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ESG Outlook: Textile Exchange’s Megan Stoneburner on Turning Talk into Action

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, Megan Stoneburner, fibers and materials director of nonprofit Textile Exchange, discusses why the industry has to get out of its own way and stop letting perfection thwart progress.

Megan Stoneburner Textile Exchange ESG Outlook

Name: Megan Stoneburner

Title: Fibers and Materials Director

Company: Textile Exchange

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

I joined in mid-2021, so I won’t speak in detail about the last five years. However, we have been working extensively on our Climate+ strategy. This is the goal for the industry of a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from producing fibers and raw materials by 2030.

We call it Climate+ because it goes beyond accounting for greenhouse gas emissions. It is an interconnected approach that swaps siloed solutions for interdependent impact areas like soil health, water and biodiversity, and it is underpinned by three significant areas of impact and opportunity: materials (making preferred fibers and materials the accessible default); innovation (closing the innovation gap); and degrowth (slowing down a growth-driven business model).

We are also proud to have gathered and published vital industry data and insights on topics such as biodiversity, regenerative agriculture and biosynthetics, as well as our work on the annual Material Change Index Insights, benchmarking the progress of over 290 participants.

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

I mainly purchase vintage or secondhand garments, unless I need something particular or can’t find my size or fit. My latest is the consignment shop Vout in London. I also borrow from friends, colleagues and family members if I need a bit of a wardrobe rotation based on seasonality and trendy fads.

When I do buy new, I have a set of brands where I will shop. I have done excessive research and due diligence to understand their commitment to the people and planet and if they urgently act on those commitments through investment, compliance, and development of innovative programs and pilots that drive transformation. I typically buy from smaller brands where I know I will own the pieces for years based on durability, quality, design and emotional attachment.

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

I refuse to buy from brands that don’t meet my values, and try my best to stick to my own approved list. I recently came across a dress I absolutely loved for an event I had to attend, but upon further exploration, I couldn’t wear that dress in good conscious and feel attached to its reason for existence. I invited a friend over instead to sort through my closet and style my outfit. A fresh perspective can take something old and turn it into something new.

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

When I moved into my home, I sourced most furniture and home décor from antique stores such as OfferUp (secondhand peer-to-peer sites) and outlets where furniture was damaged and would otherwise be thrown away. I’m also an absolute advocate of clean beauty and eating. I always purchase my skincare from clean beauty brands (e.g., Botnia and Shop Good), and most of my groceries are organic or purchased from local farmers’ markets. On top of composting my food scraps, I’ve set goals to eliminate my plastic use by carrying reusable mugs, drinking containers and bags.

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

I have a few. One, that shipping has a significant environmental footprint. Raw materials account for up to 24 percent of production’s impact; thus, choosing products with preferred or better materials drives considerable improvement.

Two, that we can continue to buy as many new products and extract raw material resources from this earth at the rate we do. We must rethink our supply chains, business models, and how we sell and make clothes. Turning waste into new materials and products and keeping our products in circulation can transform the industry.

Three, that buying sustainably made products is enough. We must buy well-made products and do our best to repair and reuse them to keep them in use for as long as possible. The best effort is purchasing a used garment and promoting service models that keep products in use.

Four, that fashion can’t be sustainable. Sustainability is about long-term planning and design. The industry can be sustainable if we transform/design our business models and products to be more intentional, measure ourselves against more holistic and long-range KPIs, and change mindsets around the true meanings of durability and affordability.

And lastly, that environmental and human rights issues are separate when interconnected, so they should be addressed holistically. You can’t prioritize one over the other. It is critical for our existence that we look at solutions to improve conditions and environments for all of the earth’s inhabitants. That requires the respect of all forms of life and the planet that enables us to flourish.

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

An industry transformation is beyond necessary to become a more resilient and just sector for people and the planet. Our supply chains are incredibly fragmented and fragile. The entire industry needs to work together to halve our emissions by 2030 while thoughtfully adapting to the effects of climate change and global issues we are already facing.

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

We need the urgency to turn commitments into tangible and collective action. Also, less finger-pointing and more problem-solving. We need to offer guidance through collaboration. And stop letting perfection get in the way of progress. We have foundational programs, solutions and data that we must rely on to limit temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees. We have less than 8 years to make significant moves; thus, we need to scale the existing, proven solutions in place while working to improve and enhance our work to strive for climate beneficial outcomes and impacts.

Having intention is vital. Asking the right questions to solve a problem is vital. Designing (garments, business, and systems) holistically is vital. Driving meaningful collective action is vital. It’s all much more straightforward than we make it. We need to get out of our own way and work wiser, more urgently and together.