The fashion industry, like all others, has witnessed severe disruption as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. And the pandemic is just one of the existential challenges which is forcing a fundamental rethink. In the face of pressing global issues such as climate change and mass biodiversity loss, the industry will need to evolve if it is to survive and thrive in the future.
To learn more about these challenges and opportunities, and what needs to happen next, Sancroft hosted a panel event with industry leaders including:
- Dr Helen Crowley, Senior Advisor Resilient Supply Chains & Fellow, Conservation International; Advisor, World Economic Forum & Head of Sustainable Sourcing Innovation, Kering
- Paul Lister, Group Company Secretary & Head of Legal Services, Associated British Foods (Primark)
- Peter Wood, Chief Executive Officer, AllSaints
A central theme that emerged, as one speaker remarked, is that now the process itself is the product – it’s not just the end item that consumers care about, but how we get there. We need to be thinking about who make our clothes, and also what they’re made of and how the materials are grown. We need to be doubling down on efficiency, wasting less and striving to not only reduce our negative environmental impacts but consider how we can actively positively impact our planet. This is not only the right thing to do but will increasingly underpin business success.
Social issues are rising to the top
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on social issues in supply chains, which have in many cases been overshadowed by environmental issues like climate change. Most garment workers in low income sourcing countries such as Bangladesh lack savings and social security nets and are currently in extremely precarious situations. This underlines the need to address social risks and systemic issues like living wages and social security nets, working in collaboration with other industry players, trade unions and governments.
Businesses need to be thinking about how to do more with less resources, and to design out waste and pollution. This means moving towards a more circular system, where for example old clothes can be collected, sorted, and recycled into new ones where possible. Alongside material efficiency, recycling and upcycling, regenerative raw materials also have an important part to play. While there is still a way to go to scale these solutions, it is certainly the direction of travel.
It is way upstream
We also need to be thinking about how clothes are produced in the first place. Evidence suggest that the biggest impact that the fashion sector has on the planet occurs upstream in their supply chains. This is where we need to be focusing attention – for example on agricultural production, a significant, and often underestimated, driver of climate change and biodiversity loss. By embracing regenerative agriculture and natural climate solutions, businesses can not only minimise their negative environmental impact, but can have a positive impact by restoring soil health and sequestering carbon. Interventions can also bring social and economic benefits to workers in the supply chain. For example, sustainable cotton initiatives have the potential to deliver positive outcomes for rural livelihoods as well as for climate and biodiversity. This area offers exciting opportunities for cross-sector collaborations including between the food and fashion sectors.
The movement towards greater transparency has taken hold. While leaders have historically felt apprehensive about sharing information such as supplier lists – we heard that doing so is ‘like taking the lid off a pressure cooker’. The more transparent you can be the better. But first of course, you have to do the work and bring your teams and employees with you, if you are to be authentic and credible.
We all have a role to play
Covid-19 has shown that we are all connected and that everyone can have an impact – likewise everyone has a role and responsibility to help make the industry a force for good. Leaders need to set the vision and create the right enabling environment. They also need to listen and learn from key stakeholders – including suppliers and employees who are providing solutions and sources of innovation. New approaches and coalitions across and within sectors are helping to support companies moving in the right direction.
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