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ESG Outlook: Lewis Perkins of Apparel Impact Institute on Scaling Impact Goals

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Lewis Perkins, president of the Apparel Impact Institute, asks why more companies aren’t enacting those “no brainer” first-step efficiency programs.  

Name: Lewis Perkins

Title: President

Company: Apparel Impact Institute

Lewis Perkins Apparel Impact Institute ESG Outlook
Lewis Perkins, President, Apparel Impact Institute Courtesy

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years?

Our ability to bring brands and shared supply chains together to scale the level of impact is our greatest achievement.

Apparel Impact Institute (Aii) works with brands and manufacturers in the apparel and footwear industry to achieve their Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG)-related goals, particularly those connected to commitments such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and climate work as addressed via The Science Based Target initiative (SBTi). We work with companies in collective action toward specific impact targets and goals. For example, our Mill Improvement Program works with brands in regions throughout the world—India, Italy, Mainland China, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan region, Vietnam and more coming soon—to create greater water savings and reduce carbon emissions.

This work has become a springboard for other industry focuses, such as the elimination of coal in wet processing, as well as scaling to 100 percent renewable energy in product manufacturing.

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What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes? 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been less interested in fashion trends and more interested in quality apparel that will last and/or retain its value. But sometimes we do want to enjoy the latest jeans trend, current pattern or shirt style. And therefore, it’s important to understand what the companies are doing behind the scenes. When I do shop for new apparel, I frequent companies I know are making solid environmental and social commitments and engaging in real solutions toward those goals.

What types of information do you look into and what may sway your purchasing decisions? 

Always. Fortunately, I have a front row seat for that work, which makes identifying those companies easier for me than for the average citizen. But that is changing as better data on what matters to measure and transparency of a product’s impact is driving increased consumer awareness. I look for information about a brand’s ESG commitments and CSR work, and if I can’t find out what that company is doing, then I ask the deep questions: Is this a product I will hold onto for a long time? Will it hold value? Because the longevity of a product can help counter its impact.

Recently, I learned about Marine Layer’s Tee Recycling and Re-Spun cotton programs, and I felt good about purchasing some of their shirts containing this recycled material. This type of work creating a circular system by putting fibers into reuse is a key element of making a greener apparel industry. I am a consumer of For Days for the same reasons.

How do you try to minimize the environmental impact of the clothes you buy?  

I buy for longevity, and every few years, I assess my closet, donating what I no longer use. If I am not using it, someone else should as it may divert them from purchasing new products with resource-intense virgin inputs that cause negative impact on the planet. I like participating in the share and resell economy, and while some of my favorite items might be considered “fast fashion,” I have worn them for more than 20 years. It’s only fast if you throw it away.

Similarly, when selecting home furnishings and textiles, everything is purchased for the long term, possibly to hold onto forever or hand down to my kids one day.

Having worked for the Cradle to Cradle Standard, I know that certified products have gone through rigorous assessments for environmental impact and optimizations for positive impact, so I seek out evidence of these types of certifications when it comes to personal care, toys, consumer packaged goods and other kinds of home products.

What would you say is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

That there is a silver bullet. Actually, solving environmental issues is very complex. We don’t know exactly what matters most to measure, and we are all trying to figure out what is more meaningful as we weigh different fiber types, sourcing practices and regions. We are constantly evaluating and reevaluating. From a consumer perspective, what we pay attention to first is related to personal values as much as big target climate issues.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

Our team used the last year to create a deeper and stronger strategy for addressing the industry’s environmental impact, which has already proven effective as more industry partners are joining our work. We were able to focus on aligning that strategy with where and how we can make the biggest impact.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

We launched our Carbon Leadership Project in collaboration with RESET Carbon in 2020, bringing together multiple apparel brands working to reduce the carbon emissions of their supply chains. It focuses on setting carbon targets and low-carbon action plans at the factory level, working together to implement these practices, and moving the conversation forward with feedback and sharing of information with global industry programs like Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and HIGG Index, United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (UNFCCC), Global Fashion Agenda, Fashion PACT and others.

The Carbon Leadership Project is a rallying cry for the industry around collective action, which is truly the only way we are going to successfully meet the 45 percent carbon reduction goal.

We have also been working more closely with Textile Exchange, ZDHC Roadmap to Zero and SAC in 2020-2021 to better align our programs and tools.

What do you consider to be the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

Everyone can participate in programs with their suppliers that we know are proven to lower carbon. These are no-brainers. For example, engaging in a program with one of Aii’s Mill Improvement Alliance and our Clean by Design programs is low risk because these programs reduce energy, water and chemical use, while putting money back into the supplier’s hands through cost savings. These programs pay for themselves in a very short period of time and set the stage for the supplier to take on additional climate action-related initiatives that require more time and capital (such as scaling to 100 percent renewable energy and eliminating the use of coal in wet processing).

The fact that the entire apparel industry is not engaging in these ‘first step’ efficiency programs even though they have publicly made their Science Based Target commitments shows that they are not on track to meet those goals.

I also urge all brands and manufacturers to join the Carbon Leadership Project to work together with others in the industry so that we can all determine what works and share that knowledge and go faster together to reach the goal of 45 percent CO2 emission reductions in the supply chain by 2030.