December 2013, the global apparel sector – brands, retailers, suppliers, NGOs, and academics – convened in La Coruna, Spain, under the flag of the Sustainable Apparal Coalition. Fashion is lifestyle, it supports people to create their own identity. Moreover, it creates millions of jobs in developing countries. However, we all know that many unacceptable practices are still prevalent in this industry. The recent tragedies in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Cambodia are only a tip of the iceberg.
Janet Mensink, Solidaridad’s international program coordinator for the Cotton & Textiles program, reflects on whether the efforts of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition will change the burning issues for the better; and why Solidaridad chooses to be part of this movement.
Since the early nineties when global players like Nike were called upon to act on cases of child labor linked to the production of their goods, there have been a number of changes in the industry. And, yet, we are only beginning to solve the big issues. The demand for apparel continues to increase because of the growing population (by 2050, we are expected to have 9 billion people on this planet) and the increase of consumption per capita. Today, fast fashion seems to be the norm with some consumers purchasing a new outfit at least every month. The low price of certain fashion makes that “dream” a reality for the middle class. Garments that have been designed for 200 uses are being discarded after 10 washes only.
Reverse side of fast fashion
The real costs for such a consumption pattern are being paid by the people who are making our clothes and our planet whose regenerative capacity is being overspent. The making of textiles and garments comprises many steps and long and complex supply chains with most production in countries such as China, Bangladesh, and India. For example:
- Millions of small holder farmers who are producing our cotton in Africa and India often live under extreme poverty;
- A pair of jeans needs 3.625 liters (nearly 960 gallons) of water, equaling about 60 showers;
- Dyeing houses in India, China, and Bangladesh often release their chemical containing process water without any treatment to the environment;
- More than 2.000 workers (often young ladies) were killed in Bangladesh past two years because of fire and building safety problems.
Is the industry all bad?
The answer to this question is ‘No’! First of all, let’s look at this from the perspective of employment. The sector provides opportunities to several hundreds of millions of people in agriculture and industry. In many cases, these jobs are found in areas with limited options for development and economic growth.
Secondly, since the early nineties, brands and retailers have made great strides. The front runners have incorporated a strategy on sustainability, public commitments, and increased transparency. While there’s still a need for changes on the ground, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Brands and retailers are realizing that part of their business is about access to resources and therefore they begin to touch on the heart of business continuity. Approaches that really partner with all stakeholders including suppliers, workers, farmers, and local authorities are considered a serious strategy.
In this stakeholder approach, we can’t forget about the consumer. The messaging appeals to consumers as well: good for you and good for the planet. Now is the time to think beyond “fast fashion”. Consumers can play their part in the sustainable models like leasing, recycling, and reusing. And, another trend that we hope will catch on is full transparency on the social and ecological impact of production from fiber to fashion.
SAC Conference La Coruna
Returning to the main point of this piece, what has been the relevance of the conference in La Coruna? During this week, future thinkers in the industry convened again. The aim of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is to measure and communicate the impact of apparel and this way to drive change. Last year the first version of the index, called “Higg Index” was published. Now the improved and on-line version “Higg 2.0” has been launched. It will enable customers to compare products and brands and will be a great tool for consumers to put pressure on the sector. As a result, sustainability will be a competitive parameter, next to quality and price.
The apparel sector is too complex to address the big challenges by one single approach. Over reliance on audits and certifications past 10 years have clearly not solved the environmental and social problems in the industry. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition takes a different route: an integrated system where the whole value chain is collaborating. Continuous improvement by mapping impact on people and planet, throughout the supply chain; credible data and transparency driving change!
Solidaridad wants to be part of this movement, as we believe that objective measurements and transparency on progress are the next essential step. This is a tremendous task and can only be realized in a pre-competitive environment. Businesses have to take the lead, but organizations like ours can and will have to take responsibility as well. Therefore we’ve become member early 2013 and are playing an active role in further development. Our knowledge of working in the apparel supply chain for past 10 years is and has been valuable in developing the index into a credible and practical instrument. Our focus points in this effort are in line with our cotton & textile program: cotton, cleaner production/wet processing (energy, chemicals, water) and social/labor aspects in the ready made garment production. Moreover, we will integrate the tool in our programs. Especially the Facility module in the Higg Index, is a great way for us to measure the impact of the intervention by comparing the score before and after. The just launched China Better Mills program will be the first for practical implementation of the Higg Index.
Solidaridad’s commitment to the Higg index:
We believe that the combination of measurement and action can create the needed change for a sustainable apparel sector. Our core expertise is in the action: we design and implement environmental & social improvement programs along the value chain, from field to fashion. In these programs, our partnerships with farmers, manufacturers and brands & retailers are key. We commit to using the Higg index as an integral part in the programs, to set a baseline and measure progress. Moreover, we want to inspire all of our stakeholders to adopt the Higg index as the generic measurement tool in the industry.