The business imperative for sustainability may be greater than it has ever been — and more urgent.
On one hand, the pandemic has put sustainability on pause for companies trying to out other fires, but in other cases, companies recognize now more than ever that they’ll have to invest in sustainability to reduce risk.
“This not going to be the last crisis we have,” Kutay Saritosun, director of fashion brands at Bluesign Technologies, said during a panel at Sourcing Journal’s virtual summit last week. “Some brands are jumping on the opportunity to mitigate the next crisis.”
In that effort, companies are also showing increased interest in nearshoring and a keener awareness of the need to shore up against the impact of the global climate emergency.
“In order to stay successful, it’s absolutely essential for us and everyone in the industry to cut our dependency on these scarce natural resources and continue to have a positive impact on the communities that are part of our success,” said Hanna Hallin, global sustainability manager at Treadler, a business-to-business service from H&M Group that kicked off in March. “We see that the companies that understand this will gain a business advantage once the more immediate effects of the pandemic are fading away. We already see that our customers are looking to be part of a more meaningful relationship and be part of a positive change.”
At Madewell, getting to that positive change has meant cutting costs and reinvesting in sustainable operations, including digitizing the sampling process, according to Liz Hershfield, senior vice president of sourcing, supply chain and sustainability.
What will really be the key to implementing sustainability across supply chains and communicating those efforts to the consuming public is transparency, which the industry has struggled to fully realize. Moreover, it will mean partnering and agreeing to adhere to a common set of measurements and metrics for sustainability — which the industry has struggled to fully realize.
“Instead of reinventing the wheel, we should all come together and use the same set of tools,” said Hallin, noting the Higg Index, a tool developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and its members.
Last week at CFS+, the SAC and Higg Co., the technology company that maintains the Higg Index announced it would reveal its “Open Data Portal” on the Higg platform in 2021. The organizations claim consumers and stakeholders will finally be able to see the data behind statements about product sustainability through the portal.
Even non-SAC members have to pay a small annual fee to access the Higg Index, something digital-friendly start-ups may not want to do.
“Ultimately, you have to do the work yourself,” said Vanessa Barboni Hallik, chief executive officer of start-up ready-to-wear label Another Tomorrow. “The impact is enormous at the raw materials level, so we put the emphasis right there. Our cornerstone policy is to source back to the farm level, as much as possible as a company and have that level of transparency from a control and risk management perspective — as well as trust-building for the consumers”
From launch, Another Tomorrow has partnered with Internet of Things technology Evrythng, which earlier this month snagged an additional $10 million in funding toward its vision of a connected products economy where consumers know the precise details of how their products came to be. Because, increasingly, consumers who don’t agree with a brand’s practices and ethics, or don’t see the proof behind their promises, will take their dollars elsewhere.
“Generationally, people are looking for many more proof points that what brands say they do is what they’re actually doing,” Hallik said. “I think what is currently on the vanguard for allowing customers to visualize the supply chain, scanning a QR code or something of the like, will very soon become an expectation.”
Verification, while challenging given industry fragmentation, will prove most advantageous in offering true transparency to the consumer.
“Ultimately, we need to get to the place where every single product has a digital identity where the consumer can decide for themselves,” added Hallik, while noting technology won’t be the panacea for the industry’s sustainability ills. “The next step in order to understand what’s going on in the value chain is to have these common measurements that can allow consumers and brands to compare in a simple and transparent way. Again, that’s where we see the Higg Index as being very important and also something we’re looking to scale further upstream.”