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Traceability Builds Trust Amid Escalating Consumer Eco Expectations

COVID-19 has raised the stakes for sustainability, particularly when it comes to traceability.

More than ever, consumers are scrutinizing brands’ sustainability goals and claims, and they are carefully considering their purchases. In a recent survey from the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, presented during a Sourcing Journal webinar, 42 percent of fashion executives said their customers have become more vocal about sustainability as a result of the health crisis. Additionally, 48 percent believe that shoppers would switch to a competitor if their company failed to meet its sustainability goals.

“Today’s consumer is looking at that corporate responsibility as more of an expectation from the brands than a benefit,” said Liza Schillo, senior manager, global sustainability integration, Levi Strauss & Co. and U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol consultant board member. “We suspect the consumer will punish a brand for not meeting those standards, and so at Levi’s we know we have to earn the right to be a brand that consumers turn to in this moment.”

Given this consumer pressure, between March and July, a growing number of companies have heightened their focus on traceability while the percentage committing to sustainable raw materials and manufacturing has declined. During the webinar, speakers from Gap, Levi Strauss & Co. and the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol discussed the role that third-party verification can play in proving commitments and progress.

“[What] we’re hearing from the brands and retailers is that they have to be doing more than just saying they’re meeting their sustainability goals,” said Dr. Gary Adams, president of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.

One area that third parties can assist with is giving retailers and brands better oversight of their raw material suppliers at the farm level. For instance, the Gap brand has committed to sourcing 100 percent of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2021, but it doesn’t buy its cotton directly. Instead of having to visit hundreds or thousands of producers to check up on their practices, the company can tap into third parties to be its “eyes and ears on the ground,” said Alice Hartley, senior manager, sustainable innovation at Gap Inc.

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Similarly, Levi’s relies on third-party standards to verify its raw materials. Schillo noted that beyond just tracking data, having this information at hand enables Levi’s to more accurately track its own development. “We want to make sure that our consumers don’t just see us checking a box and moving on,” said Schillo. “It’s about continuing to innovate and collaborate and raise that bar on what it means to be best practice.”

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, which just entered its second phase, was designed to specifically serve the need for data on cotton producers. Farmers take a questionnaire and use a data tool to analyze their fields. As part of the program, producers will be able to see how they stack up against their peers, prompting continual innovation and advancement.

With the growing plethora of verification standards, it can be a challenge for suppliers to keep up. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is collaborating with other existing schemes including the Better Cotton Initiative and e3. Similarly, Gap has worked to unify some of the standards and evaluation methods across its verification partners to simplify goals for its supplier partners.

As brands are facing a greater demand for sustainable investments, they are simultaneously struggling with job cuts, retail closures and supply-chain disruptions. Meanwhile, the suppliers who would need to implement these changes have come up against cancelled orders and delayed payments. There are also concerns about whether customers who claim they desire sustainability are willing to shell out for it.

Rather than solely being a financial strain, making sustainable changes has the potential to actually unlock savings, such as reducing the amount spent on water or chemicals. Hartley encouraged companies to seek out solutions such as this that could make environmental responsibility beneficial not just for brands but also for upstream partners.

“This crisis has forced us all to take a pause and step back from business as usual, and in some ways I think that’s a good thing because business as usual for fashion can really be this unrelenting piece of product creation, and we can get caught up in this complex machine in how we do business,” said Hartley. “So maybe we actually don’t try to get back to normal, maybe we find ways to ensure that the new normal that we get back to is in fact a better future.”

Watch the webinar, sponsored by the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, to find out:

  • How COVID-19 could alter fashion’s sustainability investments
  • Where companies’ priorities lie six months into the pandemic
  • How the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol fits into the existing landscape of sustainability standards
  • What it costs to become a B Corporation
  • The importance of collaboration to drive sustainability progress
  • Whether consumers are ready to pay for responsibly made goods

Click here to watch the webinar now.