Structured data, easily accessible information & shared systems play a key role in the sustainable transformation of fashion. Here’s how.
Systems are complicated enough and the fashion industry is no exception. How do you navigate the path towards sustainability when you need to juggle vast amounts of information as well as people spread around the globe?
We suggest a three-phase approach that balances short-term goals with long term visions and is fair, inclusive, holistic and hyper-conscious of the role brands play in the convoluted fashion system.
The phased approach is no way meant to be the only way to work towards sustainability goals but simply meant to enable view it through a different lens, not often commonly discussed. Sustainability is, after all, more than just switching to different materials, or reducing carbon emissions—it is also about the right process, relationships and commitment to a vision that can benefit all equally.
Ready? Let’s get started.
Phase 1: Internal Change
Like with any change, you gotta start with you. Start internally first—change takes time, but it’s important to get the foundations right.
- Focus on getting your house in order, get your data sorted. (*this is the unsexy part)
The fashion industry has a data problem. Not only industry-wide statistics, but even product-specific and production data is often inconsistent and fragmented. This makes it hard to make sense of quickly and easily. There needs to be a faster, better way to capture it throughout the design, production and delivery of a product. It needs to be part of the process, rather than additional work.
Get all product, order, supply chain and production info in one place. Having it live across hundreds of spreadsheets, and emails isn’t gonna cut it when you want to get smart with it. It needs to be well managed, centralised and easy to access and update so that it’s always accurate.
Good, accurate data on products and their supply chains is only going to get more important. Those who recognise this will be ahead of the game when legislation changes, when consumers demand even more and when investors require real data.
- Build libraries and structure your data in the same way across your business. Know what material is being used in what style, instantly.
- Create and manage detailed product information—standardised, structured, comprehensive and accessible by all the team. Increase the product data gathered, created at the source.
- Maintain all suppliers manufacturers in one place — key information such as name, location, OAR number, certifications, code of conduct etc.
2. LCAs 2.0
Typical LCAs are comprehensive but they take time, investment plus extensive research and training—the fashion industry doesn’t have the luxury of time! There are more people looking for faster, more cost effective ways to calculate a product or brand’s impact, at the current stage of the business and how to reach goals set out. Innovators like Green Story, Compare Ethics, and Ecochain help measure and improve impact across various stages of the business
3. Find and implement the right systems (designed to grow with you as you do)
Create internal openness and transparency, it’s not just about doing this with customers. Ensure your entire team knows how to find out what something is made of, where it’s been made and by who. It’s not just for product teams – customer service, marketing, sales, and finance need transparency too.
Use it to engage and empower your employees and ensure alignment across all teams. Move on from it being in the hands of a few, from it solely being the responsibility of your sustainability team to look after.
As your business grows, it’s important your technology and processes do as well. Ever-evolving systems are in the long run more suited to fast-growing businesses that need to be resilient.
4. Start to embed mindset shifts: Focus on embedding shifts in behaviours and mindsets across every member of your company. When top-level management shows they are passionate about change and adopt a reflexive, non-tokenistic and honest attitude to their impact, it is easier for the company culture to reflect this and become more enthusiastic about doing things differently. When every member of your company is given the opportunity to contribute to making a difference, it is easier to go on the ride.
Phase 2 : Shared Change
There’s only so much you can change on your own. The next phase is to look outside your core business — bring your supply chain partners on the journey with you.
It’s important to move beyond mere compliance through audits and certifications as Kim Van der Weerd explains in this article. Your own practices need to justify the expectations you have from your supply chain and for that you need to invest in partnership-building.
But how do you get started on this?
- Set up good processes together: Structured workflow tools with a common system, language and terminology that’s designed for two sides simply makes things easier for everyone involved. Gathering data becomes easier, and with accurate, real-time data being shared, there’s less chance of errors, delays and reduced lead times which lead to pressure on manufacturers to work overtime. Waste can be reduced by lots of small changes. For example, look at how many samples you request from season to season, and how you can reduce that together, by reducing mistakes and miscommunication.
- Ask them what works for them and set up KPIs together: When setting targets to switch to more responsible materials, and reduce emissions, do so with your manufacturers. Don’t force ideas on them. Manufacturers are usually very knowledgeable and will have useful ideas and feedback to offer if you seek, plus will go the extra mile if they feel respected. Put in place accurate feedback policies that give due credit to the opinions and suggestions of the people who make clothes you sell.
- Drive equal accountability and commitment: Shared systems can make clear the information that was provided, help people realise the impact of their decisions and understand who is responsible and for what. Tracking when urgent approvals were provided and when changes were made, and who approved what, helps drive accountability on the part of the brand as well, the blame-game culture around manufacturing.
Phase 3: Ecosystem Change
Phase 3 looks at the impact of the industry beyond simply your own impact and instead at how it is interconnected with other players in the fashion industry. Look beyond the value chain and across the value web to partner with organizations with similar goals and visions. There is lots of value in sharing knowledge among other businesses and partnering with them instead of competing.
- Sharing risk from shifting from competition to collaboration. Look towards pooling in resources for accessing resources you wouldn’t normally be able to on your own. For example, sourcing a particular material with high MOQs may be difficult for a smaller business but what if you could put an order jointly with another business?
- Open, collaborative innovation by sharing best practices and wisdom gathered: What if information that helps reduce the enormous impact of the fashion industry could be open-source, instead of resources wasted on individual efforts? Brands like Allbirds and Kering have released their carbon footprint tools publicly enabling smaller businesses to use them and gain from what they have learnt on the way. Having open, shared and honest conversations and establishing meaningful partnerships that enable players to both learn and help each other will go a long way in a full systems transformation that the industry needs.
At the end, sustainability cannot be a personal exercise or lone effort—the rule of a system is that both individual and collective goals need to match for the system to function effectively. When processes, structures and mindsets are included in the holistic sustainability gameplans, true change becomes multi-fold.