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Despite Fashion’s Sustainability Push, ‘If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It’

The COVID-19 pandemic could create further polarization in the fashion supply chain, with some brands taking initiative to lessen their overall impact and others unfortunately opting for business as usual. Still, not all companies have a strict definition of what sustainability means to them, and that has been holding sustainability efforts back.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said Mark Burstein, president and chief strategy officer at NGC, who cited management consultant Peter Drucker. In other words, companies can’t know if their sustainability efforts have really been successful unless success is defined and tracked.

At Sourcing Journal’s Fashion’s Business Model for Sustainability virtual event Wednesday, industry experts weighed in on what sustainability could look like post-COVID-19 and how companies can simplify the definition to get on the same page.

“I’d argue that many corporate sustainability initiatives are not measured, and if they are, they’re not measured completely or accurately,” Burstein said. While fashion companies may tout themselves as environmentally responsible because they use organic cotton, recycle waste and list Tier 1 suppliers, there is still much more these companies can do.

Burstein’s vision for a sustainable supply chain tracks the journey from the first mile to the last mile in a “digital thread,” which includes stops at the cotton field, the yarn spinner and the fabric mill all the way down to the retail store and ultimately the end consumer.

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“Let’s consider a single item, a cotton T-shirt,” Burstein said. “There’s many digital thread options, there’s thousands of cotton farms, knitters, spinners, dyers and a countless number of factories and even more channels of distribution and points of sale. With this infinite amount of sourcing options, how does a fashion company determine the optimal strategies for its product mix?”

Artificial intelligence becomes a necessity in giving stakeholders across the chain the data and overall visibility they need to determine the ideal sourcing situation, according to Burstein. With this information in hand, all parties can create a more accurate measurement for sustainability efforts and ultimately build out more realistic goals.

The industry has made great progress through the value chain, but the biggest challenges to sustainability success are finding a common theme across all stakeholders, as well as scalability, according to Hanna Hallin, head of sustainability at Treadler, an H&M Group initiative and B2B service designed to accelerate sustainable change across the supply chain.

“If we’re not able to break down the problem and simplify it and harmonize it in a way, it’s going to be tough to find scalability across borders and across the value chain,” Hallin said.

Treadler serves as an extension of the fast-fashion brand’s already robust sustainability efforts, with the H&M supply chain comprised of 57 percent recycled or sustainably sourced materials and 97 percent recycled or sustainably sourced cotton.

While there’s still a debate among companies of what sustainability means and how it can be achieved, much of the shift in focus has been reactive to customer expectations—but even that will have to change if fashion is serious about improving its sustainability position going forward. Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at Global Fashion Agenda, a leadership forum for industry collaboration on sustainability in fashion, noted that there was a gap in sustainability that needed to be addressed between short-term and long-term sustainability goals.

“The biggest challenge we are facing with sustainability is how do we close that gap,” said Lehmann. He outlined government incentives and other commitment drivers as the keys to increasing industrywide accountability. “The onus is on the brands, the retailers and the supply chain partners, so even though we’re saying there’s an accelerated want and demand for sustainability, we have to leverage this time when everybody is hyper-conscious to that and have a few early adopters who are really going to put a stake in the sand and say that we’re going to do more with regards to sustainability.”

Hallin asserted that while the change agent has to be the industry, not the consumer, she also said that simplifying sustainability would enable shoppers to want further change.

“At the moment, it’s so complicated,” Hallin said. “If it’s one choice that is sustainable for the customer and the other is not, maybe then the choice for the customer will be easier, and there will be a smaller gap between how the customer perceives themselves and how they would make choices, compared to them actually making the choice. I think it’s all the stakeholders’ objective to make it simpler for the customers because then it’s a real choice. Right now, it’s a little bit of a jungle and hard to actually see through for customers of what is sustainable and what it means.”

Goncalo Cruz, co-founder at president of Platforme, a made-to-order creator and designer of digital products, feels his company can play a significant role in the sustainability shakeout. In delivering digital mockups of fashion garment, footwear and accessories, Platforme can give on-the-fly product specifications and even enable retailers, brands and manufacturers alike to track made-to-order sales.

As more supply chain stakeholders embrace digital products, less textile waste is produced, particularly in product sampling process, which Cruz says is one of the “biggest expenses that a fashion brand could have.” The company works with clients to create 3D models and prototypes of products as well as digital pack shots to showcase all the different product permutations the retailer can offer without needing to actually see them in person, eliminating material waste often required in sampling.