Nov 09, 2018

Five Ways Fashion Brands Can Advance the Sustainable Development Goals

Apparel brands can “A.D.A.P.T” to shifting consumer demands and climate threats by advancing the SDGs

We’ve all read the stats. The average consumer now purchases 60 percent more clothing, compared to 2000, but keeps garments for half as long. Fabric production and consumer use account for 60% of environmental impacts associated with apparel. Not to mention, the fashion industry is also notoriously known as the second most polluting after fossil fuels. When combined with the fact that clothing supply chains are one of the most globally integrated—about three-quarters of the world’s clothing exports come from developing countries—

Paige Curtis (F&ES '19: far right) attends the
2019 Sustainable Textiles conference in Milan, Italy

implementing sustainable practices will have far-reaching impact. Apparel brands are well suited to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal 12 for responsible consumption and production, due to the complexity and expansiveness of their footprint.

This past October, representatives from apparel brands around the world convened at the annual Sustainable Textiles conference hosted by Textile Exchange. Integrating SDGs into corporate social responsibility strategy was a core focus area, and will only become more significant as 2030 approaches. Here’s how apparel brands can “A.D.A.P.T” to shifting consumer demands and climate threats by advancing the Sustainable Development Goals.

A - Adopt a declaration in support of SDGs

A company commitment to the SDGs sends a message of accountability to consumers and peer organizations. Consider PVH Corp., parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, who shared their CSR strategy in relation to the SDGs last year, making commitments that span safe working conditions and responsible resource management.

Some breakout discussions around this topic stressed that companies should communicate SDG commitment in ways that align with their brand voice and values. There was some sentiment that companies are hesitant to take on additional commitments and as a result few brands openly promote the SDGs, though they may address them behind the scenes. However, integrating SDGs into business strategy should dispel this belief. Instead, publically aligning with the SDGs can be a source of competitive advantage.

D - Dedicate resources according to materiality

Conducting a materiality assessment should be a core component when setting any CSR strategy. KPMG defines a materiality as “the principle of defining the social and environmental topics that matter most to your business and your stakeholders.” With 17 goals to consider, there is a risk of over-committing to goals that are irrelevant to the brand. Apparel brands, like any consumer goods company, have multiple stakeholders to consider. Common stakeholder groups for any apparel brand include suppliers, workers, investors, and NGOs -- all of whom have particular concerns to raise.

Assessing materiality as it relates to the SDGs will also uncover the business case for addressing them. Patagonia, for instance, admittedly doesn’t engage with SDG four, concerning quality education. While I’m sure they’re not opposed, access to education doesn’t fit into their business model. Now entering the food space with Patagonia Provisions ®  they are, however, poised to advance goal 15 - life on land- by promoting restorative agricultural practices in their food supply chain.

A- Align philanthropy to SDGs

Existing philanthropic efforts can easily sync with the sustainable development goals, and in some cases should be reframed as holistic ‘shared value’ initiatives as opposed to one-off charitable activities. Creating shared value translates into business that achieves social good. The apparel sector employs more than 75 million people globally—mostly women—and is well-positioned to create shared value that promotes economic development, fair labor, and gender equity. The SDGs allow companies stuck in the traditional model of disparate charitable efforts to mobilize around a group of high-impact goals.

P - Prioritize and report CSR initiatives through the lens of SDGs

About 93% of the world’s 250 largest companies are now reporting on sustainability, and apparel brands are certainly among them. Establishing and sharing CSR priorities are no longer a brand differentiator, but expected of any advanced company. Mapping specific CSR projects to an SDG extends the boundary of impact to the planetary level. VF Corp., owner of The North Face, JanSport, and others, really understand this. They restructured their CSR framework to include core pillars, topics, and goals that all feed into a handful of high priority SDGs.

This kind of reframing allows the company to understand how to leverage their supply chain for better development outcomes. Brands can now empower consumers to make purchasing decisions that also advance the global goals.

T - Trace the tradeoffs of choosing one SDG over another

There is speculation within the industry that some companies are guilty of “SDG-washing” -- exaggerating their contribution to the SDGs, or cherry-picking goals that are convenient for them. Certainly there is some truth to this, as fewer than 10% of companies who reference the SDGs in their reporting actually have targets that measure their contribution to them. This was of high interest among conference attendees, as there is a need to develop more discrete metrics that track progress towards the SDGs. Of course there will always be tradeoffs when addressing one goal over another. However, a materiality assessment should ensure that these tradeoffs make sense for the business.

Looking Forward

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals that revolved around human development, the SDGs present greater opportunities for businesses to transform their practices. Responsible consumption—buying used or recycled goods, and wearing items longer—may succeed in diverting more clothes from the landfill. However, for systematic change brands must take action to reduce their environmental footprint and move towards circular practices.

To learn more about how Textile Exchange promotes the SDGs among member companies, visit: https://textileexchange.org/downloads/threading-the-needle/