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Sourcing Summit: Brands Can’t Afford to Sleep on Sustainability, Even Amid 2020’s Challenges

The industry is in a state of flux, but brands can’t afford to take a step backward when it comes to sustainability. Even as the world reels from a global pandemic, shoppers are increasingly holding retailers accountable for their impacts on the environment, and on the workers in their supply chains.

Resources have been stretched, though, as many brands are struggling simply to survive 2020’s challenges. At the Sourcing Journal Summit on Thursday, industry experts discussed the true cost of doing sustainable business in today’s embattled retail climate during a panel entitled “The Business Case for Sustainability: It’s Do or Die, Really.”

According to Kutay Saritosun, director of fashion brands for Bluesign, a confluence of events has contributed to fashion’s accelerated moves toward a more sustainable supply chain. As tariff tensions with China continue, along with growing concerns about human rights abuses, brands are increasingly looking to diversify away from the country and decamp for greener pastures.

“What I have been seeing in the industry is that brands are now looking for alternatives,” he said, like nearshoring, which would enable “a more resilient supply chain.” They must prepare for the next crisis, which could be an environmental one. It’s of the utmost importance that brands not just shift their sourcing geographies for convenience and efficiency, he said, but that they “also look for the right sourcing partners that have the environmental management systems in place, so that when this new crisis happens, they’re set up to actually weather that storm in the best way possible.”

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“We’re still facing the effects of the pandemic and kind of starting to rebuild from it,” said Hanna Hallin, head of sustainability at Treadler, a business-to-business sustainability accelerator program run by H&M. “At the same time, we’re continuing to face a global climate emergency that we know will have some irreversible effects for people, but also for the natural systems that we depend on.”

Transparent, long-term partnerships with eco-minded and socially conscious suppliers are a must for brands moving forward, she said. “Ambitious and measurable sustainability roadmaps are more important than ever.”

Liz Hershfield, senior vice president of sourcing, supply chain and sustainability at Madewell, said that many companies are indeed afraid of the added cost that comes with making their supply chains more sustainable. “There is a cost to invest in initiatives,” she said, but brands can mitigate that impact by being more mindful. “You can reduce costs internally to then fund sustainable initiatives,” she said, by cutting out pricy physical product samples, for example.

Luxury apparel label Another Tomorrow is mainly focused on utilizing material inputs that are conscious and sustainable, founder and CEO Vanessa Barboni Hallik said. “The impact is enormous at the raw materials level, so we put a lot of emphasis there,” she said. However, at this point, there’s no “one-stop shop” for sustainable materials, so sourcing them and ensuring traceability takes hands-on work on the part of her team. It’s forced the brand to become “really targeted about both the materials that we use and the manufacturers that we work with,” she said, adding, “I think that some degree of simplification is incredibly helpful.”

All the session’s from this year’s Sourcing Journal Summit, R/Evolution, are available on-demand for the first time. Follow this link for more information.