Throughout my ten years of working in fashion and sustainability, I've seen some incredibly inspiring things. There are thousands of professionals and businesses changing the way business is done, and creating products that have a positive impact. I've seen some of our industry's most creative minds tackle the challenge of sustainability and come up with gems.
As a veteran of the sustainable fashion movement, I am often asked, "Are we reaching a point at which the fashion industry is taking sustainability seriously? Can we expect to see real and meaningful change on a bigger scale?" I wish I could say yes. Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that the answer is "Not yet".
For me and for my work, sustainability in fashion business means an approach that integrates commercial, social, and environmental goals - the triple bottom line. Though the number of businesses committed to this approach is growing and the awesomeness of this movement belies its size - it still represents a tiny proportion of the industry as a whole.
"Let me get this straight...." people say to me. "Sustainable fashion means creating great products that also have a positive impact on the people behind them, and don't trash the environment - so where's the catch? Why aren't all fashion businesses doing that?" This is the question I've been asking myself for ten years. It has shaped everything we have done with Ethical Fashion Forum, followed closely by - "So what can we do about it?"
I believe there are 3 big things that are preventing the sustainable fashion movement from going to scale:
- Sustainability is still perceived as a cost, rather than a commercial opportunity: For fashion businesses to prosper, the commercial bottom line is the deciding factor. For many, sustainability is not seen as enough of a contributor to commercial business success. Yes, there is evidence that sustainable practices increase customer loyalty and improve brand profile; and that more sustainable practices can in fact reduce costs. But there can also be many upfront costs - like certification, training, and policy building.
- Awareness remains extremely low: Over ten years, I haven't seen much of an awareness shift across the industry as a whole. Most fashion people still have a limited understanding of (and therefore limited interest in) the impact of their decisions on people or the environment, or how to do things differently for a better result. There are some front-runners - companies that run awareness programmes for their entire staff, and many more small businesses starting from a position of knowledge. There are also a lot more CSR people, so you can be sure there is someone in the company who has the awareness (even if they don't have the power to act on it). However, for the majority, there is an information gap.
- It's always someone else's responsibility: So you are a fashion brand? Well, how can you integrate sustainability when your customers aren't willing to pay for it? You're a buyer? Well, your hands are tied; how can you meet your KPIs if you decide to go for that organic cotton option? A factory? Well, how can you improve wages or invest in training and empowering your workers when your clients are always squeezing you on prices? There is always someone, or something, onto whom the responsibility can be shifted. Yet, the best leaders take responsibility, no matter what their role or status. They do everything in their power to create positive change. More of that sort of leadership is needed.
What I'm really interested in, and have always been interested in, is "So what can we do about it?"
How can we create a level playing field in which sustainability is perceived as a commercial opportunity rather than an added cost? How can we raise awareness not just amongst those who are interested in sustainability but across the industry as a whole? And how can we encourage more leadership by people who will be as ruthless in their pursuit of social and environmental goals as they are in their financial targets?
At the Ethical Fashion Forum, we've been working on these challenges for 10 years. In 2012, we launched an online platform that gives fashion professionals the information they need to do business better and puts the spotlight on businesses that are integrating sustainable practices. We've had some success - the platform now reaches a network of 220,000 people in 141 countries and through running it, we've learnt a lot about what works and what's still needed to see real change happen across the fashion industry.
Two years ago, we embarked upon a major project to understand how we can help to take the sustainable fashion movement to scale and develop our platform so that it will make that happen - really make it happen. The result is Common Objective: www.commonobjective.co