Sustainable business practices have evolved from a slogan to a purpose. MOTIF Rewire 2021 hosted a global sustainability event for the fashion apparel/retail industry to advocate for thinking disruptively, creatively and differently. Janice Wang, Chair of the Board, MOTIF & CEO, of Alvanon states emphatically, “Cleaning up the fashion industry is everyone’s job. Everyone must play a part in this whole journey. We must share our knowledge, no one person can do it all.”
All in all, an entire average closet of clothes, shoes, umbrellas, backpacks etc. comes out to a whopping 1368.4 kg of CO2 emissions and 616,000 total liters of H2O used for production and delivery — larger closets resulting in even higher numbers.
Wang has a poignant message for veterans and newbies alike:
- To the veterans, ”You have built a career in this industry, you need to protect it, you have the power to make decisions that can have real impact. Make learning part of your teams’ workday.”
- To the digital natives, “You are our future, you know digital, you know what it can do to help the industry. Forward this to your colleague in a different part of your company.”
- And to the newcomers, “You are also our future, you may not know all the granular details of the industry, but you have ideals and great ideas. We will help you fix it. Forward this knowledge to a friend.”
What’s in Your Closet?
If you find it difficult to think of fashion sustainability in abstract terms, especially when it comes to incomprehensible numbers and quantities of CO2 emissions and liters of water used, it helps to zoom in on what these numbers look like in our day-to-day lives. Andrea Kennedy, Lead Instructor, Sustainability at LIM College and Michael Londrigan, Lead Instructor, Supply Chain at LIM College, reveal exactly what these numbers look like in our very own closets.
- A tank top, for example, that has just arrived in a store, has already emitted 2.7 kg of CO2 and used 2,650 liters of H2O in the process of manufacturing through delivery. That is the CO2 emissions equivalent to charging 385 smartphones and water usage of 17 standard bathtubs filled to capacity.
- A pair of jeans? 33 kg of CO2 emitted, the equivalent of driving 85 miles in a standard car.
- Manufacturing sneakers result in 14 kg of CO2 emitted and 8,5171 liters of H2O used which, comparatively speaking, is equivalent to the amount of water used in 23,850 cups of Starbucks.
All in all, an entire average closet of clothes, shoes, umbrellas, backpacks etc. comes out to a whopping 1368.4 kg of CO2 emissions and 616,000 total liters of H2O used for production and delivery (calculated on the Sustainable Apparel Coalitions HIGG Index). Many of us (including myself) most likely have even larger closets resulting in even higher numbers.
The commitment to a more sustainable industry requires changes both on personal and industry levels. As eloquently stated by both Anthony Burns, COO ACS and Londrigan, “This is a people’s business. Everything revolves around what people want and what people are going to do. Can we affect those behaviors as an industry? The industry has to affect its own behaviors and only then can it affect the consumer’s behavior.”
Attempting to change an entire industry seems like a daunting task, yet there is no wrong place to start. The only mistake would be in not starting at all.
Supply Chain Transparency
Transparency has a critical impact on the success of sustainability. Over 75 percent of global companies have explicitly increased ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) targets in 2021, yet only less than 50 percent are seeking greater supply chain transparency (HSBC Navigator 2020 Report). Companies tend to shy away from disclosing sustainability transactions because transparency is so difficult to explain. Supply chains were not designed to be transparent. They can be somewhat of a black box and companies worry what might be revealed if they were to reveal information that could undermine their competitive advantage, expose them to criticism, or result in erroneous data from all links within the supply chain. (Read more in depth about Supply Chain Transparency here) Serai www.seraitrade.com, an HSBC digital platform addresses these complex, interconnected problems and helps build traceability.
Vivek Ramachandran, CEO of Serai and Lindsey Hermes, Head of Enterprise Solutions at Serai have valuable insight into the importance of a transparent supply chain with tools Serai provides help companies achieve this.
A new way of thinking is required and a key to success is the incentivization of sharing data. According to Ramachandran, “Every T-shirt, every garment should have transparency to see where it’s made, who it’s made by and the credentials of the company making it. That is incredibly difficult to do without data providers being incentivized to share data. We need to build a model so companies that share information about themselves are recognized and rewarded. You need incentives for the data providers, not just the data recipients.”
A transparent supply chain contributes to a more sustainable industry by requiring brands and companies to fully annotate the details of what is happening upstream and to be willing to communicate this knowledge both internally and externally. This is even more critical as discerning consumers are more often demanding information detailing product ingredients and materials, the source of these materials, and the working conditions in which they were produced. Researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management found that consumers may be willing to pay 2-10 percent more for products from companies that provide greater supply chain transparency.
The Fashion Industry’s Most Expensive Mistake
Most retailers are struggling financially, especially because of the pandemic. Ahmed Zaidi, a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University paints a picture of what life was like for his family’s sock manufacturing factory in Lahore Pakistan and provides valuable insight into the fashion industry’s most expensive mistake caused by operating with uncertainty.
Not knowing how well a product will sell sets the ball rolling in a series of unfortunate events. Trying to achieve high margins is often compromised by discounting, a tale as old as time. Retailers buy cheap and order big with the uncertainty of estimating how low or how high they can set prices to sell their products. In addition, suppliers are pressured to cut costs in order to produce at a lower cost. Small and medium suppliers, such as Zaidi’s family, do not have the choice to say no to retailers and their financial situation becomes a fight for survival. If they cannot produce at the cost retailers demand, they cannot sell.
Uncertainty is not just an expensive mistake from a financial perspective. It’s expensive from a social perspective. People’s livelihoods are at stake. Uncertainty causes factories to produce at costs lower than they can actually afford. It contributes to overproduction leading to large amounts of excess inventory, which ultimately ends up as waste in landfills. It’s the reason behind massive discounts and the loss in margin numbers. It costs retailers financially, socially, and environmentally.
So how do we tackle this uncertainty? “In the presence of uncertainty, delay judgment,” so says the sceptic Greek Pyrrhonist philosopher, Aenesidemus, as quoted by Zaidi. Be pragmatic: Delay judgment and utilize the digital innovations of companies whose entire mission is to eliminate waste through the use of digital fashion.
Looking Towards the Future
Innovators at the forefront of their industries bridge theory to practice with tangible, concrete solutions that can help bring the fashion industry one step closer to sustainability.
Rick Yu, CMO and Co-founder of TG3D, a 3D fashion technology solution provider, has a compelling pitch for maximizing the use of digital data to better understand customers, forecast future demands and plan strategically, ultimately preventing unnecessary waste and overproduction while minimizing customer returns. With virtual sampling, provided by TG3D, a waste is eliminated during the development process. Brands can save 80 percent of the fabric, energy, water, and pollution waste of traditional processes after adopting 3D virtual prototyping. “I believe this new paradigm brings tremendous benefits, such as facilitating communications and collaborations across the supply chain as well as improving speed to market. It also helps with sustainability initiatives through reducing the amount of samples needed to be made and ensuring products will come with better fit to your customers,” Yu states.
Avery Dennison is a global leader in materials science and manufacturing. Their brand messaging has become a vehicle to harness their storytelling capabilities into areas like sustainability, social justice, and accountability, expressing their values in a visible way and connecting with their customers on a deeper, more emotional level. The recently released
Integrated Sustainability and Annual Report, states, “Sustainability isn’t separate from our business strategy — it is a business strategy. Sustainability is one of our values and integral to our aim of creating value for all of our stakeholders through innovation, operational excellence and highly disciplined capital allocation.”
Brian Cheng, Director, Digital Transformation at Avery Dennison, says, “The impact we can make as a company on saving the environment with digital sampling is tremendous. By reducing just the physical samples we create we can save six barrels of oil (that’s enough oil to drive across the U.S. twice). We can save enough water for 115 people annually and much more.”
Hannah O’Rourke, Senior Retail Strategist at EDITED, believes real-time market intelligence more fully reveals the implications and impact decisions around product, pricing, and assortment can have on the industry. She says, “According to the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol and Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which surveyed 150 executives from retail businesses across Europe and the U.S., three in 10 companies state that the availability of reliable data holds the key to a greater understanding of sustainability over the next decade.” The Sustainability EDIT is available as a downloadable report and provides intelligence on how the industry has been expanding the use of sustainable fabrics and processes in their assortments, as well as the pricing and performance metrics behind eco-friendly products.
A key takeaway from MOTIF’s three days of inspiring conversations and innovations is a reminder to all retailers and manufacturers to not get hung up on perfection. Any step, no matter how small or large, is a step in the right direction. To watch the MOTIF presentations, log on here. https://motif.org/event/rewire-sustainability-2021/#agenda