve spoken to a lot of women in particular, but men too, who actually don’t know what they really like in clothing. And that actually leaves them far more open to kind of these trends or marketing messages is because they don’t actually know what makes them happy, and what gives them actual true pleasure. 

So I think from a personal standpoint, starting there, and looking at tags and seeing, well, what actually feels good? The statistic is that women were only about 20% of what’s in their closet. So why would you spend money on something that you’re never gonna actually wear? And what are those 20%? I think if we can start from that standpoint, and really figure out what we love, we’re going to end up enjoying what we buy, first of all, and wearing our things more, which is ultimately the biggest driver in terms of personal purchasing decisions is actually wearing our garments longer. That you know, is really what needs to be the driving point of our own individual purchasing practices. 

But beyond just individual purchasing practices, I think what’s critical for people to know is that they have a voice both in the purchases that they make, but also in what they are demanding of brands. And that, you know, getting in the habit of asking a company that they might support. What are they doing with their supply chain? Those questions trickle up to the executives. And that’s how change begins to happen. And so I think that individuals who are hearing the impacts of the industry and want to do something, it’s both what can they do in their individual purchasing decisions, but also the role that they play in communicating with brands, what they expect of them. 

And then I would just add, the exposure, we have vastly increased our exposure or exposure to advertising content. And so a very practical thing, I think about habit formation. A very practical thing to do is whether it’s on Instagram or your email is unfollowing or unsubscribing to brands and retailers so that you’re less exposed to these marketing messages all of the time.

Host Raj Daniels 19:57

We just rolled through Black Friday and we’re coming up on Christmas.

Maxine Bédat 19:59

I think we’re seeing now that people are having more conversations about, maybe especially now because of COVID and being stuck in one’s home and have kind of being forced to live with all of the stuff that one is acquired. And you know, that we can, we can still, you know, we can gift services. There’s so many other important gifts that you can have, besides a pair of slippers that you’ll never actually wear.

Host Raj Daniels 20:34

True. So, have you done the closet exercise yourself? And if you have, what did you learn?

Maxine Bédat 20:40

I have done that, that’s kind of how I got started as I was, my closet was overflowing. And I felt like I was always buying things. And yet, I never had anything to wear. And I got very frustrated one day. And so I decided to go through my whole closet and did that exact exercise. And what I found made me feel much better because the things that I really loved were natural fibers, they actually feel much better than polyester does most of the time. And so, I found that the things that I tended to wear on repeat would be, you know, a nice, especially during COVID, a nice cotton t-shirt, maybe it cashmere cardigan, you know, a layering piece, and kind of knowing my own lifestyle, I could then think about the next purchase. If it did make did it actually make sense with my lifestyle? Like high heels that I was buying. And then actually end up using them? Because how often did I actually need patent leather high heels? Not often.

Host Raj Daniels 21:52

Sounds like a Marie Kondo moment.

Maxine Bédat 21:54

Yeah. And I think you know, Marie Kondo, in that regard is, that whole movement is great, I would add one additional step, which is actually another Japanese concept, not by KonMari, which is acknowledging, you know, a regret for the resources used as one gives things away because what we hear when we speak to the donation centers, is they are just getting inundated from all of this purging that’s going on, and purging is okay. But if it’s just to refill your closet again, and keep that cycle going, that actually isn’t moving the needle very much. So I think a recognition of the resources that were used, as we limit our things to what sparks joy will be an important additional step in that KonMari method.

Host Raj Daniels 22:52

I agree. So coming back to the Institute for a moment, who’s your customer or your client?

Maxine Bédat 22:58

It’s broad. We really think about the stakeholders of fashion, and those are our audience. The stakeholders are the citizens. stakeholders are the media and stakeholders are the brands themselves, and so on the New Standard Institute, and through our social media channels, in particular, which we are at NSI Fashion 2030 should note that we provide guidance for all of those stakeholders, what one can do as a citizen, what one can do as a brand, and what one can how media can responsibly cover this industry. So we really think about the entire fashion system and think about systems change, as opposed to just one area.

Host Raj Daniels 23:48

I like that. So changing gears, let’s get to the crux of our conversation is the why behind what you do. You mentioned your experiment with your own closet, but what drove you to get involved? What drove you to start this? What’s your driving force? What motivates you?

Maxine Bédat 24:04

I think if I really am honest with myself, I, at an early age was exposed to a lot of injustice, not on not of mine. But my family comes from South Africa. I was born in the United States, but I saw apartheid and as a young person, I couldn’t even equate, like how that could be a world that would exist. And so I think if I’m thinking about what has driven me is that certainly a sense of, of wanting the world to be adjusted world, and, but I think kind of more concretely beyond that broader drive is I did not start in the fashion industry, I got my start working at the United Nations, and I’m a lawyer by training. But what I found is that the work that the UN was focused on in terms of the Millennium Development Goals, which became the Sustainable Development Goals, that they all tied to how our products are made, sold, how much people are getting paid, what impacted those products have, and where did they go, when we’re done with them. 

And so, fashion seemed to me a very powerful way, in addressing what seem like such separate siloed issues, but in reality, they are all embodied in our clothing. And so that was how I got started in the path first launching a fashion company that was focused on sustainability and then deciding to focus instead on not on producing more garments, but on informing and educating the industry and industry stakeholders. So it’s from a deep-seated desire for a just world. And then seeing that fashion plays just a massively powerful and underreported role in the planet that we live on, and it’s potential for its future.

We realize it’s actually not rocket science to change these things. It’s all a matter of just having our voices be heard and getting these policies implemented…

Host Raj Daniels 26:40

You know, I wanna underline that piece about underreported, it’s something that we rarely think about, we just take clothing for granted, we don’t really put concern into where it comes from. I’ve actually had the pleasure of being overseas and seeing some of the manufacturing plants both in India and in Vietnam. We talked about shadow factories, but seeing how things are made. And also, interestingly enough, seeing how clothing is made in factories, and the same clothing might be shipped, for example, to let’s say, a Dillards here. And the same clothing ends up in the marketplaces in the cities for significantly less amount of money. But just the disparities, and you know, what we quote-unquote, buy here and pay here versus what the clothing is actually worth in those countries.

Maxine Bédat 27:30

Absolutely. If you think about trade, even from the very beginning, you know, it was the Silk Road, which was about textiles, the trade links that we have globally around the world direct links back to our clothing. I mean, if you think about India, and India’s cotton and it was the drive for that cotton in India, at first that drove well, colonialism and drove modern-day capitalism. 

I think clothing is so often dismissed as this silly, girly, inconsequential thing, and even in the environmental circles all, you know, raise, you know, the topic of clothing, which, depending on which report, you believe, has, you know, anywhere between 4 and 8% of total climate impact globally. So you know, it’s this massively impactful industry now, you know, no matter how you cut it, but it’s seen as something girly and inconsequential, and it certainly is not.

Host Raj Daniels 28:41

Absolutely not. So, what are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned on your journey so far?

Maxine Bédat 28:47

Well, there are so many, I think, to me is, I think it’s important if we really, two things. If we’re really looking to address these big environmental and social issues, we have to be driven by the data. That’s the only way we’re really going to see whether we’re making any progress. Because narrative can be so powerful and is so powerful. Stories are so powerful and important. But they can distract us, or they can be misleading in that we think, changes being made, when it’s really, you know, just change on the margin. And so I think we really need to focus on that data, to know whether we are actually moving the needle in a significant way. 

I think we’re seeing more and more of this, that we need to understand the world in systems because it’s also, the way to drive, change to see how these things are all interconnected, and that’s been a very powerful lens for me is to kind of mapping out, you know, who are the different stakeholders, you know, within fashion, are aware of the different the various impacts, and bringing all of those things to bear is how we can really drive change. And then using data, achieve those meaningful shifts.

Host Raj Daniels 30:28

I love the idea of taking a holistic view. So let’s change our view for a moment here. It’s 2030 like you mentioned in your handle earlier, what does the future hold magic wand, the New Standard Institute in 2030? What does it look like?

Maxine Bédat 30:41

Well, if we’ve achieved what we set out to achieve that NSI, and that’s why we’ve put NSI Fashion 2030 as our handle won’t need to exist anymore. And I think that that is important because I think sometimes organizationally, we may get distracted and, you know, trying to perpetuate our own existence. 

But I’m trying to get myself out of the job by 2030. And what it looks like is we’ve all taken a look at our system of clothing, which I think does a terrific job of helping us understand the other areas of environmental and social impact. We understand through our clothing how labor is, is driven down globally, through our clothing, we understand agricultural practices, we understand ocean pollution and environmental pollution more broadly. And we understand climate impact and what drives it and how it’s global to that we can’t just have policies in the US to drive down our energy use, all while just offshoring and outsourcing the climate impact to other countries. 

So we’ve kind of all taken a study of that. We realize it’s actually not rocket science to change these things. It’s all a matter of just having our voices be heard and getting these policies implemented, that we all see that we have a serious stake. And that being a citizen means something and we’ve used that citizenship to change policy to have rules that, you know, are truly democratic and work for us. And from that, we’ve built societies and trade relationships that aren’t a race to the bottom but are a race to the top, where we have good jobs that pay a living wage, whether it’s in the United States, or around the world, that we have oceans that are filled with fish and not plastic, that our air is clean, and doesn’t cost disease to breathe, and that we’ve addressed our climate impact and live in a thriving planet. And I think that that world is a much more joyous world where we have the time to connect, which is what you know, when you read the literature on happiness, the literature does not say that buying stuff makes us happy. The literature all says that having meaning and connection is the thing that truly makes us happy. So that would be my vision for 2030.

Host Raj Daniels 33:37

I love the idea of a race to the top, as he was speaking, there’s a quote that came to mind the things you own end up owning you.

Maxine Bédat 33:44

Yes, absolutely.

Host Raj Daniels 33:46

So last question. If you could share some advice or words of wisdom, what would it be?

Maxine Bédat 33:56

I think if I could say one thing, it’s that we all hold so much more power than we think that we have. And whether you are just starting out if you’re a student, you know, you can determine you know, the path that your career takes, or if you are working at a company and you feel like well, I’m not senior management, I don’t have any sway. Asking the questions is what creates the change? And so I think if I would have one thing to say it’s that you have more power, power as a citizen power as a worker, and asking those questions, you know, signing on to petitions, makes a difference. And we’ve you know, if you look at history, which I’ve had the benefit of being able to study, you can see that any change that has happened in the past has been from a few voices speaking up. And so I think if we all see the power that we truly have, we can make these changes which are not rocket science. It’s just a matter of creating that political will.

Host Raj Daniels 35:13

Maxine, before we go, can you speak briefly to the petition you mentioned?

Maxine Bédat 35:20

Yes. So what we have a New Standard Institute, which you can find at newstandardinstitute.org is a petition that anyone can sign on. And we would love and encourage that. And it’s basically to demand that the largest fashion companies that have the largest environmental and social footprint, do something that is pretty straightforward. It’s doing a social and environmental accounting of their impact, to actually publish that impact disclose that impact and to disclose the targets that the companies have set for themselves of how they’re going to reduce that impact, and what they are doing right now to achieve those targets. What we have found is that, because there has been growing concern from citizens, from all of us, brands have come forward and have set targets for things like 2030, or 2050. But what we’re finding, just like what we found for targets that were set for 2020, that a target in and of itself doesn’t mean it’s going to be fulfilled magically. And we saw in 2020 that companies had set targets for themselves that they never ended up achieving. And so what this petition is, is to have your voice heard with those brands so that they see that we care that we don’t just want words, that we want to see action. And so that is what is the petition, and we would really love your listeners if they care to make an impact to go on to newstandardinstitute.org and sign up.


Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels

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