“I suppose I define sustainability generally as operating in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs,” explained Accessories Council chairman Frank Zambrelli, when asked to define sustainability in broad terms.
“For any business it has three main pillars: economic, environmental and social. I like to informally refer to them as people, planet and profits,” he continued.
It’s a topic the executive is passionate about, so much so that he recently finished a Master of Science in International Marketing and Sustainability from Glasgow Caledonian New York College, the first foreign university to be given degree-granting authority in New York. The curricula covers marketing, risk and impact through the lens of sustainability.
“It felt very modern and on the cutting edge of where or industry is going,” he said of his education experience “My cohort was filled with an incredible group of people from the major brands in our industry. It was a great indication of exactly where the sector is headed.”
Zambrelli stressed that in business, “sustainability” as a term can be substituted with “business efficiency, and usually improves your operating margin. In other words, it’s just as healthy for your books, as it is for the planet.”
Here the industry veteran walks WWD through his nine tenets a new accessories brand — or any brand for that matter — can use to come out of the gate with a sustainable business strategy built in, as well as a few things established brands can do to embark on a greener path.
1. Define what that means to you as a new business. Learn about the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and recognize what we call ASAP — As Sustainable As Possible. Achieving 100 percent sustainability is like claiming you have a pet unicorn, unlikely, and I might suggest impossible. The first step is to understand the arc of impact across your value chain.
2. Get help. People and organizations like Cara Smyth at the Fair Fashion Center and LaRhea Pepper at Textile Exchange are connected to the research, data and partners willing to support your goals. Like many aspects of your new business, no one expects you to be the subject matter expert, and sustainability is a material issue with significant opportunity to fortify your company.
3. Develop a code of conduct. How will you behave as a company, and how do you expect the people and other companies you choose to work with to behave in turn? Establishing these characteristics in writing, up front, forces us to consider what’s important, and becomes a North Star in guiding us every day.
4. Raw materials are the starting point of our products. Understand the condition and manner in which they are produced, whether that’s leather, cotton, wool, polyester or any other material you use, as that baseline is often the greatest area of impact. Thankfully the market, information and selection is opening up, as consumers and the investment community are demonstrating they care, even if for different reasons.
5. You have a choice of producers. Learn about them, from the way they generate power to the programs they support or allow on premises to create positive working environments for the people, and the communities in which they produce.
6. Recognize your design and development calendars have consequences. In the launch mania of our business, allowing enough time to select better, lower-impact materials, maximize the design stage, prototyping with upcycled materials, and leveraging modern communications with distant factories has an enormous impact on waste, as well as the environmental footprint of your business. It’s easy to slip into traditional ways and calendars, so if you have the privilege of starting from scratch, take the opportunity to rewrite the rules natively.
7. Product and delivery timelines can be strong supporters or detractors of livelihoods in the supply chain. Mismanaged purchase orders — changing quantities, details, delivery dates or costing requirements midstream — can be an invitation to some facilities to drop their standards, leading to extended hours to meet deadlines, or practices adopted to meet these challenges that violate your code of conduct, or perhaps even the law.
8. Understand and manage your waste. From packaging to cutting, inventory to end of use, waste is one of our industry’s largest areas of impact. Eighty-five percent of what we make is ending up in landfill. Eliminating or managing that waste at all areas of your business, “closing the loop” on the cycles in your business, is a powerful step toward sustainability. We call it circularity, and encourage businesses to help create a circular economy.
9. Transparency and disclosure are good for business. As my mother always told me, “what a tangled web we weave when [first we practice] to deceive.” Share your intentions and practices, and invite your consumer into the conversation. Ninety-seven percent of Gen Z consumers expect the brands they buy to act responsibly. Last time I checked, 97 percent was just about everybody. When you’re open, people believe you, and will take the ride with you. Few consumers expect perfection; they just want to see a good trajectory. It’s OK to talk about what you still need to do, or hope to achieve in your sustainable goals.
Little of what I’ve stated changes for established brands, with three additions:
1. Start by measuring your impact across the processes and disciplines of your business. Whether you pick a single area at first, or take a deep dive along the lines of Kering’s remarkable Environmental P&L, just start.
2. Think about your sustainability as environmental and social, but also as it relates to the Governance of your business. ESG considerations can become a principal lens through which an established company makes decisions.
3. Know that in addition to your consumers, investors care, albeit for more tactical reasons. Your impacts, disclosure and sustainable efforts are viewed materially in today’s economy — new considerations of a business managing its financial and reputational risks. Ignore them at your own peril, especially if you’re a public company.