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Why Fashion Needs ‘Radical Collaboration’ to Survive

Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), knows what it’s like to feel overwhelmed during these volatile and uncertain times.

With multiple crises plaguing the planet, whether it’s Covid-19, political unrest or climate change, it’s easy to feel like humanity is plunging headlong into a “dystopian future,” she said at the industry group’s annual meeting on Wednesday.

But Razvi also believes that reimagining what leadership looks like by veering away from siloed efforts and committing to collective action can help forge a fashion industry that is “more inclusive, equitable and sustainable.”

“This new kind of leadership means going beyond ‘me’ or ‘you,’ ‘us’ or ‘them,’ and stepping into ‘we,’ as we serve with humility, commit with courage and partner with intent to collaborate and drive positive change,” she said. “As ‘we,’ we embody and we act on the qualities we value. As ‘we,’ we seek creative ways to address obstacles and obstructionists. As ‘we,’ we create a new future that takes into consideration the voices of many and the needs of all. To meet the urgency of the moment, we need to reach beyond what is easy to achieve and commit to doing what is important. Because once we fully embrace this, ‘you’ becomes ‘us,’ ‘us’ becomes ‘we’ and we are a force powerful beyond measure.”

Over the past year, SAC has been harnessing the power of “we” by linking arms with the Apparel Impact Institute, Textile Exchange and the ZDHC Foundation to create a continuous framework that aligns their tools, programs and resources. Part of a broader industry consortium known as the Fashion Conveners, the alliance has required its members to look beyond the interests of their own organizations, Razvi said, “but it’s gotten us all to a better place of understanding the role that we each play in moving this collective work forward.”

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“We’ve had difficult conversations about each organization’s core competencies,” she added. “They haven’t always been easy, but they’re significant because they’ve allowed us to more clearly define where we lead and where we support each other. They’ve allowed us to outline a more cohesive framework for organizational sustainability, one that reduces the increasing proliferation of duplicative efforts that threaten to not only delay but derail actual progress. They’ve allowed us to coalesce around a shared agenda and goals, helping to develop a clear roadmap for how we get there [and] moving the industry towards greater collaboration versus competition.”

Through the alliance, the four organizations have committed to an industry-wide 45 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, which experts say is necessary to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and ward off the worst effects of climate change.

“We all need to be doing everything we can, as fast as we can and working intentionally together to do it,” Razvi said. “Unfortunately, many companies that have set ambitious Scope 3 targets are not on track to actually meet the targets or don’t fully know how to achieve them. Collectively, we need to move beyond the debate on the numbers and move toward implementing and scaling existing proven solutions that will help full companies to achieve real demonstrated progress.”

Razvi said not everyone needs to be Rick Ridgeway, the Patagonia icon who kick-started the SAC by inviting Walmart to sit at the same table. Today, the group boasts more than 250 members, including Amazon, Gap, H&M, Kering, Nike, Target, The North Face owner VF Corp. and Zalando.

“But we do all need you, regardless of your job function, to view your roles as climate leaders and pioneers for social justice, to take action within your sphere of influence and accountability, whether it’s sourcing, procurement, logistics, design, to drive new ways of thinking and operating that allow us to create opportunity and value for everyone to scale existing proven solutions throughout your organizations and set ambitious goals and to partner across siloed departments to implement holistic strategies.”

“Our industry and our world need you to dramatically increase expectations for business leadership around the world,” Razvi added. “We know that business has a key role to play in shaping the future, one that’s rooted in climate leadership and social justice. Protecting people and the planet is intrinsically linked to ensuring both business and human resilience. If industry fails to make progress, organizations will face increasing consequences, including investor employee and community activism, as well as operational, regulatory and financial risk.”

Going alone is easier, she admitted, since it’s easier to call your own shots and make your own rules. But that’s no longer what “meaningful leadership” looks like.

“In this day and age, authenticity, transparency, intentional collaboration and actual progress are the real currency of leadership,” Razvi said. “Committing with courage lets companies move from disconnected internal strategies and disjointed external engagements to holistic, integrated operational and sustainability strategies. It means committing to the organizations that have the greatest ability to drive systemic change and have the courage to make big bets on key initiatives. Because the time for thinking small is over.”

Many of the tools that can drive change already exist, she noted, whether it’s the SAC’s Higg Index suite of tools, Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber and Material Matrix, the Apparel Impact Institute’s Clean by Design or the ZDHC Foundation’s Supplier to Zero.

“It’s easy to think that technology, new innovations or new initiatives will save us or that we have more time to address the critical issues that we face,” Razvi said. “And while it’s true that there exists white space—new innovations that will be required or scaled for us to succeed—we need to start doing all of the things that we already know how to do now. This includes implementing energy-efficiency programs, scaling renewables and preferred materials, and implementing purchasing practices that improve working conditions.”

As the recent Apparel Impact Institute and World Resources Institute report demonstrates, half of the reductions needed to get the industry to net zero by 2050 will come from existing solutions relating to energy efficiency and preferred materials, while the other half will come from “innovative solutions” such as next-generation materials or coal elimination.

Such efforts may not be as “sexy or glamorous,” she added, but they are “vastly more important in order to have impact and to be an industry that gives more than it takes to our planet and people. Solutions such as these need to be done by every company, and they need to be scaled collectively.”

Ambitions, too, must be vastly raised. “We still haven’t gone far enough,” Razvi said. “We need courageous and meaningful policy changes to remove the current barriers to scale existing proven solutions. We need well-informed and well-structured solutions to build on existing initiatives, so that we don’t create duplicity and add unnecessary burden on actors across the value chain. Good policy can help reinforce, support and accelerate the climate change agenda for fashion that benefits people and planet alike.”

Most of all, the industry needs to partner with purpose.

“The challenges we face will require a new kind of leadership and an even more radical kind of collaboration than what launched the SAC a decade ago,” she said. “If we’re going to succeed, we must keep the end in mind and scale as fast as we possibly can. Together. Because systemic change requires systemic action—action that is committed, connected and coordinated.”