New York - Just as Hurricane Michael is due to make landfall along Florida’s Panhandle, one day after World Homeless Day, a panel of fashion industry executives and non-profit organizers, moderated by Karen Giberson, President of Accessories Council, sits in the midtown Manhattan showroom of United Legwear and discusses how fashion can help. FashionUnited is invited.
Lisa Gurwitch who remembers the trauma of experiencing Hurricane Betsy as a young girl in Mobile, Alabama, is the points person for where fashion meets disaster relief. Her non-profit organization, Delivering Good, works with 1000s of brands––DVF, PVH, Macys, Timberland, Nike to name a few–– and dozens of charitable organizations to provide necessary help when flood, hurricane, or wildfire hit. On this week’s calendar? Deliver 1 million back-to-school uniforms to Puerto Rico. In fact, over the course of 2017, the worst hurricane season in over 20 years, Delivering Good has provided over 32 million dollars worth of new clothing, shoes, bedding and home goods to victims in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Northern California, and Mexico.
“Clothing might seem like an extra, a luxury,” says Peter Gudaitis, Executive Director and CEO of NYDIS (New York Disaster Interfaith Services.) “But clothing and food are the two most necessary things impact victims need. It’s not something nice and aesthetic, it’s something life-saving and important; it’s not seasonal or disposable, it’s something that will be kept for years.”
The little things that count
While coats and blankets are obviously critical, certain apparel items which don’t immediately come to mind perhaps because they’re hidden, or because they must be unworn, can be forgotten about by donors: underwear and in particular bras in a variety of sizes. Belts and wallets are also a pleasant surprise for many disaster victims. Plus-size merchandise has been challenging to receive, which is why Delivering Good partnered recently with Eloquii to provide new clothes for women of all sizes. There are educated professionals who, having just lost everything, need a suit for work or interview clothing to help them get back on their feet.
When we are bombarded with troubling headlines about Burberry burning its unsold inventory or H&M taking the scissors to theirs, it can be easy to assume the fashion industry is oblivious to the idea that charity begins at home. But Gurwitch, the leading officer in the trenches, begs to differ.
“We understand that luxury brands are worried about their brand and we’ve come up with some remedies for that, they must protect their name, that’s true not just for luxury but for all brands. But we see a lot of enlightened industry representatives, and those that don’t know yet we’re happy to talk to them.”
Gudaitis adds, “I think people want to make a difference and often just don’t know how. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are major manufacturers who haven’t even heard of Delivering Good, just as there are organizations that don’t know what we do in the city. For outreach, we rely on our donors and partners to be more ambassador-facing, rather than just giving and walking away.”
The halo effect
There are hundreds of brands that enjoy the halo effect of partnering with Delivering Good but when asked about notable global luxury conglomerates that are absent from the roster, Gudaitis proposes that luxury is in the eye of the beholder.
For disaster survivors, donated inventory becomes a luxury product.
“I’m not sure if a disaster survivor needs a 30,000 dollar Louis Vuitton steamer trunk,” he says with a twinkle. “But those companies, luxury if you will, still can have a role. Much of the product we get is luxury to our client. For some, getting a Ralph Lauren purse is literally the nicest thing they’ve ever seen, but getting a Hanes sweatshirt in the middle of winter for a homeless person in New York City is lifesaving. And the funny thing is people develop brand loyalties this way. Those Calvin Klein underwear really fit me well, says someone, and they remember that product and company now because they think that company did them right. So I think Louis Vuitton should donate more.”
Generosity of the fashion industry
Delivering Good board member, Karen Bromley, who has been involved with the organization since 1985, emphasizes, “We would not be here 33 years later if it wasn’t for the fashion industry. We’ve been able to grow and expand and touch so many more lives because we have 45 board members that represent so many major brands. While there are those few very luxury that destroy their product, we have been able to work with similar brands to stop that. Our success is really a testament to the industry’s generosity.”
Gurwitch concludes with a perfect storm of reasons why all companies should get involved: Victims receiving new clothes over previously worn items are awarded an immediate sense of dignity that’s unmatchable. Donation is an environmentally friendly way to offload inventory that might otherwise be headed for landfill. Many companies she already works with have jumped ahead and actually manufacture product specifically to be donated. And, finally, EROI (Emotional Return on Investment) is a an incentive to the modern consumer as studies show that people want to buy from companies that do good.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Header Image:Hurrucane Kenna in the Eastern Pacific 2002 Image courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC - http://rapidfire.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/gallery/?2002297-1024/Kenna.A2002297.1750.2km.jpg Wikimedia Commons, other photos FashionUnited