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Why sustainability departments are old-fashioned

by | Mar 30, 2020

Instead of applying sustainability practices across its entire business, the fashion industry has introduced them in a piecemeal fashion.  Now, as we peer over a precipice of radical and unplanned change, it’s worth taking a closer look at this old-fashioned approach.

In fashion media, the trend has been to hire sustainability editors. Conde Nast International in particular is on a roll. This year British Vogue appointed model and long-time environmental activist Amber Valletta while Vogue Arabia hired Eco-Age founder Livia Firth. This follows Vogue Australia’s appointment of former staffer and author of The Wardrobe Crisis Clare Press in 2018. Vogue Business, run by section editors, entrusts sustainability coverage to Rachel Cernansky.

South African legacy fashion titles haven’t hired sustainability editors now publishes Elizabeth L. Cline’s advice column on fashion and sustainability and Forbes has hired fashion technology expert Brooke Roberts-Islam. South African legacy fashion titles haven’t hired sustainability editors.

In production and manufacturing processes, sustainability has been on the agenda for much longer than in media. French luxury conglomerate the Kering group has employed a head of sustainability since 2012, and H&M has had a sustainability department for a decade. In South Africa, The Foschini Group introduced strategy and action for executing and tracking their environmental commitments in 2011, and Woolworths has published progress reports on its Good Business Journey since 2009.

This progress is heartening but how effective and far-reaching has it been? As with all things commercial, one wonders (especially now) whether they are just superficial marketing moves. Have they achieved enough, fast enough?

Case in point: while media hires are recent, brand hires are less so. Yet many of these brands are still under fire for overproduction, waste and pollution. So, what have sustainability hires been doing for the past few years? Working, yes. No one in fashion is in the business of giving money away. Working effectively? Maybe not.

Sustainability has been treated as a departmental function

Across the board, there isn’t enough impact to show for the years dedicated to this issue.  Sustainability has been treated as a departmental function, like accounting or marketing, and not as the company-wide characteristic it should be. To solve the global climate crisis, sustainability should be a systems and processes issue, a strategy and planning issue, a manufacturing and sourcing issue, an anything and everything issue.

Just as decision makers who order fabric and choose suppliers need to think sustainably, so does a trend editor when selecting the 50 best dresses of the season. If we’re lucky, sustainability in mainstream media has been a website tab instead of a common thread informing all content, and brand action a sustainable diffusion line instead of a full supply chain makeover.

Sustainability should inform and be embedded in the work done by everyone sitting at the boardroom table. Unless the mandate of all employees reflects this, it won’t matter how smart, talented, or proactive sustainability employees are. Their input will be diluted if it is not central to the strategy shaping the production process, for clothing and for content, from start to finish. In addition to this, sustainability projects are at risk if they are in conflict with a brand’s desired outcomes (and balance sheets) and if the department head doesn’t have the authority to influence them. In the media, a sustainability editor can inform readers on the issues, while their colleagues continue to promote problematic products and encourage excessive consumerism.

The silo approach is not completely doomed

The silo approach is not completely doomed though. Once a set of systems and processes is successfully transformed, a sustainability project becomes redundant and expires. After one project is completed the next one starts and so on: there’s always room in a business for improvement. Heads of sustainability departments should keep researching what new set of changes should be implemented, work out how to make them happen, execute and start all over again. On repeat.

[Last month, H&M announced that Helena Helmersson, a former manager in their sustainability department who later became the head of production and subsequently their COO, has been appointed their new CEO. It is an exciting move that opens the door for the kind of systemic transformation fast fashion needs, and it reflects a priority shift I believe history will look kindly on.]

Image: Tony Lam Hoang / Unsplashed

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