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Can the Apparel Industry Sustain Sustainability?

As far as buzzwords go, sustainability has been enjoying a long moment in the sun, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

We do, indeed, need to ensure we manufacture, source and consume our products in a manner that will not compromise the ability of future generations to likewise do the same (this is my favorite definition of sustainability). However, the prevailing take on sustainability is one that tends to focus almost purely on the environmental consequences of our activities, looking only at things like water and energy and carbon emissions, and how to ameliorate negative impacts arising with respect to those. I believe this approach is flawed in two significant respects.

First, while the choices we make regarding how we source and process raw materials as part of our supply chains is undoubtedly a key issue when it comes to sustainability and the impact on our planet, it is not the only one.

Often lost in the discussions around sustainability is the human element itself–the way workers are treated in those supply chains. Just as a factory operating with energy supplied entirely by un-renewable sources is an unsustainable one, so too is a factory operating with a workforce toiling in unsafe conditions and/or not being suitably compensated. The realm of social audits does not get adequate recognition for the important role it plays related to sustainability; validating socially compliant sourcing practices is as much a key part of sustainability as ensuring environmentally compliant sourcing practices.

The second, and more fundamental, flaw has to do with a lack of understanding of the definition of sustainability itself, which I will rephrase here as follows: in order for a practice to be sustainable, it has to be something that can be done by future generations in much the same way that it is being done today.

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By definition, sustainability is inherently a long-term proposition. As such, a proper understanding of it must include the incorporation of another critical element: economics.

There are endless projects being conducted in the name of sustainability that are themselves not sustainable from an economic point of view. Examples are particularly abundant in the field of agriculture. If a practice is not environmentally sustainable, then we must certainly look for alternatives; just as certain, however, is the fact that while an alternative practice may be desirable from a purely environmental (or social, for that matter) perspective, if implementing it is not economically viable, then it is not sustainable.

As a result of these two flaws in the current approach to sustainability, we often actually set back the causes meant to be served, because proposed solutions end up not working in the long run, due either to missing an important piece (the first flaw) or to being unsustainable economically (the second flaw).

This is what contributes to sustainability being seen as just a fad in some quarters. In order for this to change, the collective approach to sustainability has to evolve beyond the current focus on environmental impact and be true to the core definition of the term. In other words, activities done to promote sustainability have to themselves be sustainable.

The good news is that we are starting to see this take shape.

Part of this is simply a natural result of folks learning from past errors and retooling their approaches to ensure methods are consistent with goals (in that both are sustainable over the long run). Another–and very significant–part is the increasing involvement of the socially responsible investing community in the broad human rights/sustainability landscape. As custodians tasked with a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard and grow their investors’ wealth, they have a strong understanding of the reality that ensuring the economic viability of a desired enterprise is critical, or else any benefit to be derived from it, whether monetary, social or environmental, will fail to materialize.

In the end, we must return to that core definition of sustainability–ensuring that we manufacture, source and consume our products in a manner that will not compromise the ability of future generations to likewise do the same, and reiterate that in order to truly work, sustainability needs to itself be sustainable.

As such, whenever we evaluate the sustainability of any proposed activity, we should make sure to incorporate into the calculus, in addition to environmental elements, both the human and economic.

Avedis Seferian is the president & CEO of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) and a recognized expert in the area of social compliance and responsible sourcing. He has extensive knowledge of social responsibility issues within the highly complex worldwide supply chains of the apparel, textile and footwear sectors and often speaks on topics in this field at different forums around the world and contributes to leading trade publications and news outlets