WWD: How does a manufacturing-based industry like fashion reconcile growth with sustainability?
Paul Hirsch: On one hand, you’re positing this trade-off or this tension between growth and sustainability, and there are certainly cases where that’s the case. But I think that what industries are recognizing is that people are looking more and more to reconcile their choices as consumers with their values as citizens. When they do that, their choices as consumers reflect their values.
To that degree, a business won’t be able to succeed unless it’s allowing consumers to express those social values, those environmental values in their choices. If a company is just giving lip service to this idea, it will have trouble reconciling the two. You have to create things consumers can buy that actually serve their values.
WWD: Regarding sustainability, consumer values are changing rapidly. Companies, and full industries, have to adapt.
P.H.: I don’t know much about the fashion industry, but I know, for example, in the food-packaging industry there are models being developed that allow you to have a package that you send back to the company and it refills it. Isn’t it the case that we can have cutting-edge fashion without continually having to produce more and more in an extractive way?
WWD: Explain, please.
P.H.: Growth in itself is not a bad thing. It’s like, where does that growth come from? Does it come from polluting natural resources? Does it come from extracting resources that aren’t really renewable? If your model is built on extracting non-renewable resources and it’s built on producing things like pollution, which are harmful, then yes, you’d have trouble reconciling sustainability with environmental values.
But if you can have a model of growth which doesn’t rely to that degree on extractiveness, without being naive, obviously, it’s not as much of a trade-off.
WWD: Numerous fashion companies are publishing their corporate responsibility goals, and some are very ambitions. PVH has the goal of becoming fully circular, while creating zero waste, zero pollution, zero damage to water.
P.H.: That’s certainly aspirational. And there are lots of different ways to measure zero emissions, or whatever you’re measuring. Some companies use offsets. What that means is they’re reducing pollution or they’re protecting land somewhere else to balance out any disruption or extraction they’re causing. That’s one way of getting to zero — if I cause harm here but I help something out over there, then that’s zero.
WWD: Back to consumers. A number of people have said that consumers, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, are driving fashion’s sustainability efforts. But there’s still much to be done. Buying smarter and buying less, for example.
P.H.: Consumers will face some trade-offs, and they have to be willing to change behavior to some degree. And as people express more and more their values for the environment, and the desire to express those through their fashion, through the way they represent themselves in the world, then it’s on the industry to figure out creatively through technology, through alternative business models, how to allow that dynamic evolution to happen, how to allow people to show themselves and express themselves [via fashion] in a way that is not so harmful. It doesn’t seem impossible. It seems like there are a lot of companies that are doing that.
WWD: You chair a graduate certificate program in Environmental Leadership. Can you assess the education industry’s overall commitment to training leaders to be environmentally responsible?
P.H.: Business schools certainly are talking about sustainability, and schools like mine, which focus on the environment, are certainly talking about business and trying to make what they do relevant [to the environment].
WWD: How integrated are environmental studies into a typical MBA program?
P.H.: I think it’s growing. There are definitely sustainable business-oriented programs. We have a certificate program as well at our institution in sustainable business enterprise, in partnership with Syracuse University. So yes, we’re doing that and others are doing that as well. It’s interesting. When you get into those classes, that’s when these issues and tensions really come to the fore. People come in with different orientations. And while we may ultimately all share the same values in the big picture, in terms of our priorities, they may be different.
I think it’s equally important and it’s equally challenging, for somebody who has been focused on the environment and sustainability dimension to really hear and take seriously concerns about economic development and growth and business, which are essential. So it’s both ways. That bridge needs to be traveled in both directions, not just in one direction.
WWD: Sounds like a natural tension.
P.H.: The tensions are where we get to be creative.
WWD: That’s a great line. Creativity matters in the obvious context, product design, but also in developing manufacturing methods and best practices overall.
P.H.: That’s an essential part of it. Fashion is all about looking right and feeling right, so you can’t just have something that is sustainable but doesn’t look right and doesn’t feel right. But in an industry like fashion you’ve got all these young creative people. That’s exactly the type of challenge that they should be taking on.
WWD: Overconsumption. There’s more produced across the apparel spectrum than people buy and most of us buy more than we wear regularly.
P.H.: I’m thinking of Marie Kondo now and that whole movement. That seems like a healthy counterforce to what you’re talking about.
P.H.: You’re in this cultural movement encouraging you to be aware of yourself and what brings you joy. We would all be happier if we didn’t have to wade through our closets and get frustrated and overwhelmed. We should really put some intention into it. The more we do that as consumers, the more companies will have to find ways to give us less that we like more.
WWD: What is your take on how the manufacturing-driven industry overall world is dealing with environmental concerns?
P.H.: I don’t want to speak out of my expertise here. I think we need to be careful in saying it’s a whole industry [that’s at fault], because there is so much diversity within every industry. It may be the case that some companies are doing much better than others. What we need to do is find ways to encourage and incentivize and support those who are doing better than others. We need to not lump a whole industry in together, and instead, to recognize diversity [of efforts] within an industry.
WWD: Are you optimistic about the state of the environment or the future state of the environment in general?
P.H.: I’m optimistic for a few reasons. One, we have obviously tough political disagreements going on but nobody is in favor of a bad environment. Politically, the environment is and should be a winning issue. There are obviously disagreements about the role of government and things like that but overall, everyone agrees about the necessity of [a strong environment].
The reason I study environmental issues, yes I care about the environment deeply. I also find those places of collaboration and creativity the most stimulating. Environmental issues are the place where we need human collaboration, human intelligence and human creativity the most. When you really study environmental issues honestly, then you’re like, “OK how can I — how can we — really think together, collaborate, apply the best of our intelligence and our creativity towards this?”
So fashion and other industries which are about creativity, I’m certainly optimistic and excited that people who have that creative spirit want to engage in environmental issues. I mean, I’m realistic. There are serious issues and things happening right now that are having a very negative impact on people in communities. I don’t want to be naive about that. And going back to your first point, I wouldn’t say that we don’t have to make any hard choices, that we can just be creative and solve all our problems. We do have to make hard choices. We can’t have everything we want as consumers, and I think companies, with the support of government, will have to make certain choices. However, because of the opportunity for creativity and collaboration, and because the environment is something we all share, I can’t imagine that we’re not going to figure out how to invest in and take care of it.