Sustainable fashion is the biggest demand of the consumers, as it is now becoming the real driver of purchasing decisions, and is therefore intrinsic to competitive success in the global apparel industry today.
While brands and retailers are adopting several measures globally to market themselves as sustainable in front of the consumers and release reports that spell down the smallest of efforts made towards the cause, it’s actually the back-end of the supply chain that is accomplishing the task. Buying and sourcing operations form the biggest contributors to the ascertainment of the adoption of conscious fashion initiatives, as about 56 per cent of the CPO (Chief Purchasing Officers) level professionals deemed ‘Sustainability and Transparency’ as the major purchase decision drivers in a report by McKinsey and Company.
The initiatives to reinforce sustainable apparel sourcing revolve majorly disrupting the industry through innovations in technology, standards, processes, materials and communication, with the most popular disruptions being the trends such as virtual sampling for the eradication of physical samples; social auditing, for harmonising standards; transparency of the supply chain, right from design and product development level to the point of sale; and finally, recycling of fibre content, as sourcing executives are now enthusiastic about the industry revamping itself by usage of least 30 per cent recycled fibre content in every new garment.
Arjun Puri, Director of KAS Group Asia, the sourcing vertical for Target and Kmart Australia, shared similar perspective, “Sustainability through the supply chain is increasingly becoming an area of focus for Kmart Group. Many of the challenges facing the global fashion industry are way too big to be solved by any one company alone. By collaborating and working together, we give ourselves the best chance to solve some of these complex issues. Our approach is to recognise the challenges and do our very best to make improvements on a range of topics including and not limited to water, chemicals, packaging, energy, sustainable raw material, transparency, building and fire safety, living wages, overtime, closed loop or circular supply chains, etc.”
Gap Inc. is also moving ahead on its path to reinvent the supply chain to make it more sustainable, as Teri List-Stoll, Chief Financial Officer, Gap Inc. averred, “Our commitment to sustainability benefits our company and the communities in which we operate. It also reduces our risk and builds resiliency into our supply chain. When we look holistically at the impact of our priorities, we can see real returns on our investments in renewable energy and GHG reductions, building a diverse and equitable workforce, and in engaging with industry-wide initiatives.”
Other companies making major changes in their global supply chain include Bestseller and Guess. They are also allowing other companies to copy their approach or come up with their own version, as Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and PVH Corp. have done.
Empowering the suppliers
Collaboration between multiple levels of stakeholders of the apparel supply chain is the best way to ensure the adaptation of an efficient sustainable sourcing system. Major brands and retailers are aiming towards education and consequent empowerment of vendors and vendor groups in order to inculcate affinity towards sustainability on an individual level, along with the added benefit of human resource development for ethical supply chains. This is further leading to brands having a vendor base that easily adapts to new challenges and successfully delivers in optimum time and at best cost.
One such retailer is Guess, which strives towards creating a diverse and inclusive work environment, improving workers’ safety throughout its supply chain, and engaging with its community. In FY ’19, Guess established a Council for Diversity and Inclusion, starting in the US, to oversee the implementation of diversity and inclusion practices throughout the company. Its extensive Corporate Social Compliance Program focuses on supplier education, training, sharing best practice resources, action planning and continuous supply chain improvements. It also ensures conformity with the standards by focusing on four core areas: supplier factory approval, supplier education, supplier factory monitoring and remediation and industry collaboration.
Another brand to implement changes in the vendor network to empower them as sustainable suppliers is Gap Inc. that trains its vendors in various fields such as 3D virtual sampling, increasing automation to avoid excessive resource depletion on logistics and easy conversion to sustainable materials to achieve its aggressive sustainability goals. “Multi-stakeholder initiatives bring together organisations and people from different sectors that play a key role in finding new approaches and creating collective action,” shared a Gap spokesperson. Under the Mill Sustainability Program, it has made significant contributions to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, enabling strategic mills to complete the Higg Index FEM 3.0 annually; Gap also practices Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, encouraging the mills to follow the ZDHC MRSL and test their wastewater discharge twice a year as per the ZDHC Wastewater Guidelines, and finally, Gap aims to accomplish Social and Labour Convergence Program by 2020, which will require strategic mills to use the SLCP social and labour assessment.
The company has a goal for FY 2020-21 to incorporate only green or yellow tag manufacturing units for its branded apparel, and instead of changing the vendor, it equips the units in a manner that they convert to a green or yellow tag unit. The company also champions advancement of human rights which is witnessed via their success in Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement or the P.A.C.E program launched in 2007 to give women the foundational life skills, technical training and support to advance in the workplace and in their personal lives. It aims to reach one million women and girls through vendor and community partnerships by 2022. Gap also collaborated with UN’s Better Than Cash Alliance (BTCA) in 2018 to enable digitisation of the wages in order to eradicate the issue of financial exclusion that workers might face when paid in cash.
Material sourcing excellence
When it comes to raw materials, sourcing bodies are not only steering towards recycled fibres but also change the source of existing new fibre content to a more organic alternative. Bestseller has pledged to adopt about 25 per cent of the products as a completely sustainable range by 2022. Anshul Grover, Sourcing Head for menswear brand Jack & Jones said, “We aim to be 100 per cent sustainable by 2025; that’s the motive of Bestseller. We are taking small steps, as from this season (S/S ’20) onwards, our shirts will be converted from regular to sustainable cotton, and we are trying to do similar thing in trousers as well.” To showcase its contribution, it now uses distinguished hand tags for organic fabrics and BCI cotton products. Its vendors are also very enthusiastic towards sustainability, as they understand it is the need of the hour due to the global buyers they are catering to.
Just like its counterpart, Guess launched the GUESS Responsible Sourcing Policy on Cotton in 2019 to increase procurement of preferred cotton sources while working to improve traceability and avoid prohibited cotton sources from entering its supply chain. Gap’s work with its strategic vendor and one of the biggest denim producers in India, Ahmedabad-based Arvind Mills, has been tremendous in curbing the harmful impacts of producing cotton in India with the creation of a closed-loop standalone water supply system as a co-investment project.
Kmart is also making leaps in the arena, as it recently signed up with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) with a commitment to use BCI cotton in 100 per cent of its cotton products by 2021. It has had one of the fastest implementations of BCI across any worldwide retailer. Arjun expressed its future goals: “Kmart Group is in the process of building a sustainability roadmap for the future and we are committed to reducing our environmental footprint. Our sustainability commitments in a number of areas will be formerly released to the market over the coming months.”
A long way to go
Despite the major leaps and commitments several industry key players are taking up when it comes to sustainable buying and sourcing trade, there are several hurdles to cross as well. Being vocal about sustainable sourcing efforts has entailed a buzzword transform into an intrinsic quality of the sourcing supply chain: transparency. Under an increasingly urgent pressure to create transparency, apparel industry is required to share each aspect of its supply chain information with consumers. This has further led to a need for manufacturers to attain certifications and fulfil norms in order to meet their buyers’ demands, creating bottlenecks in their regular work flow. This has affected the value addition and embroidery industry majorly, seeing that the smallest of trims and embellishments have to be certified, a task which isn’t always easy for them.
As Ravindra, Partner of the Mumbai-based embroidery and value addition house Vashishtha Exports, said, “We have tremendously expanded in the past five years, as embroidery is coming back to the trend and the market demand is big, but even bigger demand is for sustainable products, which means sourcing the smallest of sequins that are certified sustainably and ethically. This has become an issue for us, as finding such trims supplier in India is difficult. These vendors are small and big, and are scattered throughout the sourcing hubs, so even if we want to support them to attain these certifications, the capital investment will be huge, and so will be the time taken to make these things work.”
Another hurdle in the same arena is the accountability of brands towards usage of recycled materials and the volumes’ paradigm. Edwin Keh, CEO, Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) elucidated on the ways to tackle the same in a McKinsey report, “There’s the problem of scaling up the use of recycled materials. This is no longer a science challenge – it is a reverse logistics challenge. Our entire global supply chain is optimised to produce in the East and consume in the West. But most of the recyclable material exists in the consumption economy, not in the manufacturing economy. There are several possible solutions to this, the first being onshore manufacturing in the West. The other possibility is to process waste back into raw material to be transported offshore for manufacturing.”
Sourcing might be the one operation in the supply chain that either makes or breaks an order, but adding sustainability to it is a struggle that necessitates all segments of the industry to come together and thrive co-dependently in order to ease it in the day-to-day operations. Brands’ commitments have to be worked out in sync with the suppliers’ requirements, while empowering the latter and popularising the former.
Also read: What is the cost of sustainable fashion?