Doing the right thing in business is no longer synonymous with philanthropy. Sustainable business strategies are now essential for anyone looking to future-proof their businesses. It now means investing in your people, environmental impact, and long-term business priorities. With a career spanning almost 30 years in garment technology and product development, Jackie Lewis joined Alvanon (an apparel-technology company that helps brands improve their fit) in 2018 as a consultant focusing on 3D, process efficiencies and sustainability. Lewis tells FashionUnited about her job as a Sustainability Expert and the importance of striving for a balance between sustainability and commerciality in the fashion industry.
Why is sustainability important for fashion today and what is its impact on the industry?
There are two major challenges facing the fashion industry today: one is digitization and the other is sustainability. Sustainability is important and becoming a conversation in the mainstream, as the impacts on people and the environment are no longer sustainable.
Statistics show that the demand for clothing is increasing by 4.73 percent annually, outperforming population growth which is tracking at approximately 1 percent. The apparel and footwear industry is now worth $1.7 trillion and set to grow by an estimated 63 percent by 2030.
This means we must focus on managing overproduction, consumption and waste, in addition to driving more sustainable choices in materials and manufacturing. For me the key to reversing the trend is education, we must find appropriate ways to talk to different audiences: newcomers to the industry, top executives leading fashion businesses and the consumer.
Education has long been part of the DNA of Alvanon. Alvanon’s MOTIF platform encourages and enables industry-wide education in technical and vocational skills. MOTIF recently launched the ‘Sustainability in Fashion’ online course, which focuses on establishing a common language for professionals in the apparel industry that encourages communication across functions and better decision-making during product design.
We must focus on managing overproduction, consumption and waste, in addition to driving more sustainable choices in materials and manufacturing. For me the key to reversing the trend is education, we must find appropriate ways to talk to different audiences.
What components do you think need to be present to ensure fashion businesses remain competitive and relevant?
Most fashion businesses are waking up to the idea that sustainability makes good business sense. Some organizations such as Walmart, Patagonia and H&M even have a plan. Businesses and individuals alike sometimes struggle to make changes as they are often overwhelmed or they just don’t know where to start or who to involve.
In addition to digitalization and sustainability, we must balance profit and speed to stay truly relevant. I’m really interested to see how this plays out in the next few years with the fast-fashion retailers, whether they will have the desire to change and the ‘know-how’ to understand what to change.
What exactly does a Sustainability Expert do?
A Sustainability Expert challenges what we do today and asks is there a better way, an approach which achieves the same outcome but at less cost to people and the environment. In the fashion world that requires experience and a full understanding of how to design, source and manufacture a product. At the end of the day, there are choices to make at each stage of the process from concept right through to the consumer. The continuous obstacle is how to deliver against your sustainability promise whilst still making profit and giving the customer what they want. It’s not that easy!
What does a typical workday look like for you?
One day is never the same as the next but essentially, I spend most of my time talking! I believe I have a role to play in connecting people in the industry, sharing knowledge and offering practical advice on day to day issues.
What do you love about your job?
When I hear people playing back my words, then I know they have really connected with sustainability. For me, it’s about taking something real and tangible and creating that emotional connection. My job as a sustainability expert is to help them by identifying what people really care about, what affects them day-to-day and how even the smallest changes can positively affect their lifestyle and environment, to drive momentum and action change.
How did you become the Sustainability Expert at Alvanon focusing on sustainability, 3D and process efficiencies?
Before I joined Alvanon in 2018, I’d spent almost 30 years in the industry both in manufacturing and retail, leading Technical and Product development teams. During this time, I’d seen a lot of change, including the offshoring of production and the face of retail revolutionizing with the emergence of the now dominant e-tailers like Boohoo, Missguided and Pretty Little Things.
Throughout that journey, the things I held dear were product, the consumer and my team. Being able to innovate and evolve at a product and business level requires empathy for the consumer and your people. So, after being embedded in a business managing KPI’s, critical path and deadlines, I wanted to offer more and give a little back to the industry. My role at Alvanon allows me the space to do that as I’m no longer distracted by the day job.
Did you always want to work in the fashion and garment industry?
Yes, I think you should always do something that you really love. There were always two things that I really loved and was good at - one was sports and the other was fashion. From a very young age, it was something that came really naturally to me. When you are passionate about something, it doesn’t seem like work. You want to go into a career really being engaged and enjoy it. I have always loved what I do.
How do you stay motivated when challenges arise?
I’m a problem solver who loves a challenge; life would be boring if everything was fixed! The only constant thing in life is change.
What advice can you share for those who would like to pursue a fashion career in garment technology or sustainability?
Gone is the age where you would train up and qualify from university, go straight into that role and do that for the rest of your life. Whether you are a university graduate or already in the industry-you have got to be constantly learning something.
Do your job because you want to learn. Be brave and try new things. The industry is moving so fast. You can very quickly become irrelevant. So it’s important to stay ahead of what’s new.
If you are working for someone who isn’t enriching your learning and developing your skills, then it probably is not the business to be in. I think a lot of businesses are coming round to this now, they understand that retention is really important. It costs you at least five thousand per person to recruit someone, and it can cost you up to five grand per day if you haven’t got someone in that role. The people coming through into the market now. They expect it. You need to be constantly engaging and enriching your team to remain competitive.
Photos: courtesy of Alvanon, H&M Conscious Exclusive, With the slogan My Nepali Tailor is a RockStar, Studio Jux offers an handshake program that allows customers to meet the makers of their garments via virtual profiles on the label’s website.