The passing of Dame Vivienne Westwood on 29 December marked the end of an illustrious self-made career spent disrupting the world of fashion and culture. But, perhaps the most enduring of all was the designer’s values-driven passion for the societal causes that helped define Westwood and build trust in her brand. At a time when society is more polarized than ever before, leadership lessons can be learned from this inspirational, self-professed activist CEO.
From her initial foray into fashion and close association with a punk rock band, The Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood continually positioned herself and her eponymous business as a beacon of cultural reinvention and activism, challenging the status quo along the way and supporting causes as varied as Amnesty International, War Child and Liberty.
In more recent years, Westwood used her own channels to tell the story of where and how her clothes are made. She even launched her own campaign movement – Climate Revolution – which advocated for a ‘buy less’ approach that runs counter to the mainstream mass-consumption message.
As a self-declared “fashion designer and activist”, Westwood’s fiercely defended principles leave a legacy of public admiration and support for the Dame and a brand whose creative vision and spirit will undoubtedly live on.
The majority of business leaders of course won’t necessarily feel comfortable emulating the same degree of Westwood’s self-professed activism, however, there are other modern-day examples where inspiration may be sought.
One outspoken example is Larry Fink at Blackrock. In his 2022 letter to CEOs, he outlined his long-held conviction that companies perform better when they deliberate about their societal role and act in the interests of their employees, customers, communities and shareholders. Another example is Howard Schultz at Starbucks, who consistently contends that great companies must balance profitability, benevolence, and a social conscience.
How, and why, should today’s CEOs try and emulate some of these leader’s style of values-based leadership?
Let’s start with the why.
The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer findings highlight that for business – which, for the first time, is seen as more ethical and competent than government, media and even NGOs – there is currently a mandatory opportunity to lead. In fact, the public majority (63%) and employees (69%) expect businesses to align with their values and drive positive societal impact on issues such as climate change and economic inequality. And if you don’t, there is every chance they will leave your brand/company or worse, campaign against it. In short, now is the time when people want more societal engagement and leadership from business, not less.
So how can leaders unleash their ‘inner Vivienne Westwood’ to meet this demand? Here are six lessons that correspond with the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer findings:
- Stand for the issues that matter most – The societal issues that CEOs are expected to act on are the same as those championed by Westwood, with the majority of people in our global study saying they expect CEOs to take a public stand on the treatment of employees (89%); climate change (82%); discrimination (80%); addressing the wealth gap (77%); and immigration (72%).
- Partner with the government to drive societal outcomes – Larry Fink argues that when we harness the power of both the public and private sectors, we can achieve truly incredible things, and the public agrees. For example, when it comes to business driving societal change, 41% of people believe that better outcomes are four times more likely to be achieved if business and government work as partners, although this partnership does run the risk of politicization.
- Provide trustworthy information at all costs - To help insulate against potential politicization, 48% of our global respondents recommend that CEOs should ensure their business is seen as a trustworthy information source (46%), base what they do on science (43%), avoid aligning with a single political party (39%), stick to the same values over time (36%), and link subsequent actions to their business bottom line (33%). A great example is the Vivienne Westwood sustainability page, which makes it abundantly clear what the company’s cost of business is and what it is doing about it. The facts are your friends.
- Convey economic optimism - Fashion is a harsh, churn-and-burn industry. Still, Westwood managed to build a fully independent fashion label that avoided bankruptcy and continues to employ hundreds of people. As the world faces bleak economic times, CEOs must try to reassure employees and the public by paying fair compensation (84%), ensuring their local communities are safe and thriving (79%), paying fair corporate taxes (78%) and investing in employee skills retraining (78%), all of which support personal and economic security.
- Use the power of your brand to create a shared identity - Two-thirds (68%) of people worldwide want brands to use their platforms to create a shared identity. Here the Vivienne Westwood business amplifies a compelling vision to use its brand (think collections, collaborations, and catwalk shows) as a platform to promote awareness and campaign for a better world.
- Hold divisive forces accountable - Finally, there’s accountability. Many people around the world agree that CEOs need to defend facts (72%), pull money from platforms that spread misinformation (71%), and support leaders and media that build consensus and common ground (64%).
On the final point, Westwood’s bird cage protest outside the Old Bailey in July 2020 to condemn the UK Government’s treatment of Julian Assange was arguably divisive. However, it certainly took courage to hold the government of the day accountable and once again reinforces the choice that modern-day CEOs must act and drive societal change.
While Vivienne Westwood's legacy will primarily be remembered as her undisputed influence over fashion and the punk rock movement, businesses and their leaders will do well to remember the lessons from one of the most famous activist CEOs in living memory.
Simon Murphy is head of corporate innovation for Asia-Pacific at Edelman.