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Sustainability Isn’t the Goal, It’s the Byproduct of a Smart Business

Forget about capsule collections and cosmetic changes, true sustainability is a living, breathing work in progress that requires fashion firms to make responsible choices.

That was the message at Sourcing Journal’s second annual Sourcing Summit Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Stephanie Chan, sustainability lead at textile and apparel manufacturer Esquel Group, said sustainability isn’t really a goal so much as a byproduct of running a responsible, thoughtful company.

“If you manage your business well, then the outcome is that [it] will have an impact on… the climate and society,” she said. “Fundamentally, you have to get your business right.”

Rather than an initiative that runs parallel to the business, Chan said sustainability has to permeate every process—and everybody. She said that while the C-Suite has to set the tone and the directive, it’s up to all employees to do what he or she can like swapping out disposable bottles for reusable options or switching the company to electronic payments to halt the flow of paper bills. It’s a mindset that has to go “top down and bottom up across the business,” she said.

Thanks to a CEO and team that are passionate about creating change, Asos is going about sustainability from both sides as well.

While the retailer that offers 5,000 new styles per week could be characterized as a wasteful fast-fashion firm, sourcing director Simon Platts said that would be unfair. While the company’s assortment is wide, it’s also shallow. By creating a limited number of pieces, Platts said sell-throughs are high, markdowns are minimal and overconsumption is limited. “Asos’ average customer shops three times a year and probably makes three purchases each [time]. So, it’s only 10 items a year. Putting that into context, it’s not that horrendous,” Platts said.

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Even so, the company is determined to help drive the industry toward a circular future. Platts said Asos wants to create products that are worth recycling, limiting the need for virgin raw materials. “Most of the traditional product out there today is, you could say, contaminated,” he said, calling it too “low value” to be used to create new garments. To reach circularity, the industry needs to create “better products that are easier to disassemble,” he said.

While circularity is a noble cause to champion, it is one of many related to sustainability and still more in the wider CSR sphere. With so many factors at play, it’s easy to get distracted, which in the end means companies could be doing a whole lot of nothing, Platts said. Instead, Asos is drilling down in a few areas in which it can make a meaningful change.

“And being strategic means not doing certain things,” he said, adding that focus, not a scattershot approach, is key. “At Asos, we went quite broad, because we really needed to know the landscape and what everything looked like but now we’re reining in. We’re really, really trying to focus on certain issues as a priority.”

Chan echoed the need for focus, which she said can be challenging with so many supply chain partners, each with a different idea of what sustainability means—and how her company should go about it. As an example, she noted Esquel no longer uses solar panels in its Guilin operations. While harnessing solar energy makes sense on paper, she explained that her company could never enjoy the benefits because these panels were inefficient in an area where it rains 80 percent of the time. “So the moral of the story is that having a solar panel doesn’t make you responsible. It’s really about ‘is it a sound business decision?’” she said.

While the solar panels were a bust, other choices have netted their intended results. But whether it’s energy-efficient lightbulbs or a new water treatment facility, changes don’t come cheap. Chan bristled at the mention of cost, however. She prefers the term investment, which it is, she says, if it benefits the business.

Platts said call it a cost or an investment, Asos is willing to do what’s necessary to keep its young shoppers happy because they’ve shown that they care about the environment. “Our investment is in them… we know they’re interested. And they’ll come back. So, there’s your investment,” he said.

As for added costs, the retailer hasn’t passed those onto the consumer. “We haven’t physically put the cost to that consumer. We try to do things within our power to find the inefficiencies to offset,” he said. “You can find cost savings in your supply chain.”

Chan said every decision has to have value whether it’s tangible or speaks to the brand’s integrity. The challenge is each company’s goal is different. “Some are about mitigating risk. Some people care about creating brand value to marketing. Or people want to advocate and leverage [sustainability] to change policy, whatever it may be. Because of that, brands come to us to ask all sorts of questions. They’re never aligned and unified because everyone has a different need,” she said.

Brands can also be at different stages of maturity on the matter, according to Platts. Asos sells more than 1,000 brands, representing about 62 percent of the retailer’s total business, on its site. But rather than police those companies, the retailer has programs in place to help educate them and help them foster their own sustainability protocols and practices. “What we don’t do is judge people. We can use judgment to make decisions, but what we are not in a position of is pointing fingers saying, ‘you’re not good enough.’ Who is good enough?” he said.

This article has been updated based on additional information from Asos.