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KPMG, Textile Exchange Develop SDG Framework for Apparel Industry

Devising a corporate-responsibility roadmap doesn’t have to be a Herculean task, according to Textile Exchange, a nonprofit organization that advocates the use of environmentally friendlier fibers.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the groundwork brands and retailers need to create business value while “impacting a transformative set of sustainability, economic and social targets.”

In “Threading the Needle: Weaving the Sustainable Development Goals into the Textile, Retail and Apparel Industry,” a new report compiled with audit and tax firm KPMG, Textile Exchange makes a case for using the SDGs to achieve ambitious goals for “people, planet, prosperity and peace” as laid out by the United Nations in late 2015, when the SDGs replaced the Millennium Development Goals it originally launched in 2000. 

Formally known as Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, or 2030 Agenda for short, the SDGs tackle social and economic issues such as poverty eradication, gender equality, clean water and sanitation and fair wages.

The goals are broken down into 169 targets designed to advance those ambitions in tangible and measurable ways.

Based on industry interviews, non-government organization inputs and desk research, the report highlights representative case studies and best practices—“to demonstrate the first steps companies can take”—and provides guidance on multi-stakeholder partnerships, opportunities for shared value and country-specific considerations.

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It also identifies an “SDG engagement framework,” one that homes in on eight SDGs where the apparel and textile industry can produce the most lasting results.

Under SDG 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls,” for instance, the report outlines potential objectives such as increase employment opportunities for women, including representation in management; educating factory managers and workers to pinpoint signs of domestic violence; and aligning wage incentives at the supplier level to discourage employee maltreatment.

Companies can borrow a page from Gap, which developed its Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E) program in 2007 to equip women employed at factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia and Myanmar with skills in time and stress management, sanitation and hygiene, and financial and legal literacy, among others.

“For Gap Inc., this creates a positive impact in the communities they operate and strengthens relationships with strategic vendors while positively empowering women in their professional and personal lives,” the report noted.

For SDG 6, “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” KPMG and Textile Exchange suggest undertaking a life-cycle assessment of water use in products and tracking the impact of water efficiency on production costs; partnering with governments to design wastewater treatment facilities to reduce effluent discharge; and providing access to water, sanitation and hygiene in factories and nearby communities.

Internal water mapping by C&A, for example, found that an estimated 70 percent of its total water use of 1.5 billion metric tons in 2016 was spent on raw materials, while design, consumer use, retail operations, garment manufacture, and material processing collectively represented 21 percent. This mapping, the report said, helped the retailer peg sustainable agriculture as a priority.

To fulfill SDG 15, “Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss,” companies can improve transparency and traceability by requiring suppliers to responsibly source raw materials and products. They can also extend the effective management of biodiversity and ecosystems services to the supply chain in the manner of VF Corp., whose sustainable forestry policy includes purchasing guidelines for materials that go into the company’s clothing and packaging, including wood pulp, paper, and wood-based fabrics like rayon and viscose.

Take-back programs such as Eileen Fisher’s Renew and VF’s Clothes the Loop, can help realize portions of SDG 12, “Responsible consumption and production—ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns,” which includes responsible waste and chemicals management, offering warranties to repair or replace products or product components that fail, and improving resource efficiency around products and services with the aim to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation among its targets.

Brands and retailers can reduce packaging like Target, which has greened 160 designs by using fewer materials and more recycled content, or employ recycled polyester and nylon like Gap’s Athleta brand, which helps divert waste from landfills while offsetting the environmental impacts of using virgin materials.

Other relevant SDGs for the apparel and textile industry are SDG 7 (“Ensure access to affordable, reliable sustainable and modern energy for all”), SDG 8 (“Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all”), SDG 9 (“Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation”) and SDG 10 (“Reduce inequality within and among countries”).

“‘Threading the Needle’ ‘is an important first step in understanding how existing industry initiatives can advance the 2030 Agenda, including adoption of more sustainable fibers and materials, responsible production and circular business practices,” La Rhea Pepper, managing director of Textile Exchange, said in a statement.

The SDGs, the report noted, should not be viewed as another compliance requirement but rather as a business opportunity and framework to manage operational risks. Governments, it added, are increasingly using the SDGs as a guide to establish policies. Plus, collaborating with the right partners can have “transformative results” across the value chain, including from a commercial standpoint.

”The report provides a roadmap for companies seeking to realize the SDGs in their own sector and value chain,” said Anita Whitehead, principal for KPMG’s Development and Exempt Organizations practice in the United States. “The report aims to provide companies with guidance and information that will help prioritize their SDG focus where it can generate the most impact.”