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Real Change Requires Fewer But Better Sustainability Initiatives

It often takes tragedy to bring people together. Unfortunately, in the case of the fashion industry, it took the deadliest garment-factory accident in history to bring the world’s biggest brands to task.

The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which more than 1,100 garment workers lost their lives, shone a spotlight on poor working conditions in the low-cost sourcing country. And it forced global retailers and brands to take a closer look at their supply chains, with some signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, pledging to improve conditions for their suppliers’ employees.

Four years on, progress has been slow and scattered but one thing is certain: collaboration has been key to changes made both in Bangladesh and beyond.

“As much as we talk about collaboration as a natural act, there wasn’t a lot of real collaboration in the fashion industry until unfortunately the incidents took place in Bangladesh that brought the Alliance and Accord together,” recalls Rick Darling, executive director of government, trade relations and corporate sustainability at sourcing giant Li & Fung, speaking during a panel discussion at last week’s sold-out Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “I remember sitting in the first Alliance meeting and looking around the table and thinking ‘Boy, there’s no way these guys wouldn’t like to kill each other every Monday morning,’ but everybody was starting to get very excited about the idea of coming together [as a force for good].”

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The discussion, titled “Global Fashion Agenda: A Call for Industry-Wide Collaboration,” also highlighted the issues around having too many well-meaning brand alliances and change initiatives in place—a point that was also made in “The Pulse of the Fashion Industry,” a report the organizers released in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group a few days prior to the summit.

Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, noted that the industry needs fewer initiatives to gather around. According to Darling, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is a great example of a lot of companies coming together to once and for all use a common set of tools and goals.

“Our objective first is to standardize measurement throughout the industry so that we can then work on the same page,” explained Jason Kibbey, chief executive of the SAC. “One of the challenges that this industry has had for many years now is there’s often one hot topic that comes up in conferences or comes up in a lot of discussions and the industry will often work on that for two or three years and make some progress but ultimately not lead to the impact that’s needed.”

Indeed, the sustainability issues facing the fashion industry are too large to be tackled without effective goals in place. Not to mention, when risks such as climate change are already a reality, there’s an urgency to identify and implement the most promising solutions sooner rather than later.

“Sustainability should not necessarily be a competitive advantage for anybody,” said Kelly Caruso, president of Target Global Sourcing. “It should be a value that we all support across the industry and by working together and really bringing the best of our collective capabilities to the table and sharing information we can have all boats rise.”

That’s not to say that individual action is useless. Caruso explained that Target’s new chemical policy, announced earlier this year, spans across every brand it carries and includes the removal of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and flame-retardants from textiles by 2022. The goal: to ultimately drive harmful chemicals out of all consumer products.

But some issues require strength in numbers.

“From our perspective, we need to collaborate with a common set of standards, we need to collaborate with a common set of language and terminology and we need to continue the idea that what a lot of us do from a sustainable and a compliance standpoint is duplicative and absolutely can be done together, giving us more data to use together,” Darling said.

Moderator Thomas Tochtermann, director emeritus and senior advisor at McKinsey & Co., recalled a recent conversation with a manufacturer who said that an independent auditor visited his factory one Monday to audit a certain number of standards for one company and then came again that Wednesday to audit the same factory for another company.

Given that the majority of audits overlap, collaboration would not only reduce unnecessary costs but also free up time and resources that could be spent improving the factory. Caruso admitted that’s one reason she likes the SAC’s Higg Index.

“When they piloted it in 2016, we learned that about 15 percent of our supplier base overlapped across the industry. So we were able to show other retailers and other brands auditing results and reduce our audit fatigue that way,” she said.

“I’m a firm believer that standards and standardized assessment helps us point to where we need to go,” Kibbey said. “Just being better at what we already do today isn’t going to be enough to have a truly sustainable supply chain.”