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How C&A is Using the SDGs to Promote the Circular Economy

5, 6, 8, 12, 13 and 17. No, they’re not the mysterious numbers that kept showing up on TV’s “Lost.” Rather, they designate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that C&A has hinged its business strategy upon.

While the SDGs are still a relatively new idea in the business world, a growing number of brands and retailers are turning to the United Nations–adopted objectives as a kind of turnkey framework for achieving ambitious environmental, economic and social targets for “people, prosperity and peace.” Broken up into 169 specific benchmarks, the 17 SDGs encompass poverty eradication, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, clean and affordable energy, innovation and infrastructure, climate action and education.

Charline Ducas, unit leader for global circular economy at the Belgium-based chain, favors SDG 12, which she’ll be speaking about at a fireside chat at the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (WEAR) in Toronto on Monday.

Centered around ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, SDG 12 supports promoting resource and energy efficiency, establishing a sustainable infrastructure and providing access to basic services, green and decent jobs and a better quality of life for all.

Even its icon—an arrow twisted to form an infinity symbol—seems to embody C&A’s full-throated embrace of the transition to a circular economy. Though no SDG can or should operate in isolation, per Ducas, SDG 12 is one C&A has been working to “bring to life in a really concrete manner” through its Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified Gold collection.

“We’ve been innovating over the past two years to try and realize what SDG 12 can look like,” she added.

California’s Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which administers the certification, defines C2C Certified products as items that have been optimized for human and environmental health, material reutilization, renewable energy use, carbon management, water stewardship and social justice. Ratings are based on five levels: Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

What began with two styles of ladies’ tees in 2017 has since expanded to an extensive assortment of circular knits for men, women and children. Last month, the retailer unveiled what it hailed as the “world’s most sustainable jeans” and the first finished denim garment to receive C2C’s coveted Gold certification.

“We all wear jeans and T-shirts; they’re some of the most relevant products for the industry,” Ducas said, hinting that other product categories might follow. “We wanted to prove that responsible, circular consumption and production is possible at scale. And at an affordable price.”

The SDGs, as they might relate to fashion, are coming into focus at a time of escalating discourse about the $2.5 trillion industry’s social and environmental impacts. In July, Marie Chatardová, president of the UN Economic and Social Council, characterized the state of fashion as one of “environmental and social emergency.”

Globally, garment manufacturing emits 10 percent of carbon emissions (SDG 13), produces 20 percent of water, is often linked to dangerous working conditions (SDG 8) and contributes to deleterious health impacts from the use of hazardous substances during production (SDG 3), according to the UN.

Disparate UN agencies are starting to come together to discuss how they can better tackle some of these issues, said Karen Newman, a consultant to the UN who will be joining Ducas at WEAR next week.

The SDGs, she noted, can serve as a “nice menu for companies to understand where they are making an impact and how they can have an impact.”

“It’s encouraging to see companies coming together on SDGs as well as how various stakeholders and UN agencies are coming together to explore solutions and highlight issues from the sector,” Newman said.

It’s for this reason Ducas says she’ll be remiss if her talk doesn’t touch on SDG 17, which covers partnerships. Only collaboration in areas of innovation and best practices, particularly in a pre-competitive space, can drive long-lasting change, she said.

The belief led C&A to make publicly available its “recipes” for its C2C Certified products, from complete bills of materials to the names of its suppliers. Anyone can replicate the process, she said, “without having to go through all the hurdles we had to go through.”

Still, shifting circular fashion from theory to practice will be no small feat. Supply chains are set up to be opaque, byzantine and slow to change almost by design.

But rising tides, as that old chestnut goes, lift all boats.

The challenge is so big that not any one company can solve it,” Ducas said. “We can try and pave the way, but it’s only going to work if we get much broader engagement, not only in conversation but also in the action.”

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