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Collaboration is Crucial to Changing Conversation Around Circular Design in Fashion

Scott Miller, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and fashion consultant Julie Gilhart discuss collaboration in circular design.

“We’ve been able to make great headway with food because people link food with disease, but we’re not so great at linking fashion with disease… We need to do something now,” Julie Gilhart, fashion retail consultant and former fashion director at Barneys New York, stressed recently while moderating a panel called “Fashion & Circular Design” at Cradle to Cradle’s Product Symposium at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in New York.

The panelists all agreed: Collaboration will be the key required to change the conversation.

“We have to get aligned and we have to understand where we exist in the ecosystem, how we march that ladder together and where each one of us is a piece or a stepping stone or a solution. Some of us may overlap and we both have very similar solutions, but it makes it a lot easier for a brand to engage with us when we have that level of understanding,” said Lewis Perkins, president of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Scott Miller, the director of business development at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), echoed that sentiment, pointing out that thanks to the organization’s Higg Index—a tool designed to set the stage for inherent improvement in the supply chain and offer the ability to benchmark performance—members are coming together to drive “some of this desperately needed transparency.”

The more you measure, the more you can change

“When the industry collaborates on the standardization of measurement, there are tremendous gains in efficiency,” Miller said, adding, “It’s a win in many respects, the value of collaborating amongst your peers.”

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“You cannot go out to the world and say ‘We’re going to make change and build a product that’s better than the bad actors out here,’ unless you have partners that are smarter than you and focused on these issues and have managed tools to help you achieve your goal,” agreed Scott Mackinlay Hahn, co-founder of eco-friendly apparel line Loomstate. “The more you measure, the more you can change, the more you can improve quality of life.”

“I think we all need to be working together in partnership to get to that eureka moment of what the change will be,” offered Linda Greer, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Clean by Design program. “For us the question is, with whatever your goal is, how are you going to get there? What is the best way to get from here to there?”

Launched in partnership with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) last year in China, the program’s participating mills make fabric for big brands including Target, Gap, Levi’s and H&M. According to a report released in April by the NRDC, the annual return per mill averaged $440,000, with the top five performing mills saving more than $800,000, proving that a smaller environmental footprint can lead to a bigger bottom line.

Greer said, “We went with the theory of change of business value, which I heard from you guys over and over again was going to be the way to grab the attention of the decision makers in the company at CEO level, because that was singing their tune and that’s a very appealing theory of change. You seduce them with the money and in the meantime they’re reducing environmental impact.”

Collaboration improves when roles are clearly defined

One of the “glaringly obvious” hotspots identified by the SAC’s Higg Index is that the majority of what’s being produced by the apparel industry winds up in a landfill, Miller said.

“And the majority of those that are producing [this waste] do not have anything in place to do anything about it,” he said. “To speak on the point of collaboration, when that was identified as a hotspot, the members—both small and large, that were super passionate about addressing the issues around end of use—funded a very comprehensive research study that identified 30-plus innovations that were just starting to form out in the marketplace around addressing recycling opportunities.”

“It really is a team,” Mackinglay Hahn concurred. “You want experts in every position. You build your workflow, clearly define who does what.”

British luxury label Stella McCartney, meanwhile, wants people on the ground where it can’t be.

“We are a relatively small company in a lot of ways, and the partners we choose, we choose them because we want to have a big impact as a company. Although we might be small in our staff size that doesn’t mean we can’t find companies at different places in our value chain to help leverage the change that we really want to make,” said Claire Bergkamp, head of sustainability and ethical trade, noting that while they do it on a moral level (the brand’s founder and namesake is a lifelong vegetarian), she believes it’s something consumers are increasingly interested in.

“We know people respond differently on surveys than they do with their pocketbooks but we know there’s a change in conversation,” she continued. “They want to feel the decision that they’re making and the money that they’re putting down is a safe decision. And so they may not be rewarding you but they will punish you if you don’t start doing this. And I think that is a very important change that we’re starting to see. That is a business value. You don’t want to be punished for your bad decisions.”

Greer agreed. “Customers are very willing to bite back if you do the wrong thing rather than recognize you if you’re doing the right thing, but that could be a good inspiration for getting ahead of the curve,” she said.