Sustainability. In the “before” time (before March 2020), fashion, like many other industries, took up that mantle, viewed widely as the world’s single-greatest issue, affecting literally everyone on the planet. Companies — large and small — started looking at their impact on the environment and developing practices to minimize the damage. By 2019, publishing sustainability goals and targets had become standard from fashion’s power players.
The COVID-19 era has deflected conversation on environmental matters, with companies in crisis shifting focus from sustainability to merely sustaining, as in making payroll and keeping the lights on. But the environment remains a matter of grave concern, and, to hear the lords of fashion speak, deification runs deep. The major brands and groups profess unwavering commitment to their goals, and, at least to the civilian observer, sound genuine. Yet their initiatives are largely self-regulating, and not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.
Enter Maxine Bédat, former chief executive officer of the eco-friendly clothing line Zady, Columbia-educated lawyer and director of the New Standard Institute, which she founded last year. NSI bills itself as “a think and do tank using data and the power of citizens to turn the fashion industry into a force for good.” Today, NSI launches its “Roadmap for the Rebuild,” a data-based initiative aimed at monitoring sustainability initiatives in the fashion industry. It will be accompanied by a Master Class program open to all, from industry insiders to the general public. NSI operates in concert with advisory partners from the worlds of science, business, technology, human rights/labor and fashion.
Essentially, NSI sees its role as that of an environmental watchdog for the fashion industry, providing resources while holding brands accountable for the goals they set. In conversation with WWD, Bédat maintained that, while well intentioned, without external monitoring, corporate citizenship programs that set goals for sustainability, diversity and other initiatives may ultimately prove ineffective. “There is no example of any industry successfully self-regulating,” she said. Moreover, with deadlines for reaching those goals often years away, she stresses the value of monitoring targets toward that progress on a regular, incremental basis.
Through NSI, Bédat hopes to reframe not just the way corporate sustainability initiatives are monitored, but the way they’re framed. To that end, she’s among those wary of using “sustainability” as a buzzword overall. (Some environmental activists now consider the word “sustainability” yesterday’s terminology. For want of more woke scientific language, it continues here.)
“There is no such thing as sustainable fashion,” Bédat said. “We are not growing trees here. Every piece of clothing is going to have an impact of some kind. And so [one effort] is to try to move away from this language of ‘sustainability’ [and instead use] ‘reduce impact.’ How do you [measure] reduced impact? The company discloses where it is right now.” Assessments on current impact and how to lessen it should be based on scientific research and data, and clearly communicated on a regular basis. “If it’s an opaque system, it’s not going to work,” Bédat said.
NSI’s mission is to engage all “stakeholders” within the industry to hold companies accountable to environmental goals. Those stakeholders are divided into four categories: citizens, media, small and medium companies and large companies, each with a role to play. Bédat expects NSI to have its greatest impact with citizens — provided media does its job of informing based on confirmed data. Companies respond to citizens’ demands, and Bédat wants NSI to provide citizens with context to guide their spending. She views it as “having the citizens be more precise in their demands…[and] demanding that brands be more precise on what is sustainable to them.” Personal responsibility also comes into play. Rather than engaging in unchecked acquisitiveness and fast fashion, Bédat urges that people consider “actually enjoying the clothing that you do have, taking ownership of your own wardrobe and through that slowing down the consumption cycle.”
Another stakeholder: the media. NSI wants the media, the fashion media in particular, to be more precise and specific in reporting on sustainability initiatives and progress, rather than defaulting to buzzwords and amorphous concepts. Bédat said she has often seen statistics reported as fact that could not be traced back to reliable sources. She maintains that, in its coverage of industry initiatives, the media should rely on primary sources and confirmed, provable statistics while pushing back with tough questions, rather than “just publishing a press release.” The Roadmap provides clear guidelines for linguistic specificity and examples of dos and don’ts for journalists, while citing examples of vague language to avoid.
All of the media and consumer watchdogs in the world can do little if companies themselves don’t remain staunchly committed and accountable on matters of sustainability. The Roadmap offers guidance and resources for companies of different scales. The expectations for a fashion behemoth and a small upstart are, by nature, different; one can hardly hold a backyard T-shirt company to the same standards as LVMH. For small businesses, NSI focuses on hiring, communication, design, sourcing and production. The guidelines range from meta-level (“design for longevity”) to more specific ones. Its section on material sourcing suggests considering deadstock materials whenever possible or “better yet [using] existing products to redesign.”
For large brands, in addition to the guidelines listed above, there are calls for numerous actions, beginning with mapping out supply chains. The document states that “as a starting point, companies need to know who is making their goods in order to know the impact of their products.” Bédat elaborates, saying companies must measure “the impacts from an energy carbon footprint, water and chemical management, and the social footprint as well in terms of where the production is actually happening, what are the wages the workers are actually receiving. They should develop internal policies and report on progress.”
Much of what the Roadmap suggests are actions to which many companies have committed on their own, and for which they’ve established quantifiable goals and self-reporting processes. Bédat voiced skepticism, arguing that self-oversight leaves ample room to fudge. According to NSI, “reporting is the tool to drive and measure progress and keep companies accountable.”
The Roadmap also includes appendices on various standards and critical analysis of different “sustainable” materials. For instance, a section on the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) points out that, despite an emphasis on sourcing fabrics from farmers that meet BCI’s standards, “there has been far less evidence so far on just how less bad the Better Cotton actually is.”
When any new watchdog group announces itself, questions can arise as to the source and validity of its authority. The world is full of self-declared experts dispensing wisdom and judgment. So when it comes to the daunting cause of nurturing the environment, who gets to establish parameters for judgment, and how do we know that they’re right? More specifically, what qualifies NSI as an oversight agent for the entire fashion industry?
Bédat was unfazed by the question, conceding that “there’s no point at which God comes down and says, ‘these are the people to go to.’” Instead, when searching for expert partners, NSI took an analytical approach, poring over peer-reviewed academic journals and articles and finding the scientists who were referenced most frequently. That search led her to, among others, Linda Green, Ph.D., who launched the NRDC’s Clean by Design Program in 2009, and Christoph Meinrenken, Ph.D., of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, both of whom sit on NSI’s advisory board. (The board isn’t made up of only white coats; celebrity stylist Penny Lovell, costume designer Arianne Phillips and model Amber Valletta are among the bold-faced fashion industry names on the advisory council.)
Bédat feels strongly that the fashion industry has lagged behind others in addressing the climate crisis, a delay she attributes in part to sexism. “When I have spoken to leaders in the environmental space about the statistics on the impact of the industry,” she maintained. “I’ve been told, ‘My wife would be really interested in this. She loves fashion.’”
From a media standpoint, Bédat said that despite its size, fashion is too often siloed as a special-interest industry, and only massive stories jump from the style section to the business pages. Complicating matters in the U.S., while the damage from apparel production affects everyone, it typically takes place out of plain sight due to the flight of manufacturing. “Clothing, by and large, isn’t made here anymore; people don’t know what a textile mill looks like. It’s out of sight, out of mind,” she said.
While NSI’s primary focus is on environmental issues, it also aims to provide guidance for the industry in other areas. The growing social justice movement has served as an awakening for Bédat, and she’s added a diversity component to the organization’s messaging. A bandwagon move? Bédat begs to differ. Though she knows she can’t claim expertise, she is actively looking “for partnership in that area,” and considers diversity and inclusion essential to environmental efforts. “We see it as a component of what sustainability is. If we didn’t include that [message], that this is where we’re trying to go, we’d be missing something very significant. I think that the crisis we’re in right now demonstrates how all of these things are linked together.”
In the past several years, the fashion industry, like the rest of the world, has become increasingly attuned to the urgency of climate change. The overt reminders come too frequently, including now, the wildfires ravaging most of the West Coast. In the midst of the COVID-19 moment that has devastated so much of the industry, many brands have altered their focus. If one were to build a Maslow’s Pyramid of Business Needs, in 2020, where would environmental fall on that structure?
Anecdotally, recent conversations with numerous designers have indicated that while they remain committed to green initiatives, their short-term focus now all about keeping their companies afloat. Yet Bédat is resolute in her insistence that no matter how preoccupied they might be with their balance sheets, fashion executives can’t delay or diminish their current environmental efforts.
“We’re at a climate emergency, an economic emergency, a social emergency right now,” she said. “If the time isn’t now, then there never will be one for companies to really look at why they’re in business, what are they doing. If you can’t survive and do those things, then a serious question has to be asked: Is this the right industry to be in?”
Bédat’s sense of urgency is driven by data and science. But, like most crusaders, her reasons are as intimate as they are global. As the mother of a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, she’s consumed by what the future holds if aggressive environmental action isn’t taken. “I’m a champion of the industry and I want to see it succeed. So we’re not here to bash anybody or any efforts,” Bédat said. “I also want my kid to be on a planet that’s not falling apart. That sounds so hokey to say but it’s true. I want a world for her that’s as exciting as I’ve had it.”