A close-up of a weaving loom at a textile factory.

MILAN – Sustainability is here to stay — and ready to embark on the next phase of its journey.

After over a decade championing diverse yet isolated projects, the industry as a whole has started realizing the importance of shifting traditional business models and leveraging more comprehensive goals — many of them in the next five to 10 years. The circular economy, animal welfare programs and shared standards have emerged as key topics of interest.

The three-day 2018 annual Textile Sustainability Conference organized by nonprofit association Textile Exchange, which closed here on Oct. 24, gathered around 800 textile and apparel industry professionals to discuss the global, sector-specific sustainable goals to target.

Kering’s head of sustainable sourcing innovation Helen Crowley described the journey as “a marathon rather than a sprint,” highlighting the importance of a corporate approach to the subject, thus “translating projects into business opportunities.”

Tuning in with Crowley’s views, Claire Bergkamp, worldwide director of sustainability and innovation at Stella McCartney, noted the company is in its structuring phase. “At the beginning there wasn’t a program yet, it was something that the company always had in its core values and I think that was one of our biggest enablers. Stella is our biggest enabler, her values are still the guiding light for our company,” she said, adding that pilot projects and strategies focusing on key materials then blossomed into broader programs. They include the first glue-free shoes, traceable viscose and regenerated cashmere, as well as philanthropic initiatives such as design schools’ educational programs and support to patients affected by breast cancer.

Despite being a heritage brand with longstanding connections with its suppliers, Burberry started just recently, in 2012, to rethink its environmental benchmark addressing the whole supply chain. Jocelyn Wilkinson, the British brand’s responsibility program director, underscored that “as we progressed, we realized that it was really important to map out what our real impacts were across our whole supply chain and business.”

The company’s strategy is now in its second phase covering the 2017-2022 period and it’s focused on having at least one sustainable attribute to the whole range of products. Projects include the NRDC Clean by Design-inspired program for energy and water saving, as well as enhanced practices for workers’ health and well-being.

In an interview with WWD, Crowley — also a conservation biologist — noted that Kering and its sustainability team of around 50 experts is now working on an articulated range of projects in an attempt to move beyond just the creation of standards and knowledge of the supply chain. “After these first foundation years, now we’re moving into real action years and we’re heading to 2025, when we want [to achieve] our outcomes.”

From wool-related programs in New Zealand, through to cashmere sourcing in Mongolia, animal welfare initiatives and down to regenerative agriculture — as well as a collaborative project with Stanford University and NASA to put solar panels into space and collect the energy — Kering’s agenda for 2025 includes “about 100 percent adherence [of the suppliers] to Kering’s standards in raw materials, 100 percent traceability, 40 percent reduction in EP&L [environmental profit and loss account], along with other social initiatives,” said Crowley, who contended that traceability, another pillar of the group’s strategy, is “really more about a tool, showing that if we have traceability, we can do everything else.”

While shifting their business strategies, apparel and textile players all agreed upon the rising importance of circular economies. Talking to WWD, VF Corp senior director sustainability and responsibility Anna Maria Rugarli mentioned a range of programs — some of them still in their pilot phase — under the “Made for Change” moniker, as among those trying to set the tone for a business model’s shift.

“To be honest, sustainability in the traditional sense doesn’t give us a competitive advantage anymore, while circular economy and new business models are giving us an innovative asset. They will enable us to stay relevant and competitive on the market,” Rugarli told WWD.

Although acknowledging that a lot has to be “revised because often the infrastructures are lacking,” she is equally convinced that apparel companies will soon embrace the circular economy on a larger scale. To wit, Burberry is looking toward it and “how do we look beyond just products toward a whole life cycle of what it is that we’re doing,” Wilkinson said.

In line with the Global Fashion Agenda to which VF Corp. is committed, the U.S. apparel giant’s initiatives include rental and re-commerce programs — such as The North Face Renewed project launched in July in the U.S. — aimed at extending the lifespan of a product. According to the executive, they represent “a very strong, sustainable attribute that can help us gain new market shares.”

Engaging today’s customers is part of the U.S. company’s communication strategy, as well. Rugarli maintained that “managing to communicate effectively and with transparency what we are doing represents the added value enabling the customers to choose independently and responsibly.”

To this end, according to the “Brands Take a Stand” study released this month by leading global communications and marketing consultancy firm Edelman, 64 percent of people who responded to the survey across eight key markets — including China, France, India, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S, among others — are strongly belief-driven buyers, meaning their consumption habits are informed by the brands’ stand on societal issues.

“Sustainability is a topic becoming more interesting to the customers, there’s a lot of marketing happening to back that up and I think it’s important for all of us to make sure that what we’re saying represents what the company is genuinely doing…that it also represents a large percentage of your business,” added Bergkamp from Stella McCartney.

The same assumption is pivotal to Burberry, as well. Wilkinson underscored the brand is committed to “hopefully encourage other brands and consumers to be interested in this conversation.”

Elaborating on communication from a broader perspective, Kering’s Crowley agreed: “The sector is a voice, an awareness-raising [voice], an opportunity because people define themselves, whether they like it or not, through clothes, …and the stories behind these clothes are important.”

“We cannot solve these [environmental] problems as individual companies but we have to find out a place in what we can do,” she added, highlighting the importance of keeping the conversation going, also among competitors.

Overall, fashion players urged the need for aligned standards and shared practices in order to effectively commit to a globally recognized agenda. Following the agreement inked in 2015 by all of the United Nations’ member states aimed at implementing the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, Textile Exchange commissioned the “Threading the Needle: Weaving the Sustainable Development Goals Into the Textile, Retail and Apparel Industry” report to the United Nation Global Compact and KPMG LLP. Published last September, the report aims to provide companies with a tool to “scale positive social, environmental and economic impact through the SDGs.”

A month after its release, the nonprofit’s ambassador and project lead for “Threading the Needle,” Caterina Conti, mused on the biggest challenges and even bigger opportunities that companies embracing the SDGs are facing.

In an interview, Conti said that “adding yet another framework to — in some cases — very complex sustainability programs” could be critical as big corporations, especially, already have extensive 2020 or 2030 goals. “They’re already measuring against the existing 2030 fiber challenges. Many of our companies are working on many significant preferred fiber commitments,” she added.

A Farmer Field School in Ethiopia.

A Farmer Field School in Ethiopia.  Courtesy of Pesticide Action Network UK

The 2018 “Preferred Fiber and Materials Benchmark Insights Report” issued by Textile Exchange was presented at the conference. It measured the usage of preferred fibers and materials among 111 voluntary participating brands and retailers. While H&M ranked as the top user of preferred cotton, down, man-made cellulosics and Lyocell, Nike topped the list of recycled polyester users and Deckers Brands scooped the prize for its preferred wool usage. Other “Leaderboards” companies that placed in the top 10 lists include Inditex, Target and The North Face.

Despite critical issues, Conti sees the SDGs as a disruptive solution. “It’s the first time that there is this universally agreed upon framework with common goals and, if we don’t use that language, we’re still not working together to address issues that are no longer sector-specific,” she said, highlighting how apparel has been contributing to sustainable development for “a very long time.” Positive results are already surfacing and include new products, new business models “disrupting the value chain,” new techniques and new “black box ideas.”

During the plenary session she hosted, Conti stressed that in what companies “are already doing — if scaled, if appropriately invested in — the solutions are already present.” As reported, the “Threading the Needle” toolkit also provides some reference examples of good practices. Lenzing’s head of sustainability communications Angelika Guldt took it further, suggesting that the creation of an open source system for all the companies in the industry could help trigger a “real mindset change [and] to reach these very ambitious goals.”

The report sits among the tools that Textile Exchange offers to its more than 260 members. During the conference, the organization also reported on a new framework it is developing. Although still in its initial evaluating process, the Animal Welfare Framework Fact Sheet follows similar standards on wool and down, the latter incidentally lent by the VF Corp.-owned brand The North Face and currently embraced by 70 companies worldwide.

The Animal Welfare project is set across different species, suggesting the expected best practices categorized into the various elements of animal welfare and livestock production, including nutrition, living environment, husbandry, slaughter, transport and management. On the sidelines of the conference, Anne Gillespie, Textile Exchange director of industry integrity, explained the fact sheet allows to “really create a framework around what are those needs and aspects of their care and management that we wanted to be sure to address consistently whatever species you’re in.”

Along with providing the industry with a new standard to follow, the Animal Welfare program, to be released early next year, is pivotal in re-evaluating the down and wool frameworks, as well. “We had a very consistent approach to the supply chain no matter what the [animal-derived] fiber is,” she said.

To this end, a Responsible Leather Assessment tool will also be launched according to Animal Welfare, although it will benchmark existing standards, as opposed to creating a new one. Gillespie told WWD that although tanneries in certain countries, including Brazil and Italy, are already mastering sustainability, “there are also examples of tanneries that are not even close to meeting [standards] and yet have really big impacts on water and human rights.”

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