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As consumer demand continues to fuel the growth of responsible fashion, brands and retailers are seeking financial guidance and resources to help initiate and streamline company-wide sustainability goals.

Helping businesses realize these goals is Kelly W. Fisher, the U.S. head of corporate sustainability at HSBC.

Fisher oversees strategic charitable giving for the bank, creating programs and fostering relationships with nonprofit organizations that can benefit from HSBC’s funding and expertise, in addition to managing employee engagement programs and sustainable finance operations. Prior to working for HSBC, Fisher held corporate responsibility roles at Ogilvy Public Relations and Toyota and has also worked as a project manager at Goldman Sachs.

Here, Fisher shares how HSBC is working in the apparel sector by helping brands deploy effective sustainability practices and tactics aimed at increasing supply chain transparency.

WWD: How does HSBC help retailers and fashion brands streamline their sustainability programs and initiatives with their suppliers?

Kelly Fisher: Trade is an integral part of HSBC’s 153-year history and strategy. We have relationships with buyers and suppliers across the globe, and we’re well-positioned to address supply chain sustainability in various ways. Our network in Asia is tremendous and that becomes a real asset for apparel brands, since that is where the largest number of suppliers currently exist.

We started on our journey at HSBC by looking inward, as the first bank to partner with Sedex to assess ethical and environmental risk within our own supply chain. And 800 HSBC suppliers globally have now gone through the process we created through that partnership. That project allowed us to learn a lot about the tactics and tools that can have a tangible impact on a supply chain. Now, through our lending policies and other financial services and products, we feel we can help our clients grow commercially whilst minimizing the impact on the environment. We’re starting off with some of our client sectors where sustainability is seen as the most critical. Apparel was a great choice, not just because of consumer expectations in the industry, but also because so many of our apparel clients showed us that they were really striving to make a difference and improve on the way things were being done.

In my area of corporate sustainability, we looked to make some meaningful partnerships with leading NGOs to create tools that would help all apparel suppliers, not just our own clients. Last October, we announced that HSBC was the only bank to be an inaugural funder of the Apparel Impact Institute, created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), alongside Target, Gap, PVH Corp. and [the sustainable trade initiative] IDH. We also just became the first bank to join The Sustainability Consortium, which is the leading membership group for companies across all consumer-goods industries to come together and share sustainability challenges and identify best practices.

WWD: What were some of the initial goals and expected outcomes of launching the Apparel Impact Institute? What are some of the highlights of the partnership?

K.F.: By pooling our funds with the other leading companies who have joined the institute, we will support a project called “Clean by Design,” created by the SAC and the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], that offers tools to help mills focus on environmental efficiency and cost savings from the reduction of water, energy, chemicals and pollution. The tactics of “Clean by Design” have already been proven to be effective, but we need the tools to be more readily available, easier to use and sustain, and therefore, have a wider reach.

WWD: What tactics does HSBC employ to help retail brands become more accountable and transparent in regard to sustainability practices?

K.F.: One of the ways we engage our clients on sustainability practices in their supply chains has been through the partnerships with the Apparel Impact Institute and The Sustainability Consortium, of which many of our corporate clients are also members.

HSBC’s partnership with SAC and promotion of the institute has been widely appreciated by corporate clients in the retail and apparel sector as this establishes a dialogue for the company to share further insights about their supply chains, particularly where access to finance may be an enabler to promoting greater compliance. As the first bank to engage with the SAC, including on their Higg Index, HSBC is able to better understand the challenges and issues for suppliers to meet sustainability compliance standards, and this incentivizes us to be more creative in our solutions for supply chain finance or trade structures to align with our client’s corporate sustainability goals.

WWD: The textile industry is the second-largest polluter in the world after gasoline. What are some of the tools available to the industry that are effective for businesses and organizations looking to eliminate polluters and human rights violators from their supply chains?

K.F.: As I mentioned previously, there are some leading tools out like the Higg Index developed by the SAC for assessing environment and social sustainability in the supply chain. There have also been industry efforts to map suppliers’ environmental performance, for example the IPE Green Supply Chain Map developed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in the U.S. and Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China. This database and map provides real-time data and historical trends in emissions for 15,000 factories in China and access to environmental records for many more.

Brands like Target, New Balance, Puma, Gap and Inditex have publicly shared their list of suppliers, and users can click on the brand at any location in the country to see how their suppliers are performing. Further, the International Trade Centre in Geneva has launched a Sustainability Map that offers users access to information on sustainability initiatives and standards that can help businesses understand and embed these practices in their operations and international trade.

At HSBC, the ongoing global engagements to partner with technology platforms that support, automate and manage complex supply chains also provides us with the opportunity to continue to link the physical supply chain with the financial supply chain. Greater visibility and access to information on the supply chain enabled through partnerships such GT Nexus and TradeShift will be critical in developing transparency and enabling sustainability compliance standards linked to financial products for international trade. GT Nexus has a great understanding of how complex and varying the demands are to the actual suppliers, particularly in emerging markets. They’ve seen how sustainability and human rights expectations can vary and change with a frequency that can make improvements seem frustrating to the suppliers. GT Nexus is embedding some tools right into their system to try to help the supplier directly.

This is where our work becomes interesting and, I think, has the potential to really make a difference – when apparel companies, their financing partner, leading NGOs and even their technology and payment systems all come together to find real solutions.

At Toyota, Fisher managed sustainability programs including Tree Campus USA with Arbor Day, which planted thousands of trees on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Kelly Fisher. 

WWD: What are some of the sustainability issues that brands in the “investment fashion” sector are currently facing, versus larger midrange department stores? And how do you define “investment fashion”?

K.F.: I am not sure if I coined the term “investment fashion” or if I heard it somewhere, but to me it means the brands that are more high-end, certainly have a higher price point, but you know that they are worth the investment because they will stay in your closet for up to a decade or longer at times. My mother was the queen of investment fashion. She considered every purchase carefully, if it would stand the test of time and trends and, most importantly, if her love for the item would last. I inherited her wardrobe and I can tell you, there are very few pieces that I won’t also be wearing 10 or 20 years from now. They are the classics.

Clearly, I love the fashion industry and I love clothes. I love the current trend of mixing investment fashion with the more “fast fashion” brands. There’s an excitement and creativity to it.

Each area has their own sustainability challenges that they face. For “investment fashion” brands, I think that they understand that they can reliably invest more of their upfront capital in sustainable fabrics, safer dye and dyeing techniques, and other methods that they know their customers will want and appreciate at the price point they are willing to pay. Brands like Theory and Eileen Fisher have demonstrated this well [and] I think this also extends to Levi’s. When I buy a pair of Levi’s jeans, I know they will be in my closet for years, and part of my understanding of the investment I’m making is knowing that those jeans used less water and less harmful methods when they were made.

For the more “fast fashion” brands, I think they are smartly focusing on the fact that their clothes are purchased in greater quantities and, possibly, discarded more frequently. So for those brands, keeping clothes out of landfills is a great area of focus. I’m a big fan of what H&M has done, for example, with their drive to inspire their consumers to bring their used clothing back to the stores to be recycled. J.Crew has a campaign to do the same [concept] with jeans.

WWD: What are some of the pressures emerging for fashion brands right now? How does HSBC hope to help mitigate these issues?

K.F.: This is an exciting time of change in the fashion industry. I would hate to see the industry go through changes in buying, marketing, retail outlets and production and not take into consideration the changes they can make around sustainability at the same time. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

What we hope to do at HSBC is partner with our clients, and the apparel industry at large, to help make those improvements easier, more readily adopted, and possibly even built into the way you finance your business and your supply chain. A few easy ways to start would be for brands to examine tools like the SAC’s Higg Index and the best practices offered by The Sustainability Consortium. They can help you identify the greatest areas of improvement in your suppliers. Also, partner with your digital marketing teams to examine the sustainability expectations of your current customer base. And remember that sustainability is a priority for all of us, so taking advantage of business partners like HSBC means we are all coming to the table together to solve the issues.

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