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Kerry Bannigan: On a Mission to Support Female Entrepreneurs in the Fashion Industry

Kerry Bannigan: On a Mission to Support Female Entrepreneurs in the Fashion Industry

Kerry Bannigan is a social entrepreneur and the Founder of The Fashion Impact Fund as well as The Conscious Fashion Campaign. Her mission is to support female founders in the fashion industry, advancing education, media, and workforce development programs to accelerate women's economic empowerment and leadership. She's also working in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Partnerships developing solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.



This is Heart Stock Radio and I am your host Carole Murphy, as usual. I’d like to remind you that you can reach us at

Our guest is Kerry Bannigan and she is the executive director of The Fashion Impact Fund. In just a moment, she is going to be with us, and tell us all about her story and what she does there at Fashion Impact Fund. Welcome, Kerry and thank you so much for being at Heart Stock.


Thank you so much for having me.


Indeedy. So, can you tell us a little bit about what is The Fashion Impact Fund, and what it is that you do there as the executive director?


Yes, absolutely. So the Fashion Impact Fund is all around how we can support female founders in the fashion industry that are driving sustainable solutions. The goal of that, with the fashion industry being such a damaging sector, what can we do to make it better so that we can accelerate women's economic empowerment and leadership? Overall for society, if we can transform the fashion industry, we can make everything better across communities for people and the planet. 


Yes, indeedy. And can you help us get to know you, Kerry? Are you from the UK?


I am. I am from England, and I moved to the US 17 years ago after graduating university and having the opportunity to come over to the US. And so I did, and I set up in New York City. And through that my work has always been very focused as an entrepreneur, and how we can use fashion and media to drive change. These are two sectors that are so powerful and interesting and very influential.

From the age of 23, my work was around building businesses and organizations that really focused on how through fashion and media we could drive sustainable development and how we could do that through the creative sectors.


What got you interested in sustainability? Maybe you could share just a little bit about how and when you realized that fashion is such a damaging sector. You said that earlier, and it definitely caught my attention.


For me it's an ongoing journey. I feel like many people that end up in sustainability will say the same. Sustainability has gone through many terms, and what we read in the media, and buzz terms, and so forth.

I've been working on economic development and ethical, and eco, and sustainable opportunities in fashion for over 15 years but when you say what gets me interested in it is I was very influenced by my family as I was growing up. I come from a town that does not have many economic opportunities at all, especially for women. It was really short on education opportunities and funding to build up the town and really help that. It was very focused as a struggling working class town. So the opportunities were not always there.

That became the first thing for me when I started my first business. Economic opportunities are crucial. That to me was the starting point of building sustainable towns and cities, and communities. It was being able to provide equal opportunities for people, and because my interest lay in fashion and creativity, that was where I started it.

But sustainable fashion for me is where it sits today. It's all so trendy to thrift, and go to charity shops for pre-loved clothing. For me, growing up, that was normal. My grandma would take me to the second-hand and the charity shops, and that was just the norm for me.

And so to see now where this has come and, let's also be honest, there was a lot of shame with that several decades ago. Whereas where you sit today, it is the norm for youth. They're excited by it, they go for pre-loved shopping together. 

There are many ways that I have known about sustainability.

Whether it was different terms or definitions throughout the journey of my time in existence, to where it's become very holistic in my personal and professional life today.

You asked about when I realized fashion was so damaging.

My first business was very focused on producing runway shows during New York fashion week for independent fashion designers so that they could get known and be a part of the American fashion market. I was very focused, as I mentioned, on opportunities for economic empowerment and development. I thought that was enough. But then I started scratching the surface and understanding that we need to look further. These brands might be scalable and they might be sellable, but how do they pay their staff? How do they treat their staff? What are the factories like? What chemicals are being used in these products and how are they being disposed of? 

I started researching much more beyond this economic opportunity of giving someone that time and leverage to get their brand out there, and make money, and grow their factory partnerships  and brand. I started looking deeper.  Once you start learning what is going on in the fashion industry, the poor quality of working, the very unfair wages, the terrible environments people are working in, and then all the pollution in the water waste. The list goes on.

Between people and planet, once you start realizing how damaging and harmful the sector is, it's about: you've now been educated, how do you action that?

I felt very much that I was playing an active role in the buy-now-see-now. I was turning out these runway shows all the time making sure the media, editors, and retailers were covering the brands, purchasing the brands. And I said, you know, this isn't healthy and this is not the way to achieve sustainability for all.

That's when I really started to change things beyond just focusing on the economic opportunities, and realizing that there was so much more to this that had to happen in this extremely powerful and influential sector.


How long had you been in New York when you started realizing exactly what was going on?


I already knew that we needed to change things. For me, the focus has always been on how we can empower women. The fashion industry is a sector that is heavily reliant on women working in the sector as well as creating adverts and praying, and luring on female consumers to feel bad and buy more. I was always aware of this.

It was about 3-4 years into it, when we were running the runway shows, the presentations, and the store openings that I really started to learn about the vast negative social environmental impacts, reading in depth reports and seeing what that was looking like.


You mentioned that you came over to the United States from the UK right after you graduated.

Can you talk a little bit about your educational experience before you came over? What was it like when you came to the United States? Was it a culture shock for you?


I'm 17 years in and things still get me each week, so yes!

I actually studied English, ironic I know, but it was around the studies, the writing, learning to develop communication skills. I wasn't sure where I wanted to go specifically. I didn't just go and study business or marketing, or law and things like that. I did this because there were so many skills that could be utilized later on. I knew I always wanted to have my own business but with my family, education was not up for discussion. I was the first one going to university out of my family. It was my way out. My mom used to say to me: education is your passport to a better life.

You have to go to university. From there, start your own business, do what you want but you have to. 

That’s why I chose to do it, and I also love Shakespeare and reading. I thought that I would get an easier ride if I went to do English. I actually just fell in love with all the skills, the debating, the writing, as I had mentioned that came with it. I loved it. 

I had been visiting the US since I was 16. My parents are divorced. My father lives in New York and my mother lives in England. 

I just loved it from the moment I arrived in New York City. I felt for the first time I had found home and that I belonged somewhere. I love the diversity and the fast pace. All the stories and the buildings. I was enamored, and I knew that this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life or at least building and playing a role in the history of New York and what was to come.

For me, as well knowing that fashion had such a big role in New York, I knew that this was the place that I wanted to spend my time.

New York and the US in general continued to come with so much culture shock. I think people assume that immediately that it's negative but it's not. The thing that really opened my eyes being in the US was opportunity. It was so different for me. I came to the US at 21 years old. The amount of opportunity that was on the table blew my mind. You had to do it all yourself.

There weren't grants or creative funds and things like that which you see in the UK but there was the chance. People wanted to help you. People were taking you to network, introducing you and were just like go, go do it.

And I do think if you've got the motivation, the ambition, the ability, and the time, and if you are able to carve it out, it comes with so much. If you're willing to put it in, there is actually that ability to grow and be something that you want to achieve. I actually believe I wasn't able to do it in the UK.


When you first came over, what did you do? Was that initially being involved with the Fashion Week and putting on fashion shows? Was that something that you did as your own company or you were working for somebody else? Kind of walk us through your timeline.


Yes, so I moved to the US and I went into a marketing job for corporate, and I realized very quickly that I had to get back to my entrepreneurial plans. Corporate America was not for me.

I think that was a shock more than anything. It felt so trapped and I was only young and early into the journey of that. 

Very quickly I was pen to paper. Let me see what can happen here, what is a gap, what needs to go on? One of the first gaps I've noticed in the fashion sector was how expensive it was for fashion brands to do runway shows during New York fashion week. They were doing shows at friends' coffee shops or night clubs out of hours because it was more affordable for them.

I decided my first business was to create a platform with the co-founder of mine, that brands could showcase at an affordable rate because we would have sponsors underwrite the costs in the fashion space for these new brands to be seen by media, investors, and retailers. That's what we were doing at prime time during New York Fashion Week so our clients could focus on running professional designer businesses. 

What I did to make that happen? I took on a nanny job. I was a nanny by day and entrepreneur by night. 


We all know that. That experience of being spread thin.

And what did you do after that? Did you go directly to the Fashion Impact Fund?


I am basically a very serial entrepreneur but I am a social entrepreneur as well. As I mentioned, I build fashion and media initiatives. I have built several programs across the fashion industry, retail and lifestyle.

For my work through all of that, I've always been very focused on working with governments, town leaders, the tourism, chambers of commerce and so forth. The point was how you can really use public private partnerships to advocate for sustainable development. Fashion and lifestyle is a very cool way to get the attention of citizens and consumers.

My journey had several shapes to it. Now I sit as the Executive Director of the Fashion Impact Fund that's embodying and embracing many of the programs that I've built over time, one of them being the conscious fashion campaign that I had actually built in 2018 with the United Nations office for partnerships. The Fashion Impact Fund now houses several of my initiatives as our flagship in-house programs as well as distributes grants to female founders in the fashion industry.


Very exciting. Kerry, can you talk a little bit about how it works? It sounds like you have both an educational and an entrepreneurial league to the Fashion Impact Fund, is that right?


Yes, absolutely. We're very focused on supporting female founders in fashion that are themselves focused on education, media, and workforce development programs. Our whole goal is how can we support these women that are leading these initiatives that in turn are accelerating women's economic empowerment and leadership.

We have three pillars, as I had mentioned, education, media, and workforce development. That's where we believe that these women lead fashion initiatives that are really and truly reimagining the future with solutions so it can be a fair inclusive and regenerative world.

The Fashion Impact Fund is kind of split into two parts where one area is we have our own in-house flagship programs, and on the other part we actually do grant distribution to these women led programs in these areas of focus. 

Our big question is why do we do this? We truly believe that female founders are advocating for a new paradigm in the fashion sector, the one that is making this fair, equitable and also resilient. One thing that a lot of people do not know is that a lot of the time, these agents of change actually represent vulnerable and marginalized populations that are very hurt by the practices of the fashion industry today.

We believe, to look at this in a circular manner, that it's imperative to support their leadership because through the solution systems and strategies that they are trailblazing, they are addressing critical issues of our time. Through that, they can then help to support the communities, and through that we'll also see better for our planet and humanity and nature.

I just want to share a couple of statistics if you don't mind just to bring it into numbers of the fashion industry, and what is going on, because it's extremely powerful. All of us and your listeners today are connected by fashion because we purchase and we vote with our dollars, what we're looking to buy and what that means. That also equals that as citizens and consumers, we have a lot of power in how we want to decide where we want to place that, and what that looks like now.

The fashion industry globally is a $2.4 trillion dollar fashion industry. It employs more than 300 million people across the whole value chain. When people hear that, they think wow, it's doing so good, that's fantastic, and it's a big employer. The problem, however, is that of these 75 million garment workers, for example, 80%  are women between the ages of 18 and 35, and they are earning less than $3 per day.

So we need to get into the nitty gritty to understand that it's an extremely large sector. All the negative it's doing right now by looking at more sustainable practices, it could be a leader in us having a better workforce, a better planet, and society.

Approximately 35% of all microplastics released into the world's oceans are from synthetic textiles and that's unacceptable. And then look at fashion that accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions and nearly 20% of wastewater. That's mind blowing when you think of it for outfits, where the industry is doing this to people and nature for clothes. 

That's why we're so dedicated at the Fashion Impact Fund to make sure that we're supporting so many of the women that are leading initiatives to drive that change because it benefits all of us. This is not just a sector issue.


I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about some of the leaders that you are supporting in the work they're doing. Can you give us a couple examples of great success stories?


Out of some of our grant programs, there is the African Academy of Fashion. This is actually the mother-daughter duo, which I think is always interesting to see what people are leading. Their names are Pauline and Tamburai. They're based in South Africa and it's actually established by a fashion brand called ONEOFEACH. Their whole focus at the African Academy of Fashion is workforce development. The program that they run is all about boosting employment of women whilst also reinvigorating arts and craft, and helping the manufacturing industry in Africa.

They are training women in a program on how to construct garments and accessories. Then through this program that we funded, it helps them to acquire skills to increase their employment prospects no matter where that might be.

It's about using hands-on training and practical skills as well as techniques and knowledge from the industry to help them grow their business.

Another initiative that we have running is Fashion Stories. We actually do that in partnership with Runa Rai who is a fashion designer and environmentalist. This comes under our media pillar and we're running this with Rukus Avenue Radio. The whole goal here is how we can highlight the voices of notable and progressive women that are making a difference in sustainable fashion, and doing this through the ethos of social environmental justice amongst the south asian community. Because the south asian community has such a tie to the fashion industry, so much is going on and so much of that region has been leaned on.

So what we look to do is really amplify the voices of women and their leadership.

One of our flagships programs which I'll come to now that we run is the Conscious Fashion Campaign that I mentioned earlier. We run that in collaboration with the United Nations Officer partnerships and the Public Foundation. The whole goal of the campaign is to spotlight women entrepreneurs that are advancing industry change on digital billboards.

The reason that we're very focused on this is because only 25% of new sources are women, as shared by the global media monitoring project. We really wanted to disrupt that. We want to amplify the visibility and we want to increase media representation of women, especially those that are advancing fashion towards a more responsible future.


I'm also wondering how you are funded? This is kind of a recurring theme here on our show.

Everybody uses their wits and creativity to attain funding. How did you do that?


For us, it's ongoing. We are supported by a lot of fantastic industry organizations.

Anywhere from Lenzing, through the Arch & Hook, Avery Dennison, the Lycra company, Bluesign, Artistic Milliners.

These are all names that consumers and citizens listening wouldn't be familiar with, but these are the people who are extremely powerful and driving incredible change in the fashion industry. They are very business focused and that's where we look with our funders.


You mentioned Artistic Milliners and that made my ears perk up. Is this a company working on sustainable textiles maybe?


Yes, very close to that. They're actually a denim manufacturer. I like that it intrigues you, that it intrigues your creativity. Yes, that's what they do. But they're very focused on sustainable denim.



We probably have about five minutes left and I'm hoping you can talk a little bit about the future plans that you have. What's coming down the line for the Fashion Impact Fund?


We just want to be able to continue to accelerate and amplify. We want to ensure that we are working with fantastic donors and funders to be able to redistribute the finances to where they need to go to help these women continue to lead these fantastic solutions that they have so that they can clean our waters, clean our air and make sure that people in the fashion industry are being cared for.

That is a huge focus for us. We want to expand our in-house programs and make sure, as we continue on everything we do, we just continue to go from strength to strength.

We sit in extremely strange times right now in America where it's rebellious to speak out and it’s courageous to speak out about wanting to see women achieve and what that could look like today.


And your partners. I was really impressed with the work that the UN s doing. Can you talk a little bit about how you're partnering with the UN?


We work very closely with the United Nations Office for Partnerships. We are committed to the sustainable development goals, and the sustainable development goals is a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

It was actually adopted by the United Nations member states in 2015 where it looks at the global challenges we're all facing from poverty, inequality, climate change and peace.

And so our work with the United Nations Office Partnerships is how we can really accelerate the work and the engagement of the fashion industry to align with the Sustainable Development Goals agenda so that we can achieve good as the sector.


This is all very theoretical listening to it. What's happening, kind of up close and personal within the fashion sector? Are there other people from around the globe that you are working with to help us all attain these sustainability goals?


I think, you know, as I mentioned at the beginning, you fall down this rabbit hole and you start researching what's going on. Some fantastic organizations, and for your listeners to also look at, are Remake, Fashion Revolution, Textile Exchange. There's also an app actually which is called Good on You. They're all trying to come together with research, statistics, and data so that they can guide business organizations, leaders, and citizens on how to do better with fashion.


And then back to the ‘future’ question, how will your organization change over time? What do you see happening and coming down the pipe for you?


I would like to see that as we continue to grow, we're able to just make sure more money is being moved and distributed in the right places to female founders that are driving change.

That is our whole focus and we just want to see it go further and wider, and more fantastic.


How might folks find you, Kerry?


We have a website We are also very active on instagram @fashionimpactfund.


As a consumer, what's the best way for me to participate?


We're extremely business focused, but if there was anything on how you could participate with us is just think about how you want to purchase, what does that look like, and who do you want to support. 

Fall in love with your clothes, love what you already have, mend, do good and make sure that if you do end up having to purchase, that you purchase with purpose. That is what the Fashion Impact Fund looks for people to do when it's more consumer focused.

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