By Elizabeth Dove and Liza Horowitz
The tremors of a crumbling building that killed 1,129 garment makers and maimed hundreds more in Bangladesh last year have been felt throughout the world. Every industry that relies on a supply chain with factories far from HQ is thinking about how to avoid such an impact on lives and reputation. This is true for no industry more so than the fashion world, which was stained in the tragedy and is under the spotlight in unflattering ways.
Members of the fashion industry from around the globe came together Nov. 3-4 in Toronto to reflect on what has changed, examine best practices and create visions of the future during the inaugural World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (#WEAR2014) put on by the dynamic Fashion Takes Action.
For each advancement post-Rana Plaza, opportunities for going further were identified.
At the moment, the pressure is on first-tier suppliers. Without more proof of benefit, will buyers and retailers push second- or third-tier suppliers (e.g. embroiderers) to improve working conditions? Ian Spaulding of Elevate says that factories also need assistance in recognizing that they profit from better working conditions beyond securing buyer relationships: longer retention, more skilled workers, better performances. By prioritizing and investing in management, they can turn responsibility into an asset.
Also, health and safety auditors themselves are limited and may miss important factors like structural deficiencies. Plus, several speakers confirmed that when the auditors are in town, factory owners scramble to create short-term fixes.
At least one-third of the total environmental impact of garments happens at end-of-use. (For more on the consumer side of sustainable fashion, check out TriplePundit's ongoing Sustainably Attired series.) Conference presenter Emily Scarlett of H&M shared how the company develops programs to help consumers reduce their footprint, such as repurposing garments in their Don’t Let Fashion Go To Waste program and a new initiative called Clevercare that nudges consumers to reduce energy use when caring for clothes.
Presenter Gildan is the only North American company in the textiles, apparel and luxury goods group to be included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices World Index. The pragmatic approach to sustainability by the company's presenter, Garry Bell, was refreshing. Bell was asked: Why take a sustainable approach to fashion? His response was simple: The key to sustainability and supply chain is the search for profits. Some of Gildan’s sustainability innovations include a biological wastewater treatment system at the company's Honduras facility, where water discharged into the river is virtually free of dyes and chemicals. In the same facility, Gildan invested in a biomass steam process to reach it’s 20 percent energy reduction target.
A lively discussion revolved around the new awareness of the conscious consumer. Taking this concept to future generations, Fashion Takes Action has developed a creative and forward-thinking education program called My Clothes My World. Students in grades four through eight learn about labor rights and the lifecycle assessment of the clothing process through fun and exploratory games. Students discover through label bingo who makes our clothes and where are they made.
Imagine if someone took the time to create a program similar to My Clothes My World when we were kids? Would the fashion and apparel process look different now?
Image credit: Flickr/marissaorton
Elizabeth Dove is a specialist in strategically engaging the public, companies and government on sustainability and social change. She has worked as senior staff and consultant for initiatives that support the arts, child welfare, public health and particularly international development. Passionate about the power of collaboration, she seeks out projects that bring together different sectors to create value for their organizations and the broader community. She is Senior Vice-President, Strategy at The Divinsky Group and an Associate at Open Spaces Learning, a Canadian change management firm helping companies realize business and social impact. Twitter: @EDove5 @openspaceslearn
Liza Horowitz is the founder of BumpItUp Digital. Her company helps SMEs and entrepreneurs fire up their communication potential, so they can thrive in the digital marketing world and attract sales. Liza is the secret voice behind many tweets and blogs. You can find Liza networking, guest speaking at sustainability communication and social media events, and ghostwriting. She is passionate about great vegan food and supporting business owners to create positive profits with positive social & environmental impact. Liza recently earned her Masters in Science, Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College, VT. She is also an Associate at Open Spaces Learning, a Canadian change management firm helping companies realize business and social impact. Twitter: @lzhorowitz @openspaceslearn