You might not have noticed, but the United Nations (UN) declared 2021 to be the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. The UN notes that the “creative economy,” defined as including “advertising, architecture, arts and crafts, design, fashion, film, video, photography, music, performing arts, publishing, research and development, software, computer games, electronic publishing, and TV/radio,” makes up more than three percent of global gross domestic product.
Few would dispute their scale, but do creative economy industries support sustainable development? The record is mixed. Take fashion. Last year, NPQ noted that the fashion industry in 2019 was responsible for 43.1 billion tons of carbon emissions, close to four percent of the global total and nearly double that of aviation. Wages, despite corporate living wage commitments, remain famously low; one study estimated that only two percent of fashion workers globally earn a “livable salary.”
In short, if the creative economy is going to contribute to inclusive sustainable development, then it must act more creatively. Advocate Laura Callanan, a founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab and a former senior deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, acknowledges that equity in creative industries is hardly assured. As Callanan writes, “Opportunities are often unevenly distributed and, unless efforts are made, the environmental toll of this growth can be severe.”
Patrick Robinson has spent his career since the early 1990s as a designer for big fashion firms, including Georgia Armani, the Gap, Perry Ellis, and Anne Klein. This year his name appears on a list of “30 Black Designers Who Shaped Fashion History,” published by the French fashion magazine L’Officiel.
But several years ago, as Robinson considered the impact of the fashion industry on people and the environment, he decided to start his own business to change these patterns. Current fashion production, Robinson observes, is not “regenerative in any sense of the word. Money is just being extracted.” This realization, he says, “made me rethink my entire business model.”
Robinson calls his company Paskho‚ which means “passion” in Greek. Robinson designed the firm to be a “premium” ($50–$200 an item) fashion company that produces eco-friendly clothing. Paskho was founded in 2013, but amid COVID Robinson began to explore ways to “onshore” production—that is, return production to the US.
“Watching so many people fall through the social nets” spurred him to action, Robinson says. “The inequality in this country is devastating.” In response, Robinson looked at how to redesign his business to employ US workers and pay them living wages.
The idea, Robinson explains, is to use technology “in the right way to reemploy people. Reemploy them so they start having an equitable wage, a living wage.” A combination of electronically sending designs to workers, computerized inventory control (with workers requesting supplies through an app), the building of production pod worksites, and individualized communication between the buyer and the maker combine to cut out middle management and allow, in theory at least, workers to generate sales that can support a living wage of $18 to $25 an hour.
Robinson began production in the New York City area in early 2021, where his firm employs about 50 workers. One way Robinson’s model aims to generate income for workers is through personalization. “All of the makers sign each thing they make,” Robinson says. Customers get to know “who the maker is, where it was made, and their story.” Robinson adds that a benefit of this model is that with some products, such as pants, customers can communicate directly with workers to arrange repairs. Robinson calls this production approach “Community-Made.”
How did Robinson end up in Gee’s Bend? Through Callanan, Robinson came in contact with Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep foundation since 2016, which is dedicated to “promoti