Founding Executive Director of Fashion Takes Action
Kelly Drennan is a systems thinker, thought leader and disruptor devoted to making change within the fashion industry. In 2007 she founded Fashion Takes Action, out of her desire to create a better, more sustainable future for her two daughters. Her role at FTA is to identify the barriers to sustainability that exist for both industry and consumers, and do what she can to remove them.
Determined to make fashion circular, Kelly co-wrote Canada’s textile recycling feasibility report, and is now leading a group of national stakeholders in a mechanical textile recycling pilot.
From 2018-2020 she convened the Ontario Textile Diversion Collaborative (OTDC) which was a group of more than 30 stakeholders (municipalities, charities, collectors, retailers, NGOs, policy makers and academics) committed to increasing textile diversion, through a collective impact framework. Kelly is a strategic partner in the Circular Economy Leadership Canada, an advisor to the Textile Lab for Circularity in Vancouver, and was a member of the City of Toronto’s Circular Economy Working Group where she brought her sustainability expertise to their Fashion Industry Advisory Panel.
In 2014, Kelly created the annual World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (WEAR) Conference, and in 2020, the WEAR webinar series. She has hosted hundreds of industry experts in sharing practical insights to thousands of global attendees through these forums, and is a sought-after speaker herself, having given hundreds of presentations to industry, academics and consumers, including a TED talk as part of the Global TEDx Countdown event focused on climate action.
Kelly is passionate about collaboration and bringing together multiple perspectives in an effort to take action. In 2019 she co-created the Sustainable Fashion Toolkit in partnership with PwC Canada, and she oversees FTA’s youth education program My Clothes My World that she created in 2014 for students in grades 4-12 — delivered to more than 25,000 students in classrooms across Ontario and in Vancouver – and which is now being delivered virtually.
In 2017, Kelly was the recipient of the prestigious Clean 50 award given to Canada’s climate leaders, where she was recognized for Education & Thought Leadership, and was the first recipient of the award for the fashion industry.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
It’s really in our DNA. It’s the whole reason we started Fashion Takes Action. Unlike some organizations that have introduced sustainability initiatives over time, our mission from the get-go was to advance sustainability in the fashion industry. I had been working in the conventional fashion industry for a number of years doing public relations and events and I got a good behind-the-scenes look at what was going on in the industry, and how excessive it was. I felt that there was a need for, especially in Canada, an organization to support smaller fashion businesses that were passionate about sustainability 15 years ago. So from the very beginning, we set out to help empower businesses and consumers with the tools that they need to make responsible decisions.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
Well, we address the entire fashion system which means our focus is on everybody, from the people who make the clothes, and the retailers who sell them, to the people who buy and wear the clothes to those who reuse and recycle them. Within those different stakeholder groups, we offer a number of different programs. With the industry, our big focus right now is on circularity and transitioning the fashion industry away from a linear business model. This means everything from designing for circularity to the end of life. We see our role is to remove any barriers that exist to sustainability – whether it be for industry or for consumers. A lot of those barriers come down to lack of awareness, lack of education, and access to resources. So we do what we can to help overcome these barriers. Other challenges that have come to the forefront recently are policy-related. So now we’re starting to strengthen our relationship with the different levels of government and policymakers to see where they can support the industry or perhaps put pressure on those who might be lagging behind the leaders in this space.
How did you enter this space?
Entrepreneurship is in my blood. I was an entrepreneur before I started this. I had been running my own PR and events company in the Toronto fashion scene. I had been working with many designers, Fashion Weeks, and other events and public relations campaigns. Getting that behind-the-scenes look, there were a few things that propelled me to start Fashion Takes Action. At the time, I had a two-year-old and a newborn. I had seen Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and really felt like there was a calling – my first a-ha moment – where I thought I just had to do something. I had to take my existing knowledge, experience, and contacts and figure something out. So it started out as an event that I was planning on doing once a year to raise awareness and money for an NGO. Lo and behold, it turned into a full-blown nonprofit organization and here we are 15 years later.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
I always considered myself to be somewhat of an environmentalist, I suppose. I have always been a lover of the outdoors. Then, when I had my first daughter, I really started to be more aware of things that I was eating and what products I was using, whether it was household cleaning products or beauty and care products. It was funny because there was still this disconnect. This journey of living a sustainable lifestyle is very similar for a lot of people in that sustainability in fashion comes towards the end of the journey. For me, I had reached that point in my own journey, and furthermore, I was also a fashion addict. Having worked in public relations, I was often paid in clothes. Even before I started my own business, I worked at a magazine, so I was always on top of the trends. My closet was overflowing and, looking back, I feel really awful about that. At the same time, I think that’s what caused me to move into a more sustainable fashion space. Fifteen years ago, I was probably considered a little bit crazy because nobody really believed this sustainable fashion thing was more than a trend. It wasn’t even called sustainable fashion. First, “green fashion” was what it was referred to back then if you can believe that. And then it went to eco-fashion, then sustainable, and now circular and regenerative. It’s so interesting to watch the trajectory of the lexicon around sustainability.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
I honestly get so excited about the young entrepreneurs and startups and innovators that just keep popping up both in Canada and around the world. Circularity is definitely a focus for a lot of brands, and we need to have industry working with civil society, with government, and other actors. It’s exciting to see fashion at the intersection of different fields like science, technology, and innovation. Those are real drivers for sustainability and circularity. There’s anything from innovations in recycling technologies to upcycling, at-scale collaborations between major brands and other players (e.g., textile exporters). There are also material innovations like a plant-based synthetic to replace spandex. Lastly, I’d say traceability and how that even connects to circularity. For example, using RFID tagging to trace a garment right from the beginning through to the end of life is becoming a really great tool. All these really cool emerging technologies are very exciting for me.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
There’s a little bit of misconception around secondhand clothing and the export trade. Not everybody is a bad actor in this space, even though there definitely are some. What I mean by a “bad actor” is that there are organizations that are bailing, shipping, and selling our garbage overseas. There are some people, for example, who think that certain larger second-hand retailers are bad actors when they’re actually not. They work directly with the materials processors in the global south to make sure that they are managing, sorting, and grading what is being shipped. So I think that’s a huge misconception.
There’s also a misconception in regard to textile recycling. There are some who believe it’s going to fuel production and consumption because it is an excuse for brands to continue to overproduce, and an excuse for consumers to overconsume. Hopefully, that isn’t the future, and that it is more about being able to find local solutions for the stuff that isn’t fit for resale, rather than just saying: “Oh, this is somebody else’s problem, I’m gonna ship it overseas.” I think if we can develop a recycling industry in Canada for that stuff, then that’s the area that we need to focus on. There needs to be less criticism around it.
The last misconception I would address is greenwashing. I think consumers need to take more responsibility to do the research and recognize when brand claims are false or vague, and start poking holes in some of those claims. There’s no excuse anymore. We all have smartphones, we can all access photos and testimonials. There are ways that they can be a little bit more transparent with us in terms of how and where their clothes are made. Also, there are certifications for brands to back up any claims being made. If there’s no certification, then just assume that they’re greenwashing. I think that that’s part of this misconception of taking what a brand says at face value and that if they’re saying they’re doing something that it must mean they are because oftentimes, they’re not.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
Since before the pandemic, I have been working from home. I definitely think it helps with that work-life balance. Taking a break is a lot easier to do. I make sure to try and get some exercise every day, whether it’s hopping on my Echelon bike and doing a spin class, doing a yoga class in my living room, or going for a walk. That’s really important for me. Also, it’s interesting because I’ve definitely been putting a lot more emphasis on work-life balance the past few years. I’ve had to deal with a lot of stress running an organization and starting from scratch. I was constantly dealing with no funding and I had to make myself a volunteer for the first 10 years of Fashion Takes Action. My mental health definitely took a toll. If you don’t take care of your mental health, it can really affect you. I was very fortunate to have support, whether it was from my family, or mentors, and I’ve always had really strong support from my board of directors. Now, I have a team. For a long time, it was just me pulling 70 hours a week and for free. I am now much better at managing my time, and my team really helps because not only are they sharing the workload, but even being able to collaborate, bounce ideas off of, and even just connect with the peers around me is great. When you’re working alone, it can be pretty isolating. Oftentimes it feels like you are against the world, so if anyone out there is thinking of starting something up, I would strongly recommend you consider a strong support network as a part of the work-life balance. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a mentor, a family member, or a colleague, it will get you through the tough times.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
Getting funding is quite tricky. Fashion isn’t recognized by the Canadian government as part of the Arts. As a result, you end up running into a lot of foundation-related grants that say they’re very arts-focused, but what they mean is visual art, dance, opera, or other areas that aren’t fashion-related. Then on the environmental side of things, we don’t make a lot of clothes in Canada anymore. So from an impact perspective, it was always very challenging to convince the government to fund any of our initiatives when the major impact is overseas in the manufacturing regions where clothes are being made. Thankfully, what has caught the attention of these funders now is the impact that our used clothes have on the environment. So we’ve been able to secure some funding over the last few years that really connects to the amount of waste that’s generated from this industry because while we don’t make it in Canada, we definitely like to dump it in Canada. Our clothes are filling up Canada’s landfills with at least half a million tonnes of textiles every year. That’s a big problem, and we need to solve that.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
We are looking to transition and scale our youth education programs for students aged 8 to 17, which is a demographic that isn’t often addressed by other groups. Our hope is to completely digitize our workshops and offer them for free, and we’ve been slowly moving in that direction. For us, it’s really about the impact and reach. We’ve delivered our program to 25,000 students in Canada to date, over seven or more years. Our goal would be to reach 25,000 students a year and one day make it a global program.
On the industry side, we are really excited to finally be working much more closely with the big brands. When I first started the organization, as I mentioned, I worked with the smaller independent designers, because that’s who was really leading this movement. Never in a million years would I have thought that we’d be working with big brands. There was a bit of an awakening for me about seven years ago where I realized that it’s the big brands that actually have the greatest impact. If a big brand makes one tiny change, it’s huge compared to a small independent design firm that is 100% sustainable. So we’ve always tried to find a way to balance our support for smaller designers while shifting our attention to the big brands. I think one exciting project is for us to create an accelerator program for Canada, where we basically support Canadian startups that are working hard to address issues for sustainable and circular fashion.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
I think it’s really important to always be learning. It’s important whether you’re in a leadership position or just getting started. Secondly, I think a key requirement is effective time management. Especially for the work we do, I can’t stress it enough to be able to switch gears and manage your time. Many people think they are better at managing their time than they actually are. It’s also tricky when you’re managing a team that works from home. There’s a lot of trust on my part that they are doing what they say they’re doing. So I think being able to be efficient and manage your time effectively is super important. Lastly, I would say resilience is a must-have, as cliche as that might sound. It’s important to not give up. In any job, you’re gonna have your ups and downs, but you just need to make sure that you’ve got what it takes to get through the downs because it’ll go back up again. I’ve had so many times where I thought: “Oh, I got to just throw in the towel. I need to go back to doing PR full-time, or maybe I’ll go work at an ad agency.” Then something will come along that completely surprises me. Maybe it’s a young person who took our school program five years ago, and now they’re reaching out to me and want to volunteer with FTA. Maybe it’s somebody from a brand that’s reached out and said: “I just attended this event and learned so much. Now I’m forming a sustainability committee at my company.” Those kinds of things are what really got me through those lows. You just need to stick it out and wait for them to show up because they will.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
That’s a tricky question. As somebody who has a teenager graduating from school who just applied to university, I do believe in higher education. I put more weight into having a degree than not having one. For those who don’t, though, work experience is also great, volunteer experience can go a long way, and how you carry yourself and communicate is extremely important. I can be interviewing somebody with a master’s degree and the way they present themselves is so not impressive at all to me, whereas I could meet somebody who’s in first-year university/college or not in post-secondary at all, and yet, they are much more enthusiastic, they ask the right questions, and they demonstrate curiosity. Would I go with the candidate with the degree? Not necessarily.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
Well, part of me feels like I was about six or seven years too soon. I probably could have kept my other career going and made some more money before I really threw everything into this passion project. At the same time, would I be where I am today? I don’t know.
I also think I would have been more open to working with the bigger brands sooner. I think it was important for me to go through the “activist” stage of my life and career, as it was the inner-hippie in me that caused me to start the organization. However, I could have focused less on finger-pointing and more on collaborating with the big brands. Otherwise, I don’t think I could have done anything differently because I couldn’t have had a team without funding and that was out of my hands.