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ESG Outlook: Ebru Debbag of Soorty on Growing the Evaluation of Social Impact

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. Here, Ebru Debbag, executive director of denim manufacturer Soorty, on why sustainability must be looked at holistically and incorporate social impact.

Name: Ebru Debbag
Title: Executive Director
Company: Soorty

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

Soorty is targeting to deliver impact at scale and this goal comes with responsibilities, commitment and dedication. Soorty`s Organic Cotton Initiative (SOCI) is based around local organic cotton cultivation as a social and environmental mission to cultivate a carbon sink developed and managed by a thriving community. Working with over 1,000 farmers in the Balochistan region [of southwestern Pakistan], we strive to improve soil health and communities’ wellbeing as well as offering added value and premium product.

SOCI is a vehicle for community uplift as we provide better schooling and access to professional health care. Take for example our recent collaboration with DOCH—a collective of Balochi Social Entrepreneurs that supports and trains 100 women from Khuzdar, Balochistan in the art of Balochi embroidery, financial literacy, plus digital and social media marketing skills. We use non-GMO seeds in cultivation and they are monitored at multiple stages of the supply chain. We work with WWF Pakistan and the Department for Agricultural Extension, and our organic cotton yield is certified by OCA.

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We are very excited to share that SOCI accomplished full organic certification in its second year, which is rare. SOCI is a profound success story and can inspire a global expansion.

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

I am a very tedious shopper and I have not bought much the past three years. If I am shopping for a new pair of jeans, I go for premium secondhand pieces with a story and I must fall in love with the way they look. I make sure to be aware of the raw materials and how much I would use the piece I am buying.

I follow fashion closely but tend to stay with more basic styling and use accessories to color my looks. I wash my clothes with cold water, refrain from using dryers, and try to air out my jeans a few times instead of washing them right away.

How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping? 

I consider a brand’s social and environmental practices all the time and this is one of the main shopping criteria for me. Patagonia stands for providing not only sustainable products with well-chosen and communicated raw materials, but they also have the circular service business model as an inherent part of their branding. I bought a secondhand Patagonia jacket for my son although it was priced higher than an alternative brand’s new item.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?

I am a co-founder of an NGO where we offer to integrate everyone on the possibilities of a sustainable future based on permaculture principles. We are putting together training programs on climate impact and soil health, and have multiple schools where we offer educational programs. We work with corporations who want to cultivate permaculture gardening practices and offer consultancy on sustainability literacy.

I have also put together a training program called Climate Crisis in my Wardrobe, which I offered to 15 universities, 10 corporations and multiple NGOs reaching out to over 2,500 participants. I am also on the board of EtkiYap, the first impact investment platform in Turkey, and we are building an awareness on impact investment practices and bringing awareness into corporate investments.

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

Consumers mostly consider sustainability on a single dimension—for instance, only considering a certain aspect of a raw material or maybe packaging. To understand sustainability, we must take the holistic approach—the data behind the communication and the brands’ offerings as a whole. It’s not solely on the product footprint but also the social impact demanded out of the manufacturing.

Soorty’s Future Possibilities platform is an online and offline mission to engage with all stakeholders and our main objective is to share best practices and create awareness at all levels. Fashion sustainability is not an isolated subject and needs to be considered within all other systems such as clean water, microplastics, over-consumption, etc. It is essential for us to make all these systemic connections visible. For instance, recycled polyester can be considered circular if the waste used is coming from polyester-based textiles.

Otherwise, we cannot call using recycled PET bottles in textiles a circular practice.

Ebru Debbag, soorty

What was Soorty’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

Implementing digital practices on core processes of our business. We built a Digital Library where we digitally uploaded all our developments and were able to present our virtual collection to our customers. We have so much more room to grow in the digital realm and I believe the fashion landscape will become hybrid in the coming two to three years.

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

I think the SOCI project covers this point. As consumers become more aware of worker conditions and how clothing is produced, how can the industry best spread the word on progress? Transparency is key to presenting the worker conditions; how a manufacturer treats its workforce and stakeholders needs to be a part of the supply chain preference. Social impact evaluation is becoming popular with many industries and being linked into the financial performance and competitive advantage.

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

Just before the Covid period, the industry had reached a level where we were re-starting to discuss value over cost and price. The surge right after Covid comeback resulted in further capacity increases and when inflation hit global markets, the global overcapacity hit back as price point discussions. We need to start the discussion around value once again. And when I mean value, I am not referring to premium but value at scale. This is a harder equation to resolve.

We must have a very clear idea on why ESG is essential and what happens when we do not take impact into consideration. The manufacturing countries will be entitled with the legislations soon to be in practice and the entities who are enforcing rules will need to have an awareness of the manufacturing landscape to make sure that the laws imposed are practical and can drive the industry forward. Otherwise, we will end up with more greenwashing practices.