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How Important are Partnerships to Moving Sustainability Forward?

The fashion industry loves a good sustainability initiative, and no wonder.

As the dire effects of climate change increasingly become front-page news, and throngs of protestors like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future take to the streets, brands with reputations to lose want to be seen doing something—anything—other than fiddling while the world burns.

But critics of the myriad schemes, pacts and commitments—however well-intentioned—complain of initiative fatigue, particularly when so many have similar, or even indistinguishable, goals.

Some say they fail to address the elephant in the room: overproduction.

“Growth is generally not challenged and its cumulative impacts are not accounted for in the language and commitments of these pacts,” Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons School of Design in New York, said.

That’s not to say that initiatives don’t have value. While Eva Kruse, CEO and president of the Global Fashion Agenda, a Danish sustainability think tank and a 2019 Sustaining Voices honoree, admits it can be “difficult to navigate” the proliferation of sustainability initiatives, “it’s only through collaboration that we can drive systemic change in the industry,” she said.

Still, fractured efforts that tread the same ground are a waste of time and resources. Which is why the Fair Fashion Center at the Glasgow Caledonian New York College created a “convening the conveners” program for top-level leaders, said Karen Newman, a consultant to the United Nations. (UN Climate Change is a 2019 Sustaining Voices honoree.) An initial session, held in London last year, was followed by one at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in June and at Textile Exchange’s Sustainability Conference in Vancouver in October.

“When everybody’s together, these groups talk about their initiatives, strengths and ways to streamline collaboration to further facilitate change in the industry,” Newman said.

Certainly, the number of initiatives tend to show the size of the problem, said Francois Souchet, Make Fashion Circular lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. nonprofit and another 2019 Sustaining Voices honoree. And working together is a better strategy than the lone-wolf approach.

“When you look at the scale of the change that’s needed when you move toward a circular economy, no one can achieve it alone,” Souchet said.

But what can make or break an initiative is how brands conduct themselves within them. Alignment is key; self-congratulatory chinwagging is not. One effective tack, Souchet said, is working with other companies to brainstorm solutions in a pre-competitive space, such as the foundation’s Jeans Redesign project, which brought together 16 leading denim brands and manufacturers to agree on a set of guidelines based on circular principles. “And then everyone applies those guidelines in their own way,” Souchet said. “But they do it from a point of having agreed what ‘good’ looks like and what needs to be achieved.”

And the more specific the goals, the better. “The metrics of progress toward sustainability are too often reduced to percentages with little sense of the total,” Rissanen said.

Partnerships were a topic of discussion this past September at a Conscious Fashion Campaign-led panel at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Debbie Shakespeare, senior director of compliance and sustainability at label manufacturer Avery Dennison, said her company values its associations with nonprofits and industry groups because they “challenge us to think differently.”

In July, Avery Dennison joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100, a network that, like Jeans Redesign, provides members with a pre-competitive space to share knowledge and collaborate.

“We went to the first Acceleration Workshop last week, and we found ourselves with people that it wouldn’t have crossed our minds to even speak to,” Shakespeare said. “And some of the solutions and active projects that came out of it were really great.”

It helps that she was among people who were focused on action, Shakespeare added. “That’s the other thing that’s really refreshing about working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,” she said. “You don’t sit and talk; you sit and talk and then you do.”

No brand can be sustainable by itself, agreed Megan Meiklejoihn, sustainable materials and transparency manager at Eileen Fisher. The brand, she explained, works closely with all aspects of its supply chain, from farmers to factories, so “everyone’s on the same page.” To make “more change,” it leverages its partnerships with organizations such as Canopy, the Organic Cotton Accelerator, Textile Exchange and the Savory Institute to promote raw materials—deforestation-free viscose, organic cotton, regenerative wool, among them—that create less harm for the planet.

Part of Eileen Fisher’s secret to success, Meiklejoihn said, is “making friends” with like-minded companies such as Mara Hoffman. (The two brands recently co-created a bootie made, in part, from recycled plastic bottles.) Most brands don’t have large sustainability departments, so collective support is crucial.

“We have to share information, educate each other and find out what we’ve learned about our supply chain,” she said. Similarly, brands should approach mutual suppliers with a “common voice” to minimize confusion.

“If everyone’s asking for something different, nothing’s going to get done,” said Meiklejoihn. Banding together, she noted, is the reason outdoor-apparel brands have been so successful introducing Bluesign-certified materials, which have smaller environmental footprints. “They have a common ask, so when the suppliers invest in something, those suppliers know that there’s a [return on investment] because all of their customers are asking for [the same thing],” she said.

“It’s like that proverb,” Shakespeare mused. “if you want to go somewhere fast, you go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

For more on Sustaining Voices, which celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action, visit sustainingvoices.com.

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