Looks Good, Feels Good, Is Really Good: 2 steps to becoming a sustainable fashion SME
Last week I had the opportunity to catch Baptiste Carrière-Pradal, Europe’s VP of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, in his lush-sustainable corner office at Impact Hub Amsterdam in the Westerpark. During our time we got to the core of SACs new Higg Index pilot project for SMEs. Just like our conversation, the SME Higg Index solution can be straightforward, clear and simple. Transforming the fashion industry into a sustainable one can be done in two steps: 1) Don’t do unnecessary harm, and 2) improve towards a positive impact.
By: Bram Pauwels – 5 min
SAC focuses on transforming the fashion industry ‘so everyone can benefit from reduced risk as well as efficiency’. It houses brands such as Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Levi Strauss & Co, several key NGOs and a broad group of members from manufacturers to academics to governments. What unites them? From international household names to small, niche players all benefit from SACs infamous Higg Index and share the vision to move the industry towards creating a positive impact on the people and communities associated with it.
Baptiste and I found ourselves immediately discussing the industry and the much needed change of mindset. An ought topic one might say, in a time where society, its leaders, corporations and consumers move away from quick wins, and start to feel more attracted to the ‘long-term’ vision on global issues. For example the agreement on CO2 reduction in Paris’ COP21 reached last week.
“The industry knows that they can, and have to improve to be more sustainable. The way to last is by being sustainable and responsible in your production.” From this knowledge, we now see SAC making efforts globally to speed up this industry wide change.
“SAC is our most valuable partnership for pursuing a focused
sustainability strategy. We’ve been able to eliminate $46,000
in costs because the SAC and our collaboration on the Higg
Index is a “one-stop-shop” for tools, expertise and other
resources. With the release of the Product Modules, we expect
to save even more.” Colleen Vien, Timberland.
“For example, one thing that has lead to crazy change on earth was language. Once we found language, it enables us to communicate together. In terms of sustainability for the fashion industry, we don’t know that yet.” Without diving deeper into the complexity of its semantics, we can compare the index with an admirable simple language to use. What the Higg Index provides for brands and SMEs resonates in two credos: 1) Don’t do unnecessary harm, and 2) by knowing your current impact, and improve towards a positive impact.
In our current classical ‘race to the bottom’ model in which competition focuses solely on price and speed, integrity and ethics become a lower-order concern. Environmental and labour standards become an after thought, and no one wins. Still, we can unequivocally agree: ‘some things need to change’.
“You cannot solve an issue if you don’t know it.”, Baptiste Carrière-Pradal
The reluctance to change found in the fashion industry, mainly at the factory and brand level, depicts a classic case of bad habits, in need of changing in order to prevent making the same mistakes. Here we see a strong comparison to the last 10 failed global climate change conferences. Only by learning from these failures an we learn how to accelerate change, and make our work more efficient. Leading us into an innovative era aggregated by knowledge-based interaction, where knowledge sharing, collective sense making and collective intelligence appear frequently.
Aspiring future oriented SMEs using the Higg Index framework, have the ability to identify all sustainability opportunities across their complete supply chain based on the results of the quick scan done at the start of the framework implementation. Something an average SME hardly finds itself capable of due to the complexity of the structures and partners involved. Now with support of SAC, they are able to do their own sustainability due diligence, get clarity on all social and environmental issues their products relate to, and are ready to put policies and systems in place.
‘By joining forces, we are addressing the issues on the scale same as the challenge’, Baptiste Carrière-Pradal
Let’s assume you are reading this because you are about fashion sustainability. Your next step after implementation of the Higg Index will be benchmarking. To be able to compare your results means that that you can deliberately choose your actions. “Looking to your production process, one might consider putting more focus and effort on the performance of the dye house you use, or the factory model around it. Based on the thought that you now know where you stand, and you decide where to go.”
Collaboration with a large number of NGOs – such as Solidaridad, Environmental Defense Fund, the Sustainable Trade Initiative and the Better Cotton Initiative – who operate in the local context of the issue enables the SAC member to decide to take part in a specific program in the geographic area or part of the supply chain that they want to improve. “A normal SME can’t do this themselves, due to lack of time and procedure, but by reassessing the right questions and by collaborating with local experts, the SME works to improve more in line with the reality on the ground.”
For me as a consumer, with an outside-in perspective on the fashion industry, I see myself tending to buy more organic products over the last two years. From my daily food and household products, to apparel and footwear. Even though the definition of ‘sustainability’ is clear enough, I still find myself overwhelmed by the extensive set of sustainability trademarks in the latter one – fair trade, eco-cotton, eco-friendly, organic fabrics, locally produced, and the list goes on.
“Look to the car or consumer electronic industry, and see how they simply state in ABC what makes a sustainable product”, continuous Baptiste. “We have insight in the performance and are able to benchmark different brands and products ourselves. The textile industry realises that they need to become more transparent and improve and better communicate.”
On the other end, the push to help the industry forward also happens in collaboration with European governmental bodies. “Policy driven, SAC enables positive change in the above process and actively identifies chances how to improve the industry.”
“As a company with a pioneering record on labor rights and a long history of industry collaboration, we welcome the opportunity to explore how to support more effective and efficient ways to raise labor standards in the apparel supply chain.” -Michael Kobori, VP of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co.
Simply by looking to the scale of the issues in comparison with the scale of the challenges it becomes obvious that all players need to join forces. “In collaboration with our members we identify more, new local programs. It forms a risk free method by a complete holistic approach. When we launch a new tool aggregated by member examples. Members also test the implementation which prevents us from reinventing the wheel every time. The whole approach functions on feedback and the members. SAC converges the inputs, gives you a good diagnosis, and a cure.”
Models of collaboration, shared learnings and decision-making gain credibility as the go-to-tool to solve the complex issues of our modern time. One might wonder what drives Baptiste to be involved as a frontrunner and game changer in pushing the industry forward. His response cuts right through the clutter: “If we want to be able to sell bathing suits we need to keep the seas clean.”
I think I can hear Clare Boothe Luce whispering: ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’.
“Change, and thereby strong embedment of sustainability models within organisations takes time. Many of the challenges we face are linked with local cultural issues, and are highly complex. We have learned from the past where we tried to see quarterly reported improvements on topics such as human rights, that these improvements cannot be achieved in such unrealistic time frames
SAC now pilots its Higg Index project for fashion SMEs. The call for participants is now open and waiting for your application.