Conversations

Can China’s textile industry clean up its supply chain?

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By Racheal Meiers, Director, Inclusive Economy

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

As part of BSR’s Business Leadership for an Inclusive Economy initiative, we are running an interview series with thought leaders from business, government, civil society, academia and philanthropy.

Their voices and perspectives will help deepen our conversation on how we can build a more inclusive economy and how business most effectively can contribute to that vision.

We spoke to Liang Xiaohui, head of social responsibility for the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC), about striving for good jobs in textile manufacturing, technology changes and impacts on workers and an inclusive future for the industry in China.

Racheal Meiers: What does it mean to be included in the economy? How does the textile industry make the economy more inclusive?

China National Textile and Apparel Council

Liang Xiaohui, head of social responsibility for the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC).

Liang Xiaohui: To be included in the economy fundamentally means to share the results of social and economic development by creating an equal opportunity for everybody to be active in economic activities and decisions.

Specifically, the textile industry creates jobs for people without a lot of education and skills — that’s why manufacturing is quite important in an economy, especially in developing countries.

To achieve an inclusive economy, it’s very important for businesses and also governments to think about how the interests of employers and employees can be balanced — and the voices of workers can be heard and their concerns can be addressed. As we look toward the future, this balance will be even more important.

For instance, if we can upgrade technologies and equipment and, at the same time, educate workers and let them upgrade themselves so that they have opportunities for better, higher paid, higher skilled jobs, that will be a big step toward achieving an inclusive economy in our sector.

Meiers: Given where things are in China right now, with changes in the labor force and competition from other countries in manufacturing, how do you see inclusion as fitting into this context?

Liang: In this context, we can no longer rely on lower wages or lax environmental practices to be competitive; we have to evolve to a higher stage of the supply chain to compete.

Getting there will take two critical elements: The first one is to be innovative, such as upgrading technologies in manufacturing; and the second is building a workforce of people that can effectively work with and work for innovations. To support our efforts to upgrade our industry, we have to build up our human resources potential and give people, especially existing textile workers, more opportunities to learn expertise and skills.

Meiers: How are your member companies approaching technology upgrades and related labor force engagement?

Liang: That’s really a big question, and I cannot give you a general answer because we have almost half a million textile and garment companies in China. But I do see that many companies are working hard to incorporate technology tools for different purposes, such as reducing pollution and increasing efficiency.

A very popular idea in our industry now is to exchange human power with machines, which is in part driven by the lack of skilled workers, and even a shortage of low- and unskilled workers in China in recent years.

At the same time, there are factories that are working to invest in their workforces. They are calling on government and associations like ours to improve education and vocational training to support upgraded skills in the industry. Some factories are also taking these steps themselves.

For example, one factory I recently visited is investing a lot of money to purchase very advanced equipment from Europe. To support these technology upgrades, they have also started their own academy, a professional training school where they can train their workers and future employees on how to work with the new equipment.

This factory sees investments in the expertise and skills of their workers as part of the process of upgrading their technology hardware. And they also understand it will be important to pay higher wages to the workers who become capable of operating the new machines.

Meiers: That’s an encouraging example. How is the Chinese government getting involved in these issues of workforce skill development, to support technology upgrades in the manufacturing industry?

Liang: The government has been monitoring this issue for many years. Recent policies from 2014 require that a minimum of 30 percent of local additional fees on education shall be used for vocational education, and the enrollment of vocational schools should raise from about 30 million in 2012 to more than 38 million in 2020, almost a 30 percent increase.

This will help transfer more young people into vocational schools, making them advanced industry workers with skills and expertise. The young people see where the economy is going and understand that to be included in that future economy, they need to know the skills required by it.

For example, there was a story last year of a young man who quit Peking University to enroll in an occupational school to become an auto mechanic — he did this because he liked the work, but he also knew that the auto maintenance industry in China is very underdeveloped for the demand that is coming.

Meiers: Shifting gears a little bit, let’s talk about the current workforce in textile manufacturing. Who are some of the most vulnerable people that are taking these jobs, and how do you work with your CNTAC members to identify these groups of people and put in place mechanisms to support them?  

Liang: I think the most vulnerable group in the industry is migrant women workers in their 30s and 40s. In the labor market, in the factory, they are not in a very good position. They have very low representation in management, and they have low levels of training and education as compared with male peers. The reason for this is that most of them come from villages and underdeveloped regions, where women have a very low status and so don’t receive as much education and opportunity.

We are actually doing some work with BSR to support these women, and all women workers in the industry. Though more than 65 percent of workers in the industry are women, they hold very few positions in management. Working with BSR, and learning from your expertise and experience supporting women’s empowerment in China, we are hoping to build up the potential of individual women to expand their skills and advance to these positions, while at the same time working to expand management’s understanding of women workers’ potential.

Meiers: In these collaborations, what opportunities do you see? How can we expand partnerships to support a more inclusive economy?

Liang: I think the greatest opportunity from our collaborations is that we are a national business association and you are an international business association, of sorts. And this is critical, because we are working at both ends of the supply chain. A lot of your members are buyers of our members.

So in working together, we can try to mobilize both ends of the international supply chain. So many issues can be addressed in this way.

Read perspectives on the inclusive economy from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Zia Khan, Western Union’s Talya Bosch and GlaxoSmithKline’s Clare Griffin.

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Eileen Fisher’s Bold New Path

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Eileen Fisher designs from her heart. Long before sustainability really got going as a business movement, this giant of the fashion world created clothes inspired by her love for natural fibers and her desire to make pieces that were timeless and long-lasting. As her company grew, she began educating herself on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry and decided to do more. For over a decade, Eileen and her 1,200 employees have gradually transformed Eileen Fisher Inc. into one of the largest sustainable fashion brands anywhere, yet the company’s frank marketing materials are the first to tell you that more action is needed. Focusing on six key areas – fibers, colors, resources, people, supply chain mapping, and reuse – the company’s Vision 2020 initiative promises that all of its styles will be sustainable by the year 2020, or it won’t sell them.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Eileen for several hours at her home in New York about everything from her personal story to the value that mindful breathing at meetings adds to her company. She also opened up about the struggles and sacrifices required to integrate sustainable practices throughout her company, the tension between minimizing her impact and selling products, and how her search for purpose led to success.

Can you tell us about the conceptualization of the Eileen Fisher brand? Was there a moment that you remember that you actually decided to really go for it?

Eileen Fisher: I started in 1984, so I’m going to say it was 1979 when the idea was forming. I’d been working in design and graphics at that time and actually doing some branding work – logo design and packaging and things like that. I had a Japanese partner and had the opportunity to travel to Japan, and while I was there, I got really excited about the kimono – the whole idea of a garment that they wore in only one shape for a thousand years. The whole idea of timeless clothing intrigued me. The simplicity in the whole Japanese aesthetic just really attracted me. So, this idea began to form and it was just about really simple clothes – simple shapes and natural fibers. I was into cotton and linen and silk at that time. It just had to be natural fibers. That was clear to me.

When I first decided to do it, I
 had a friend who was a jewelry designer. He took me to a boutique show where he showed his jewelry to small stores. I just remember walking around there and seeing these little booths and seeing other designers presenting their work and small companies presenting their wares to little boutiques around the country. I remember looking around going, “Oh, I can do this.” I felt like I could see my idea there and it felt whole. I could picture it.

I’m probably not a good salesperson, so I couldn’t picture going around to stores and standing in line at Bendel’s or Bloomingdale’s to talk to the buyer and then being rejected. That was too disturbing to me, plus I didn’t know if they would understand what I was doing. And I guess I never saw myself doing runway shows – I wasn’t that kind of designer. It was more like I wanted real clothes for me to really wear. It wasn’t about the show or red carpets or anything glitzy. It was simple.

Was there any fear involved in that decision?

EF: I think it was foolish non-fear. 
I really had nothing and so I had nothing to lose. It was coming through me, this idea. It was clear to me. I was sort of uncomfortable and not a confident person, but a shy, introverted person. But this idea was powerful and I was confident about it and I was sure about it. I would talk to people about it with confidence. It was almost like I didn’t recognize myself because I felt so sure of myself in that arena. So I would say I had no fear – maybe foolishly had no fear.

Was it your intention from the get-go to make Eileen Fisher a sustainable brand or was that a gradual awakening?

EF: I would say it was gradual in
 terms of deepening the work around sustainability. In the beginning, it was all about natural fibers, and I was under the impression that natural was biodegradable and natural was safe
 for the environment. What happened over the years is that I drew in a lot
 of people who had similar values 
and cared about natural fibers and probably even understood things that I didn’t. I remember this woman, Sally Fox, who was one of the first organic cotton people. She was growing organic cotton in these subtle, natural colors close to 20 years ago. People like that found us because they knew we were on the same wavelength somehow, even if we weren’t fully understanding organic yet.

I guess you could relate it to food. People who eat healthy just instinctively wouldn’t eat at McDonald’s because it just wouldn’t feel right or they wouldn’t want to 
eat a lot of packaged foods. They would eat real food. To me, it was real clothes. That was where I was coming from without fully understanding the difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton, and not understanding how damaging conventional cotton is to the planet.

So, we hired Amy Hall. We actually hired her to be an assistant at first and then she moved into being Director of Social Consciousness 15 years ago. She became passionate about some of the human rights work in the factories, how we monitored the factories, and how we ensured that our people were treated fairly. That was really how we entered social consciousness. We got involved with Social Accountability International, which does the SA8000 standards 
for operating in factories around the world. Amy is now on the board of directors there.

From there, things would just happen. For example, the first cotton I did, I just didn’t like the finish. The vendors told me there was some kind of chemical finish that they put on the cotton, and I didn’t like the way it felt. I had them not put the chemical finish on it, and I felt that the fabric just came alive. It was much more organic. It was just an intuitive thing that I liked it better.

Another time we got involved with this group in Peru that was doing organic cotton. We just fell in love with the yarn, but their capabilities weren’t great in terms of design. Even though in the beginning we were offering some products from them because we wanted to support this idea, the garments didn’t necessarily sell and they were more expensive. It was probably 30 percent more for the organic cotton at that time and we were troubled by that. Some of our designers got really excited about this yarn and they went down there and they started really designing into the product and working with the people down there to actually create what we wanted and making the product really compelling. Today this is an amazing project. It has some of my favorite pieces that I go to because they’re so beautiful and this cotton is just 
so compelling. People today will pay the price for those pieces, probably because the design value is there. It’s not just funky, hippie clothes. It’s something really beautiful and really special.

I think this whole thing has kind of been a building process over the years. A few years ago, we started doing organic linen and trying to bring in more organic cotton. We’re on a path to try to move more of our products to be more local – back to this country. We’re not there yet. We have a long way to go, but we’re trying.

I think there’s just so much passion and it’s so deep in the company.
 It’s not that we just have a Director of Sustainability or Director of
 Social Consciousness. Now we have somebody mapping the supply chain. That’s her whole job. We have a Director of Human Rights. We have these different positions. What’s actually happening is that throughout the company lots of people are really encouraged to be passionate about these things and are given permission to care. At our company meetings, we do things like talk about the
 water crisis and ask everyone what they might do, and get the company engaged.

“Throughout the company lots of people are really encouraged to be passionate about these things and are given permission to care.”

Was there something that really inspired this shift?

EF: A few years ago, I got involved in the Gross National Happiness project with Otto Scharmer. I ended up going to Bhutan and the Amazon and started really thinking about purpose – my own purpose and the company’s purpose.

It’s interesting because we’re a clothing business, and although we’re not a typical fashion business, we 
are still caught in that thing where the customer wants new – she wants to feel special. We want her to feel great and give her something new, but we also want to create things
 that are timeless and that last a long time. These are weird lines that we’re walking.

I don’t think of myself as leading this company. I never call myself CEO or anything like that. It just feels like it’s such a collective, group effort. And a few years ago, when I started on this project, simultaneously there was work going on in sustainability and there was a whole team building around that asking, “What else can we do? How can we get rid of the plastic hangers? How can we use less paper? How can we ship more by sea rather than by air?” These conversations were happening everywhere and there started to be these large gatherings at off-sites.

So, after I started doing my own purpose work with the Gross National Happiness project, I was on a boat in the Amazon and I met this guy, Marcelo Cardoso, who blew my mind. He was talking about purpose and companies having a larger purpose and individual purpose and how that works together, and personal transformation. I was like, “Yes, I want more of this. How can you help me do this?”

I started bringing him in and we were doing these prototype workshops. One of them was around purpose and I had this really powerful experience. He does these exercises where you just sit in a chair and you embody your purpose. You sort of talk to yourself as your purpose, like, “What are you doing with your life? Why are you doing this? What really matters? Why are you forgetting about me?”

I had this really interesting experience in which I recognized 
that I just needed to be more fully 
me. Actually, I used the stools in my kitchen, and I found that when I would sit in this purpose chair, I was sort of embodying my purpose. I just started to take that into my daily practice of sitting on a stool and feeling that I’m in my purpose rather than just my ordinary me.

A year and a half ago, I had just come back from two back-to-back conferences and I was tired, but there was a company sustainability meeting off-site. You could feel a lot of energy building around all this great work 
that was happening. I was supposed to go. I thought I was going to go for the first few hours and just kind of set it off, give permission, and let everybody know that I supported this whole initiative. I was sitting in my purpose chair that morning and I thought, “I have to do this. I don’t care if I’m tired. This really matters.”

I went upstairs and packed my bag for the whole four days. I went and while I was there it was amazing the work that was happening. This is where the Vision 2020 came out. It was not my idea, but it came up that we should make a radical commitment that we would make all of our clothes sustainable by 2020.

And whoa. I just remember realizing that I could say, “Yes!” My name’s on the door. Even if we don’t get there, saying yes gives people permission. It was just this powerful understanding that there was a place for me to really use my voice and that this was an important area for me to do that. The work was already happening and it was maybe going to happen if I hadn’t said yes, but me saying yes that day was another, deeper layer.

To see the full interview with Eileen, including her concerns about the apparel industry, her thoughts on leadership and growing her company sustainably, and what’s giving her hope for the future, purchase a digital or print copy of Issue 3 of Conscious Company Magazine in stores or online.  

**This post first appeared on the Conscious Company Magazine here.

HANNAH JONES: “FOR NIKE, SUSTAINABILITY IS A POWERFUL OPPORTUNITY TO INNOVATE”

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Hannah Jones is Nike, Inc.’s Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator.

Hannah leads Nike’s Sustainable Business & Innovation team, with a goal to decouple growth from constrained resources through sustainable innovation. The team works to rethink materials, methods of make, products and business models to solve complex sustainability challenges.

As VP, Innovation Accelerator, Hannah shepherds a dynamic team designed to help innovation move smarter and faster via portfolio analytics, strategic partnerships, rapid piloting and innovation strategy.

From 2007-2010 she chaired the Sustainable Consumption initiative for the Consumer Industries grouping of the World Economic Forum and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in January 2007.

In 2013, Hannah was awarded the C.K. Prahalad Award for Global Business Sustainability Leadership. Hannah is a board member of the Ecover and Method Brands.

Hannah-Jones

What does sustainability mean at Nike?

For Nike, sustainability is a powerful opportunity to innovate. By looking at innovation through the creative lens of sustainability, we’re able to deliver a portfolio of products and services with maximum performance and minimal impact on the environment.

When Nike innovates, we always do it with athletes in mind. We want to invent with purpose and expand athletic potential beyond its limits.

Take, for example, Nike Flyknit technology. For hundreds of years, shoe making has remained basically the same: cut various materials – such as leather, polyester or rubber – into pieces and sew it all together. As you can imagine, cutting the different materials and pieces creates waste. Flyknit revolutionised the process by knitting strands of yarn into a nearly seamless upper. The technology benefits athletes because it delivers lightweight, formfitting footwear – and it also has minimal impact on the environment. In fact, since 2012 Flyknit has helped reduce waste by nearly two million pounds.

How does sustainability influence design at Nike?

Our designers are obsessed with each piece of material, every single stitch, anything they can do to help athletes perform better. So, instead of retrofitting how we think about sustainability after a product is made, we’ve hard-wired sustainability into each stage of our process from sketch to store shelf.

One way we’re doing this is through the Nike Materials Sustainability Index (MSI). As part of our sustainability journey, we invested more than eight years researching and analysing materials to create the Nike MSI, a database of more than 80,000 materials and their environmental impact, to make it easy for designers to make smarter decisions in the product creation process.

It’s apparent that materials are a huge focus for Nike. Why is that?

Materials are one of the most essential elements of footwear and apparel. At Nike, materials matter greatly – we know materials account for about sixty percent of the environmental footprint of a pair of Nike shoes.

We have learned that if we can get smarter about which materials we use, and the way we use them, we can not only reduce our environmental impact, but also set a new bar for strong product performance and drive growth for our business.

Recycled polyester is a common material used in Nike apparel and footwear. Since 2012, more than two billion plastic bottles have been turned into yarn used to make high-performance Nike footwear and apparel. The process of making recycled polyester fabric diverts waste from landfills and also reduces energy consumption, while delivering the performance and style our athletes demand.

We want materials to matter for the entire industry as well. We’re working to make information and resources available to designers around the world through tools like the MAKING App. Drawing on data from the Nike MSI, the MAKING App is the first step in putting this information in a tool that can be easily used by designers and product creators beyond Nike, helping them make informed decisions about the impacts of their materials choices.

When you take a step back from Nike and look across the entire industry, where do you see the greatest opportunities for progress?

We recognise the challenges facing our society are greater than one organization alone can solve. Significant collaboration is necessary if we want to take sustainability to scale. And the greatest collaborations can sometimes happen in unexpected places. Take LAUNCH, for example. It’s a strategic partnership between Nike, NASA, the U.S. Department of State and USAID – organisations you may not expect to see working together – with the goal to identify and help scale disruptive innovations.

LAUNCH is currently focused on innovation in materials and manufacturing that can have dramatic social, environmental and economic impacts on the world. We’re also partnering with universities, researchers, NGOs and even competitors to share forward-thinking practices and processes.

We know that when we change how we collaborate, we can change the world.

For more information on Nike’s approach to sustainable innovation visit the Nike Sustainable Business Performance Summary.

To see a full list of Nike’s positive actions, click here.

**This post first appeared on the Postive Luxury blog here.

State of the Ethical Fashion Industry: EFF

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PrintEthical Fashion Forum team members attended two key events recently, providing an update on the state of the Ethical Fashion Industry.

1. European Commission: Informal Stakeholders Meeting on Responsible Management of the Supply Chain in the Garment Sector
Last week, SOURCE Editor in Chief, Sarah Ditty, attended the Informal stakeholders meeting on responsible management of the supply chain in the garment sector in Brussels, Belgium.
The European Commission is set to launch a multi-stakeholder initiative that will address all key aspects of sustainable development in the garment supply chain, including social, environmental, health and safety, human rights, gender issues, sustainable production and consumption.
Ditty, who is also part of the Fashion Revolution team, was pleased to contribute towards the shaping of the
priority issues to be tackled by this new EU platform.
The 5-year objectives are yet to be set, but there was a lot of debate around the following key issues:

  • Convergence of social and environmental standards;
  • Support for SMEs in Europe;
  • Capacity building for producing countries;
  • Transparency and reporting; and
  • Access to information for consumers
2. Ethical Fashion 2020: A New Vision for Transparency
On Monday 29 June, EFF team members Sarah Ditty (SOURCE Editor in Chief) and Clare Lissaman (Ethical Fashion Consulting) took part in a roundtable debate “Ethical Fashion 2020: a New Vision for Transparency” at the UK Houses of Parliament.
The two hour debate was chaired by Lucy Siegle in conversation with the Executive Directors of the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Bangladesh Accord, British Fashion Council, Maquiladora Health & Safety Network and Baroness Young of Hornsey.
The key take-aways were:
  • Transparency is a key to progress
  • Public disclosure of factories and their conditions is critical
  • Now is the time to move away from ‘sweatshop’ business models
  • Showcasing and celebrating good practices and positive stories is crucial
  • Legislation is part of the answer but not the whole solution, cultural change is needed
Notes to Editor: If you would like to request further information or a follow up interview with a member of the Ethical Fashion Forum and SOURCE team, please contact our Marketing Officer: Qiulae Wong – qiulae@ethicalfashionforum.com or 020 7739 7692
About the Ethical Fashion Forum
The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) is the industry body for sustainable fashion, representing over 10,000 members in more than 100 countries. EFF supports its members through the SOURCE platform, launched in 2011, which provides an online network, sourcing and business database, business intelligence, and a global programme of events.

Ethical Fashion: Key Statistics
  • Fashion is considered to be a $3 trillion industry
  • 200 out of the 500 on Forbes annual rich list have made their money from the fashion and retail industry and together are worth over $1 trillion.-McKinsey Report
  • 91% of fashion companies still don’t know where their cotton comes from – Behind the Barcode, Baptist World Aid Australia
  • 1,129 people died and over 2,500 were injured in the Rana Plaza disaster in 2011
  • 50% of consumers are now willing to pay a premium for brands with a social or environmental commitment – 2012 Edelman Good Purpose Report
  • Fashion Revolution Day’s web content was viewed over 14 billion times in 2015
  • Successful sustainable fashion brand, Reformation, turned over $25 million in 2014, and has just raised $12 million in investment from supermodel Karlie Kloss and VC firms
  • The Modern Slavery Bill will require UK companies to disclose their efforts to eradicating slavery throughout the supply chain

Coco Eco Magazine – Men We Love

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Image Source: Fashion Positive
Image Source: Fashion Positive

A Champion for sustainability and a life-long advocate of “doing the right thing,” Lewis Perkins is the Vice-President of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a product development initiative designed to bring about the next industrial revolution. Perkins explains, “Cradle to Cradle’s design methodology ensures that we’re creating products with a positive impact on people and the planet. Our goal is to remove the concept of waste and look at everything as a nutrient for future cycles –  eliminating landfills, removing the hazards of potentially harmful chemicals in products and manufacturing, increasing global use of renewable energy in how we make products, ensuring the health of our water systems and treating humans with dignity and respect.”  – READ MORE

Listen to some interesting podcasts shared by Fashion Positive here.

#1 Cradle to Cradle And Blended Fabrics

#2 Julie Gilhart and Lewis Perkins Discuss the Future of Sustainable Fashion

**This post first appeared on Fashion Positive website here.

Who Really Pays for Our Clothing?

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By Jacqueline Jackson

Last week saw the premier of The True Cost, a documentary about the clothes we wear, the people who make them and the impact the industry is having on our world. It was directed by Andrew Morgan and features interviews with leading influencers including Stella McCartney and Livia Firth. 

The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically. The film is a harrowing look at the consequences of fast fashion, which will make many people think twice about buying that ten quid dress.

We communicate who we are through our clothing, but behind the personal narrative our attire hides a story. The film seeks to tell this tale by taking viewers on a journey along the supply chain.

It shows how mass advertising and social media drive our need for more: the constantly changing trends, ‘haul’ video bloggers bragging about their latest shopping spree including the $5 T-shirt they’ll probably never wear, and CCTV footage of stampeding shoppers on Black Friday in America.

Next we visit the factories in developing countries which too often have poor and unsafe working conditions. Some consume vast quantities of fresh water which is contaminated in the process and released as wastewater, often untreated, into rivers. Local people can be exposed to chemicals used in the industry with serious health implications.

The promise of globalization was supposed to be a ‘win-win’. People in the developed world would get cheaper clothes while people in poorer areas would get jobs to escape poverty. Highlighting the disconnect between some firms and their workers, a former sourcing manager of a US fashion brand says: “There are a lot of worse things they could be doing.”

This does not make sense. Why would companies erode the very things on which they rely to generate revenue? It is because human and natural capital is grossly undervalued in the marketplace. The current model is simply unsustainable, and nature and public opinion is biting back. Companies are increasingly having to pay these hidden costs:

  • Target, the Australian supermarket chain, was among several clothing stores that had to recall clothing items after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission identified carcinogenic azo dyes within 37 product lines, impacting almost 208,000 items.
  • Mulberry found that the rising cost of raw materials, such as leather, caused its margins to decline, contributing to a 36% fall in pre-tax profits.
  • H&M saw a 30% reduction in net profits after internalizing soaring cotton prices in 2011.

Events like these are driving a move towards more sustainable models of sourcing and production. Of the companies that come to Trucost to understand where their human and natural capital hotspots are, many are not just looking for ways to improve transparency, reduce risk and build sustainable brands, but for ways to grow their businesses. Some firms are leading the way, profiting from innovative ideas that benefit people, planet and the bottom line:

  • After a Katvig swap party, customers start chatting to their friends about it on Facebook. It is a much more cost-effective marketing tool than traditional advertising and produces a sharp rise in sales.
  • Vigga Svensson has calculated that through its leasing model, company revenues rise 50%. Clothes are not wasted, but taken back for refurbishment and recycling.
  • In 2013, the US market for organic cotton increased over 16% compared to the previous year, reaching $690 million.
  • NRDC Clean by Design found that by implementing 200 improvement recommendations, 33 Chinese textile mills achieved collective operational cost savings of almost $15 million.
  • Farmers producing Better Cotton benefit from up to 44% higher profits when compared with farmers from the same region.

I came out of the cinema hoping that the film reaches a wide audience, especially among young consumers most in need of its revelations. We need more people asking questions about the impacts of fast fashion and demanding sustainable alternatives.

Fashion isn’t broken; it’s shifting, bringing new challenges and opportunities that require different ways of thinking and innovative business models that guarantee growth. With the number of middle-class consumers expected to rise by three billion over the next 15 years and the number of conscious consumers to grow, all these changes present an opportunity for companies to gain competitive advantage. Businesses that innovate to meet demand more efficiently while minimizing social and environmental impact will deservedly take the lead in this rapidly-changing marketplace.

**This article first appeared on Trucost.com here.

Even In Fashion, Less Bad Is Not Equal To More Good!

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By Lewis Perkins | Re-posted from Lewis’s personal blog. 22711_10205598498655456_5978854866461753438_n This morning, I opened up my email and saw I was tagged by a friend on a post about the article Slow Fashion Shows Consumers What It’s Made Of”  from NPR.   The article was good and gave a high level view of the issues that exists due to the lack of transparency in the global supply chain and the low price we are paying for our clothes.  I work in this field and was familiar with the subject, so the article is not what caught my attention; it was the responses from the dozens of people commenting below the article.  The comments ranged from disdain for the pretense in the fashion industry; “I am already being forced to worry about what I am eating and now you are making me focus on what I am wearing” to the disconnected; “this does not apply to me because I don’t buy $5.99 t-shirts at Walgreen’s.”  The rest seemed to think the article was telling them to stop buying affordable clothing and focus on luxury goods because they are better made and have a more transparent supply chain.” Why fashion? Several months ago a good friend of mine chided me for taking my talents into the Fashion Industry instead of a more “worthwhile” or “substantial” industry.   She viewed fashion as frivolous and unimportant in the scheme of global issues.   The reality is folks, unless you and your children are walking around naked, don’t sleep in beds or sit on upholstered sofas, or work in buildings with carpet, have curtains in your home; you are part of the global textile supply chain, and regardless if you shop at Walmart, J-Crew or Prada, you are part of this equation for supply and demand of all levels and uses of textiles on the planet. Textiles are one of the oldest industries, carry the most cultural significance and have one of the largest footprints on human and ecological systems.  The disdain for the Fashion Industry is actually short-sighted, because we are all using materials to reflect our personal statement whether it is intentional or not.  Yes, perhaps apparel “fashion” still feels like it’s direction resides in the hands of brands, designers, stylists, celebrities and other tastemakers.  But it’s not just about our clothing, it’s in the phones we use and the bikes or cars we drive.  It does not always mean high style.  We all use clothing and other products to tell a story about ourselves, whether we realize it or not.  So let’s place judgement aside, because this is really not about fashion.  This is about the future of all species on this planet.  So we better stop judging and get interested. What I am talking about is the billions of human lives who touch this industry every day whether they work in it or not.   And also remember that hundreds of millions (if not billions) of humans, animals and acres of land that make up the supply chain that creates our textiles. It keeps world economies going and people fed and warm at night.  The solution is not less bad.  The solution is more good. Can I afford sustainable apparel? When we talk about increasing the price of apparel, we are not talking about the difference between $5.99 and $599 (or even $59 for that matter) .   It’s price increases relative to the product (perhaps the difference between $5.99 and $6.99) in order to ensure better practices along the way to the consumer’s hands.    Incremental increases in labor, sustainable materials, better (e.g. healthy and safe for people and ecological systems) chemistry for synthetic fibers and for the dyes and processing chemicals (which may include a price increase due to the cost of innovation).   Traceable packaging, tags and labels also means we apply the same standards to the auxiliary materials as we do to the main materials in the products (fibers, yarns, trims, threads, zippers, buttons, etc..). I’ll just buy second-hand clothing. Another point the comment feed folks were making is around the need to increase our use of vintage, consignment and second hand apparel.   There is no doubt that keeping a garment as a garment (or any product in it’s original design) for as long as we can will have the least possible impact spread across that product’s years of useful life.  And yes, owning things better made and being able to enjoy them longer or pass them along to a second owner is a worthy pursuit.  However, eventually everything comes to the end of life #1.   It could be 6 months, 6 years or 60 years, but one day that dress is no longer a dress.   This is why we must advocate for the creation of a circular economy of materials.   So, one day when that garment can no longer be a garment, or even used as a rag, we will know what to do with the fibers and other materials?   Have they been designed with toxic dyes and other chemicals that prevent their safe return to the biological system (think composting) or even a useful stream for upcycling?  Many dyes and other chemicals can actually serve to prevent that material from being capable of recycling ad upcycling (either chemically or mechanically). So the first step is to employ the use of clean chemistry in a way that looks at what that material can become after it’s been used in apparel. That could mean we upcycle yarns or fibers back into yarns for the apparel industry or it could mean we take them back to the fiber or polymer level (depending if natural or synthetic fibers) and sell them to another industry. This requires take-back systems and the innovation for upcycling of fibers.   Today, we are just embarking on the technology and the systems which will allow this to happen.  But just like everything in the world of economics, we need supply and demand. That means, someone (some industry) must want those materials and someone else (along the chain from consumer to retailer to brand) must be engaged in a process for textile recovery. With the demand comes the investment and the innovation.   Did you know it takes some brands more than 5 years to collect enough supply of their “Take-back” fleece pullovers, to be able to send that feed to a fiber recycler and put it back into a new product.   That’s way too slow.  We need more volume to create speed of moving materials.  If more brands advocated for material reuse in their products (and at the same time advocate for collection and distribution of material for sale to other industries) we could begin to see the amount of volume needed to make the system work.   Companies like I:CO (http://www.ico-spirit.com/en/homepage/) have been established to collect and process textiles. They already work with retailers like American Eagle, H&M, Levi’s and Puma, but they need more supply and demand than this.   They are ready to grow exponentially.  And we can help. Why less is not better! Finally another point I hear often (and read in the comment feed) is about buying less and using less.  There is no doubt that consumption is an issue in the USA (if not the entire world).  But why?   Is consumption really the issue or is it the way in which we consume or use products and packaging that have not been optimized for material reuse, so therefore everything eventually ends up in a landfill.    Making the choice to have less in your life is a personal call, but I don’t believe we should live in a world where we are forced to take shorter showers and eat less of certain types of food and feel guilty about our love for certain things.   Wanting and having your creature comforts is a personal choice, and many could argue a great gift of the experience of being human and living in the material world.  What we need is to design the materials and processes for products with new methods which ensure the use of safe materials; chosen for an intended use and end of use; powered by renewable energy with clean water stewardship and a high level of mindful uses of human, animal and land capital. If production on the planet was a positive force, we could all feel good about our individual footprint on the planet and our choices to have things.  Keep in mind that even if we all cut our product use in half, or by more, we are living on a planet with diminishing resources and a growing world population.  So we really have to go upstream and solve the problems at the origin of design and into the supply chain and not expect the solution to reside downstream with ourselves.     Yes, we are a big part of the equation.  Our greatest impact is with our purchasing power.   We can drive this change by helping to create the demand for higher quality materials and production and making sure we get them back to a system that wants and needs them.   Even with that t-shirt from Walgreens.

Influential Women 2015: Kindley Walsh Lawlor

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San Francisco Business Times

Kindley Walsh Lawlor

Influential Women 2015
Influential Women 2015

Vice president for global sustainability, , Gap Inc.

Education: Fashion design, Fashion Institute of Technology.

Proudest professional accomplishment: Making a radical career shift from making clothes to advocating for human rights in the global apparel supply chain. I made this change after the birth of my first child. I wanted to know my work was making a positive difference and be able to share that with her.

Best mentor: My parents, Laura and Thomas Walsh.

How to help women in business advance: In my professional life: mentorship. It is an essential tool for women to create their…

Read more here.

Chip Bergh: Why Levi Strauss Cares About Sustainability

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Dan Schawbel | This post first appeared on Forbes here.

I recently spoke with Chip Bergh, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Levi Strauss & Co, a leading global apparel and consumer goods company with sales in more than 110 countries. In the interview, he talks about the importance of sustainability to Levi Strauss, gives some highlights from their recent sustainability survey, and why he talks about profits through principles.

Bergh is a strategic leader with a proven ability to build and grow brand powerhouses, bring new products to the mass market, develop innovative marketing campaigns, and capitalize on digital platforms to drive brand awareness. Prior to joining Levi Strauss & Co, Bergh was Group President, Global Male Grooming, for The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G). During his twenty-eight year career at P&G, he served in a number of leadership positions with increasing levels of complexity and scope.

Chip Bergh
Chip Bergh

Dan Schawbel: How important is sustainability to you and your company?

Chip Bergh: It’s an important pillar for us as a company. It’s an important pillar from an innovation standpoint, but it also goes all the way back to our values as a company. This company’s been around for 162 years, going back to our founder, Levi Strauss; the man, the myth, the legend himself. We invented blue jeans about 142 years ago. He was an entrepreneur—I like to think about us as the original Silicon Valley startup.

He, from the very beginning, was very big into giving back and making sure that the company always operated with principle and doing the right thing. As a result of that, sustainability in the broadest definition of the word—not just environmental sustainability, but social sustainability and everything else—is part of the fabric of this company. It is a very big deal for us, we’re very focused on it. We use sustainability as a constraint to drive our innovation program. It’s part of who we are, and I think more and more consumers are beginning to recognize that.

Schawbel: Can you explain your current sustainability initiatives and how they’ve helped your company while supporting the world at large? Do you have any success metrics you can share?

Bergh: Sure. Just a couple of weeks ago we launched an updated life cycle analysis of a pair of blue jeans. We ran the first life cycle analysis back in 2007, before my time at the company, and it was an industry first. It was the first life cycle analysis done in the apparel industry. It was done based on US data. It was very insightful. It gave us a lot of insight into both water and energy consumption that a pair of jeans actually consumes through their life. We recently updated the life cycle analysis about a month ago. It takes much more of a global look. We studied the life cycle of jeans in the U.S., but also in the U.K., France and also in China, where consumer habits and practices are very, very different. There are differences regionally, but the bottom line is still the same.

A lot of the water and a lot of the energy is consumed before the jeans ever make it into the consumer’s closet, but a significant portion of water and energy consumption happens after the jeans are bought by consumers. So we are focused on every aspect of the life cycle, including what’s within our direct control, which is how the jeans are actually made.

A lot of water is consumed growing the cotton. We work with the Better Cotton Initiative to work with cotton farmers to show them more sustainable ways of growing cotton. That’s becoming a more important source of cotton for us. Making a difference there. We’re very focused on reducing the consumption of water and energy as we manufacture our products. We have a line of products called “Water<Less,” which reducesthe amount of water in the finishing process by up to 96% . That has saved, over the last four years, about one billion liters of water in the actual manufacture of a pair of jeans. Just for perspective, that’s about enough to provide drinking water for the city of New York for more than a month. It’s not inconsequential, that’s a lot of water. Water is one of the most precious commodities on earth these days.

We’ve also committed a lot of energy—no pun intended—a lot of time and effort communicating with consumers about things that they can do to significantly reduce the use of water and energy in the caring of their jeans. I made what is now the quote that’s gone around the world a couple hundred times saying, “Never wash your jeans.” I never actually said, “never,” but it was a comment that I made at a sustainability conference about a year ago to try to wake the consumer up from auto pilot. You don’t need to throw your jeans in the laundry every time you wear them. Encouraging consumers to hand wash, spot clean where possible, and postpone as long as possible throwing their jeans into the washing machine. We have a number of initiatives against every aspect of the supply chain, if you will. From the growing of the cotton, to the manufacturing of a pair of jeans, to really trying to influence and educate consumers on the proper care of their product.

Schawbel: Millennials want to work for a company that is benefiting society. Why are companies starting to emphasize how they are helping the world more today than years ago? Do you think that companies that only focus on profit will have a recruiting dilemma in the future?

Bergh: I’ll tell you what we’ve been doing, but this is not something to just address the Millennials. It goes back to our founder, and it goes back to the values of this company. We actually talk about profits, we are a business. We’re here to make a profit. But we talk about profits through principles. We have a non-profit foundation, called the Levi Strauss Foundation, which has been in existence for more than 60 years. The company, every year, funds that foundation with a percentage of the profits that we make. Through that foundation we have lots of programs in the communities where we live and work. The more successful we are as a company, the more earnings or profits we deliver, the more we’re able to give to the Levi Strauss Foundation, and then give back to the communities. It is a big part of who we are as a company.

Ethisphere just named Levi Strauss & Co. one of the world’s most ethical companies. It’s something that we’re really proud of. It is part of our ethos. It is helpful in attracting and retaining talent, there’s no question about it. Especially today where young people, as you said, are looking for companies that align with their personal values. That’s just the kind of company we are. We didn’t change it to attract Millennials, that’s who we’ve been since the inception of this company. As a result of that, we stand for that, and we’re able to attract a lot of great talent because of what we stand for.

Schawbel: Going back to what you were talking about with the product life cycle assessment study, can you share some interesting findings of the study with us?

Bergh: Sure. We studied only two years of consumption in a consumer’s household. About 25 percent of the water is consumed by consumers once they get the product home. Part of it is just from this auto pilot response of, “After I wear a pair of jeans I’ve got to throw them into the washing machine.” In the US, people wash their jeans every two times they wear it. If everyone delayed or postponed the washing of their jeans and throwing them into the washing machine to every ten wears instead of two, they would save enough water to meet the annual water needs of the city of San Diego for a full year.

This whole notion of not being mindless about throwing your jeans into the washing machine—you really would be amazed how long you can wear a pair of jeans just with spot cleaning them, if you drop a little spaghetti sauce on them, or something. Or hand washing them. The washing machine consumes a ton of water. I think it’s about 9-14 liters in every wash cycle that pair of jeans would consume (depending on efficiency and age of the washing machine).

Dan Schawbel is the Founder of WorkplaceTrends.com, a research and advisory membership service for forward-thinking HR professionals.

Op-Ed | Conscious Consumers Are the Key to Ethical Fashion

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The conscious consumer, who demands to know the story behind a fashion product, could lead the charge for transparent, ethical production, says designer Bruno Pieters.

 Bruno Pieters selfportrait | Photo: Bruno Pieters
Bruno Pieters selfportrait | Photo: Bruno Pieters

ANTWERP, Belgium — Over the past few decades the fashion industry has gone through an impressive transformation. Today, there is an abundance of fashion, available around the globe, in all price ranges. Our dream of globalising the industry has been largely realised. But the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh was a cold reminder for some, and a brutal discovery for others, that the people who had helped us build this dream were living a nightmare. 1,129 human beings died, over 2500 were injured. On April 24th 2013, it wasn’t just a building that collapsed. Our innocence about fashion came crashing down with it. For millions of people, that event has tainted the joy of admiring and purchasing the fashion that once seemed so glamorous. Worldwide clothing sales have not been affected. But a seed of consciousness was planted that has kept on growing ever since. There isn’t a design good enough to remove the bitter aftertaste of that catastrophe. We want to assume the best about the purchases we make — but now, we know better. When I was younger, I was fascinated by images of the ateliers of renowned couture houses and all the work that went into the realisation of one design. Those days seem long gone. Companies have moved most of their production to low-wage countries. Brands are operating more efficiently than ever before, producing large quantities at very low costs. By expressing our values through our purchases, we allowed brands to behave irresponsibly. Through buying their products, we told them we didn’t care. However, consumer behaviour can become a solution. Money is a language and when spoken fluently, can be a powerful tool for change. Another kind of consumer has emerged: the conscious customer. A clientele that respects craftsmanship, authenticity and transparency. For the millions of people who love the constant newness of fashion, there are others who value the beauty of the story as much as the design itself. A very influential, well-educated minority is demanding humane products and transparency from fashion brands, leading a shift that is happening around the world. Very few luxury products still carry the traditions that built the reputation of the brand. Often, when told today, the story is no longer credible. There is a need for a new story. An honest one. A smart brand will seize this opportunity to gain a whole new audience. Today, there is a new generation of fashion brands, driven by designers with a vision of street culture, youth and our future. But what I find most unfortunate is that almost all of them fail to include any notion of sustainability in their production. They are not setting themselves apart from their predecessors; they are not translating their opinions into deeds. I am cheering for new technologies, such as 3D printing. The day might come that we download the design for a pair of socks and print them out in the comfort of our own home — eventually, such progress might put an end to labour problems. But in the time that it takes us to develop this, the consequences of our current activities are racking up, as Rana Plaza tragically proved. Consumers need to make better choices and this industry urgently needs to evolve. Bruno Pieters is the founder of Honest By, a transparent and sustainable luxury fashion label. The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion. ** This article first appeared on Business of Fashion here.