Cara Smyth cares.
She cares about fashion, the people who drive the industry, the planet, the next generation — even the investors who help fuel (and profit from) it all.
As the founder of the Fair Fashion Center and vice president of Glasgow Caledonian New York College — its mission is to act “For the Common Good” — Smyth has worked tirelessly to push fashion and related industries toward a model that is sustainable with higher profits.
Building more efficient companies that make more money and are better for their workers and the environment is a goal everyone can get behind.
Here, WWD talks with Smyth about what is being done, how fashion can move faster and just who is tops when it comes to sustainability.
WWD: What role can education play in sustainability?
Cara Smyth: We have the Fair Fashion Center, which is the applied research center looking to prove the business case for sustainability. There are some things that are more corporate social responsibility initiatives, but if you’re going to really scale system change and redesign the industry from the inside-out, money-making activities scale change. It’s very important that we provide business solutions…that’s the fastest path.
We work with 41 ceo’s and 250 brands. The information that is garnered by that close contact with the c-suite on the key pain points in our industry is very much informing our programs.
WWD: What are the skills you are trying to give the next generation?
C.S.: We need to as an industry have a fluency at least — even if we’re not going to be biologists and chemists and greenhouse experts — but we need to have a fluency in the sub businesses that drive fashion. We need to know about agriculture….
Even if you are not the expert and maybe the marketer that’s looking to appeal to new consumers, if you’re not able to have information in all the key areas. You need a network and a fluency in all the key areas if you are going to be a future leader in our business. You can’t just be a fashion person anymore. You have to look at the whole fashion system and see what the walls are that you have to break down to bring change. Once you’re shifted your thinking first, then you can focus on marketing.
WWD: What walls need to be broken down?
C.S.: Most of our businesses grew up at a time when we didn’t know what we know today. We are all more conscious. We have visuals of what other people’s circumstances look like, we have better scientific information. Now that we have all this foundation, you have to manage and lead in a different way. In the bigger companies, you can’t have a sustainability department that’s working alone, that’s not fully integrated.
Nothing is fully sustainable, there is no fully sustainable product. How does the designer get involved with building that product better? You have to break down the internal silos and say, if the designers and merchandising team are able to build a better product, how are the marketers communicating that? How is it being communicated to the investor?
Chase the waste.
Finding the operating efficiencies in our business, it doesn’t work well if folks are not talking to each other. It takes dialogue across the departments internally to find operational efficiencies that reduce water, reduce chemicals, reduce waste.
Externally, there are barriers between the science community that’s talking about climate boundaries and all the nonprofits are talking about specific issues. There’s no fashion company that has a vice president of greenhouse gasses. How do we get up to speed on the learning curve? And outside, how does the world of nonprofit, science and finance come together with fashion to find big solutions?
We’re moving. We need to move faster.
WWD: Speaking of fast, fast fashion’s been in the headlines for creating waste, what’s the eco impact of the supercharged business model?
C.S.: Yes, it has created more trash. But fast fashion, we can all be angry with them, but they’re also servicing a population that should be served. If we want to be mad at fast-fashion brands, who we really need to be made at is the public. That goes a little bit against consumerism and capitalism.
Every single company, regardless of if it’s fast fashion or luxury, has to be building the best product that they can and considering it end to end.”
WWD: Who’s changing the most? Who’s come the furthest?
C.S.: Consumers are caring. Something like 94 percent of Gen Z customers think companies should be responsible today. Consumers are starting to care. Companies are recognizing the operational efficiencies [of sustainable practices]. The collision of priorities between customers, companies and investors means a lot of people are doing good.
There are a lot of people with a real sustainability story to tell. Everybody’s making moves and there’s more and more interest in collective action. It’s not the brands’ fault or the consumers’ fault. We’re all wearing clothes. As imperfect as they are, what are the best solutions that we have and how do we scale them. Fifty percent of the industry is moving very seriously.
WWD: Can the other 50 percent be prodded along?
C.S.: I think they can. I think everybody needs to be facilitated. Who needs to be prodded along is the external helping community. For science, non-profit, finance to come together to facilitate collaboration, that’s the key priority to moving faster.
WWD: Does the financial crowd really care about sustainability?
C.S.: One-hundred percent they care. They care for a lot of reasons. There are material risks in our business. If there is going to be some interruption in the supply chain [due to a sustainability issue from climate change to worker’s treatment] that’s my business as an investor.
Investors are finding sustainability to be an investing edge. Blackrock and Vanguard came out with open letters [underscoring the importance of sustainability]. Those investors are saying we want to see progress. If we don’t see plans in place to address chemicals, raw materials, the environmental impacts and your trash, people may start to disinvest.
WWD: Is it hearts and minds that need to be changed or processes?
C.S.: Both. It’s somehow human nature to believe none of us are going to die. We have some internal protection. Some may say, yes, I believe, but I don’t know what to do about it, but I’m just going to go on. I think we all need to get engaged in whatever way we can in being more thoughtful and more purposeful. Everyone can be change.
WWD: Who’s the best when it comes to sustainability?
C.S.: Everyone would say Patagonia. Patagonia is kind of the North Star because they’ve been in it the longest and it’s in their DNA. The outdoor brands and the outdoor people had a more conscious evolution because that’s their playground.
The privately held folk out of the gate early — Levi’s, Elieen Fisher. Many of the publicly held companies from higher end to low are now realizing that fashion has an amazing power because of the cultural influence that we reflect and the cultural influence that we drive. Creative industries like no other can probably rebrand sustainability and make it sexy and very cool — responsible choices for ourselves and the planet. We’re hard wired to change, it’s not like other industries. Every six weeks we’re making product.