It’s an uncertain time for most aspects of the apparel supply chain, and that’s particularly true when it comes to sustainability initiatives. With a multitude of published environmental goals and much work to do to achieve circularity, a lot hangs in the balance. The question is, how will the pandemic impact progress?
Jill Dumain, CEO of independent sustainable processing and manufacturing authority Bluesign Technologies, is “very optimistic” that the momentum that has propelled the movement over the last few years will continue. Here, the former director of global environmental strategy at Patagonia, explains how retailers, brands and suppliers should approach sustainability commitments and their own partnerships in a post-COVID world.
Sourcing Journal: There are many companies that have published 2025 sustainability goals. How do you think COVID-19 could alter these commitments? How can companies stay on track?
Jill Dumain: On one hand, it’ll be tough, because there’s less people, less budgets, consolidation and other priorities in the business. On the other hand, I think the stronger companies that have sustainability measures and goals embedded have already started that journey of really looking at their supply chain and understanding where they buy their products.
Everybody’s at a different place in that journey, but the more you know your supply chain partners—that makes every company a better company. Those are the ones that will come out of it in a stronger position and those are the ones that are typically making these goals.
Will they be adjusted? Most likely. And the reality is, they should be adjusted. Don’t try to push something unattainable because in the long run that doesn’t serve anybody well.
SJ: You’ve said that companies need to “do the right thing” when it comes to people. With that in mind, what do you think about the industry’s initial reaction to the drop in demand caused by COVID-19? Was there a better way to handle the situation?
JD: It’s a big question that has a lot of specific answers, but the bottom line is, the better you know your business partners up and down the supply chain, the smoother those situations can be.
One thing I realized during my time at Patagonia was there were a lot of suppliers that didn’t know where our product was going until we talked to them. As we got to know our chain and developed stronger commitments, there were stronger services because the trust was built there.
Again, there will be consolidation and I think that’s the time you’re choosing your partners in both directions more carefully. If a retailer or brand walks away from a supplier, that supplier may choose a different client next year, which could be a detriment to the brand and vice versa.
SJ: Going forward, how can companies rebalance the relationships between brands and their suppliers and factories?
JD: Being realistic is number one. I hope that there is fairness that comes in. It’s an industry that is up and down in the wealth scale. At the high end are countries with strong governmental social nets, and at the low end are typically countries with governments without these social nets.
My hope with discussions coming out of this is: how are protections being built into contracts going forward?
If the industry wants to depend on a strong supply chain, they need to invest in a strong supply chain.
They need to come to the table in good faith with the best intentions to build a resilient and robust supply chain in the long run.
SJ: The industry has been talking about the need for transparency but in your opinion, what’s actually been achieved on this front?
JD: I’ve been optimistic. In 2007 at Patagonia, I took part in a transparency project called “The Footprint Chronicles” where we put our whole supply chain—not just a list of companies, but photos and stories—out on Sourcemap. It was one of the first steps in corporate transparency.
I learned a lot, particularly that transparency for the sake of transparency doesn’t go as far as thoughtful transparency. Brands are better now at identifying what must result from being transparent.
SJ: We’re living in a callout culture. What are brands and retailers risking when they don’t know what’s happening in their own supply chains?
JD: It goes back to knowing who is there, because they’re your business partners, whether you have a deep understanding of them or not.
If you don’t know them, the likelihood of seeing something you don’t want to see is much higher. You might learn things that you’re not happy with and don’t present an ideal situation, but then that gives you the opportunity to change.
You must communicate with a supplier, saying, “This is what my needs are as a customer, can you supply them, and can I give you a price that allows you do it?” If not, then you choose to end the business relationship. You’re choosing in that case, and then you have a very authentic approach to it.
SJ: What have been some of Bluesign’s most recent developments in 2020?
JD: We’re really proud of the work we’re doing in the fashion industry with larger manufacturers. We just announced a partnership with Tal Apparel in Hong Kong, which we’re very excited about.
We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, and it hits at a perfect time of thinking this knowledge of the supply chain is a critical component to go forward. Internally, we’ve been working for a long time with this notion of traceability and transparency. It’s not just understanding where your product is made, but how your product is made and knowing who’s doing good work.