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The Next Stage in Sustainability Takes on Social Impact and Change

The fashion industry has largely embraced sustainable manufacturing methods and materials in the last decade, and now the sector’s moving to the next stage in its development: addressing social change.

In a panel discussion on “Beyond Textiles: The Social Impact of Sustainability” at Texworld USA Tuesday, executives noted that as the fashion industry evolves and access to information increases, customers are demanding to know the impact of their purchases not just on the environment, but on the population and the people that work in the industry.

This means going beyond the environmental aspects of production to create significant social change through fashion.

For Liz Hershfield, chief supply chain officer at Bonobos, it’s about building on sustainable product initiatives and “doing the right thing” in the realm of social impact and connecting what’s going on in the industry and the world at large, with what Bonobos’ customers care about.

Collaboration in the industry has become vital and, as Hershfield explained, it has helped Bonobos develop programs and set standards for sustainability and social awareness and action. And Patagonia and Eileen Fisher have served as prime examples.

“They’ve been amazing resources for us and are really the North Star,” Hershfield said.

Claire Kells, senior manager for United Nations Global Compact, an NGO working toward aligning now 10,000 companies with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said the focus is on key universal principals based on human rights, labor, the environmental and anti-corruption.

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“We ask companies to take a look throughout their value chains and their operations and identify where they can have an impact and take steps to maximize the positive impacts and minimize the negative impacts,” Kells said.

For Ascena Retail Group, which has its retail holdings all geared toward women’s and girl’s clothing, a core principle for the company, according to Jeannette Ferran Astorga, vice president of responsibility for the Group, is to “provide fashion and inspiration to them put their best selves forward and live their best life every day.”

This includes responsible product sourcing, as well as providing programs for leadership in their community, and in the areas of health and well-being.

“There really is a strong business case to be made for the importance of sustainability for investors and building brand value,” Kells said. “Investments in sustainability can create cost savings and create opportunities.”

In that realm, she said, that’s why it’s key for companies to report their progress and communicate that to stakeholders.

“It’s important for all these companies that are doing great work in the field to let people know what they are doing,” Kells said. “It’s really important to aggregate the data and share it with the world.”

One thing that’s worked for Ascena is a partnership launched last year with Planet Water that develops programs for water savings, like the installation of three water filtration systems. Ascena also conducts surveys to understand the priorities among its customers and employees in various regions. Discoveries from those surveys led Ascena to begin providing healthcare to women in its factories, and to offer education on health related issues.

“Collaboration with our supply chain partners is vital in achieving these goals and developing these programs,” Astorga said. “Finding partners that share our values in making social commitments to women, in particular, is critical.”

Agreeing with the sentiment, Hershfield said education is critical in making social change, and “engaging the team is really important.”

The United Nations Global Compact has many tools to measure companies’ progress in key areas of meeting environmental and social responsibility goals. As an NGO, Kells said collaboration is vital in its mission because the challenges and opportunities are so substantial, no one company or organization could tackle them independently.

In the year ahead, the UN Global Compact will be focused on gender as well as climate change and leveraging core business to advance SDGs, getting more companies to adopt and embrace them.