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Sustainability Isn’t a Choice, It’s the Only Path Forward

The fashion industry is morphing from a sector propelled by fast fashion to one where consumer desire for conscious production is key. The Covid crisis has only emphasized these learnings, with brands now being held accountable for their supply chains’ impact on human welfare as well as the environment.

At Sourcing Journal’s Sourcing Summit earlier this month, industry experts weighed in on whether the cost of going green and ensuring ethical production standards is one brands are willing to pay. The answer? They can’t afford not to.

During a panel entitled “The Business Case for Sustainability: It’s Do or Die, Really,” Kutay Saritosun, director of fashion brands for Bluesign, said that some companies have put sustainability “on the backburner” due to challenges to their businesses—undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic. But the more conscientious organizations have “really jumped on this as an opportunity to meet and mitigate the risk for the next crisis that might be happening in the next couple of years.”

Saritosun alluded to the possibility of an environmental catastrophe should the industry continue its wasteful ways, and said that change must be enacted across organizations from the top down. “The strategy needs to be set by management,” he said, when it comes to committing to using sustainable materials, cutting waste, and coordinating efforts to create circular programs.

“It’s also about thinking about the end of life of that of the garment,” he said. Brands must work to develop their own recycling infrastructures and collection programs, or work with existing organizations to make sure that unwanted goods stay out of landfills. “Once that happens, the strategy is in place and trickles down to the rest of the organization,” he said. Developing these standards internally also sets the tone for relationships with suppliers, he said, when it comes to environmental efforts.

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“We already see that customers are looking for meaningful relationships [with brands] and want to be part of positive change,” said Hanna Hallin, head of sustainability at B2B sustainability accelerator Treadler, run by H&M. Though the company just launched in March, at the height of the pandemic, Hallin said she had already witnessed how valuable long-term, transparent supply chain partnerships can be to a brand’s economic growth.

“I definitely see a lot of more stakeholders coming to the table,” she said. Now, the industry must work together to create sustainability standards that can be shared across the board—from brands to suppliers and shoppers. “We need to consolidate a complete definition of what sustainability is,” she said, pointing to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index as the primary doctrine that brands are turning to. But the industry’s many auditing organizations and certification bodies must collaborate, she said, to offer actionable tools and targets.

Liz Hershfield, senior vice president of sourcing, supply chain and sustainability at Madewell, agreed that the sector must find a way to clearly define its sustainability goals in order to chart a productive path forward. “In establishing your goals, you’re going to find your focus and your impact,” she said.

One barrier to entry for many brands is cost, she said, adding that investing in new processes and programs takes capital. “I think a really important thing brands can do is reduce costs internally to then fund sustainable initiatives,” she said, using product sampling as an example.

3D sampling has taken off in recent years, she added, and digitized design processes have become lifelines during the pandemic. “We’ve been working virtually in a way we were never expected to,” she said. Cutting out costly physical samples “kills two birds with one stone,” she added, as it saves money and reduces a brand’s footprint.

“Then, you can take that money and invest it in other initiatives,” Hershfield noted, pointing to Madewell’s new recycled cashmere program as an example. “It’s retailing about 30 percent more expensive for the rest of our cashmere, because it is a more expensive program to run. But the customer is responding to it, because it resonates with them.”

Vanessa Barboni Hallik, founder and CEO of luxury apparel label Another Tomorrow, said that transparency and traceability have become cornerstones of the brand as her team has worked to decipher the complexity of its supply chain and ensure that material inputs are ethical and sustainable. Industry-wide supply chain standards would be “incredibly helpful” in simplifying decision making, she said, as the brand attempts to thoroughly vet its suppliers, including those at the raw materials level. “At the moment, it’s very hands-on,” she said. “What we’ve found is that ultimately, you have to do the work yourself.”