The future of textiles

In a world facing deeply rooted challenges on every front, it is encouraging to take a step back and see how our collective understanding of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability are evolving for the better. That was one of the takeaways from a panel at the Stanford Graduate School of Business that featured Andréanne Grimard, Director of Economic Development for Solidaridad North America.

“Twenty-eight years ago,“ Andréanne told the audience, “A farmer said to Nico Roozen, our executive director, ‘I don’t want charity, I want a fair price for my coffee.’”

That message helped Solidaridad take a fresh approach and look for market-based solutions to poverty and sustainability, resulting in (among other things) the world’s first fair trade coffee.

Andréanne was speaking at the Global Supply Chain Management Forum at the Center for Social Innovation. Other panelists included Doug Freeman, Chief Operating Officer at Patagonia, and Kevin Myette, Director of North America for Bluesign Technologies.

The global trade in textiles offers a good example of both the multiple crises we face and the opportunities for new approaches to deliver real change.

Apparel manufacturing is projected to grow by 62% by 2025, putting a huge strain on land and water around the world. Clearly, the panelists noted, doing less bad —the notion of sustainability as modest decreases in environmentaland social impact —is not enough.

Instead, the panelists said, real change means being proactive in both the design of products and supply chains. For Patagonia, that means vetting suppliers for social and environmental sustainability before contracting an order.

Andréanne talked about Solidaridad’s journey in textiles, from starting the sustainable brand Kuyichi, to creating Made-By, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to improve environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry and make sustainability common practice.

From there, she said, ““We went on to support and promote the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which is complementary to other standards, and building further on our learnings from developing previous standards. Three major aspects which make BCI really strong are continuous improvement, to ensure the standard is inclusive and goes beyond low hanging fruit, integration of farm support, and bringing government to the table.”

Andréanne challenged the audience to think about going beyond creating shared value by sharing risk. For example, designers and brands being accountable to manufacturers, for last-minute cancelled orders could increase the capacity to manufacturers to provide sustainable working conditions to their workforce as well as source sustainable cotton.

Kevin Myette of Bluesign focuses on the chemistry side of textiles where, he noted, regulation has limited success because it sets the bar so low.

Instead, he said, “Let’s shift the conversation from sustainability to quality and resource efficiency. It’s about good business.”He cited the work of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition as a great example of effective collaboration.

In the end, the panelists agreed, real and lasting change will require multi-stakeholder action: NGOs, brands, workers, and designers all collaborating to reinvent a sustainable supply chain for textiles.

Solidaridad sees a lot of potential to work with garment makers, brands, and retailers in US that are looking to source sustainable textiles, to build on the success of its better cotton projects reaching over 150 000 farmers in 10 countries and its Better Mills Initiative which will reach 75 factories by 2015 in China and beyond.