Diversity is an inescapable part of any discussion that aims to tackle the topic of sustainability. This was a focal point of the panel talk ‘How to Clothe 10 Billion People Sustainably’, part of this year’s COP28 and moderated by Muchaneta ten Napel. In order to select a cohesive yet contrasting line up of participants, the founder of fashion consultancy Shape Innovate said that she intentionally brought together individuals from all areas of the supply chain in order to decipher and consider “actionable solutions” that contribute every step of the way.
This included co-founder and designer of Ganni, Nicolaj Reffstrup; executive director of Fashion Revolution Brazil, Fernanda Simon; and Sophie Aujean, the director of social advocacy for Fairtrade International in Belgium. Other participants were partnership consultant of Ghana-based The Or Foundation, Neesha-Ann Longdon, and sustainability head of supplier PT Pan Brothers Tbk, Boadi Satrio, rounding out the wide ranging panel.
While Ten Napel stated that she didn’t want to focus too much on problems, she did recognise that this was an inevitable starting point in order to break down solutions. It was ultimately this topic that was ushered in as a base for the rest of the discussion, with each participant each asked what problems they had faced in their own line of work in relation to sustainable adoption. From deforestation to mounting textile waste to financial incentives, a variety of recognisable setbacks were highlighted, however one root cause for these was touched on by Fairtrade’s Aujean.
When asked for her insight, she said: “For us, the biggest problem is that the fashion industry is buyer-driven, which means that there is a huge power imbalance between the buyers and the suppliers. That's the root cause for a lot of chains of human rights violations afterwards. If suppliers don't feel they can have a say, they are in a situation where they cannot really ensure that human rights are going to be respected and this is putting them under a lot of pressure, and it puts then workers and cotton farmers under a lot of pressure.”
Policy and pilot fatigue
While the discussion around policies and regulations are currently rife among particularly members of the European Union – as evidenced in recent frameworks set out by the organisation to both revise and create policies to enforce circular and sustainable adoption – panellists emphasised the need for a multi-stakeholder approach in order to formulate effective means of change and bring to light a wider scope of regulations that are presently missing. In doing so, participants agreed that the policies made would cater to not just larger businesses and territories, but also those on a smaller scale, while further bringing a more in depth understanding of international and monetary realities that would allow for more inclusive and accessible opportunities.
It is the latter of these realities – money – that was naturally at the forefront of discussion. When talking about scalable innovations to help brands comply with legislation, Ganni’s Reffstrup, who has become known for integrating Next Gen materials into the very core of the Danish brand, said issues arise when no one is willing to “pick up the bill”. The designer noted that though there are a lot of startups inventing and developing new technologies, they struggle to get to scale as they are up against a system that has been perfected for hundreds of years. “There’s a lot of pilot fatigue going on out there because lots of businesses are happy to strike a collab or marketing partnerships with these startups, but if you don’t dedicate yourself to building it into the core of your business, then it will have no impact,” he noted.
Reffstrup went on to say that the financial costs when implementing sustainable solutions into the operations of a brand should not fall onto the consumer, highlighting alternatives such as green tax deductible incentives that would immediately impact how a business was conducted. Or’s Longdon reaffirmed Reffstrup’s points, adding: “The payoffs need to change. This isn’t just for the fashion industry. This is the whole reason we are all at COP, because we are trying to move to a more sustainable future. But the truth is, the incentives are not where they need to be in order for that to happen.”
Price also came into question in other parts of the conversation. In the perspective of Satrio of PT, for example, such costs, including those that ensure labour rights, could also not solely fall on the manufacturer. “The brand cannot be just one-sided,” he noted, “they have to understand the whole supply chain. I think the manufacturer should be loud in saying that [a certain] price is not possible. The brand should take into consideration the manufacturer so that the industry can grow together. There's always someone who paid a price down the line somehow.”
So, how do you sustainably clothe 10 billion people?
Similar concern fell onto certifications needed to display such efforts, with one member of the audience noting that garnering a Fairtrade certificate in particular could especially be costly for smaller companies. The organisation’s Aujean tied these costs in with the sustainability and due diligence systems that need to be put into place in order to ensure the required credibility. She added: “We’re really trying to support companies in setting up those systems. And again, I think the key there is for governments to provide the enabling environment in terms of incentives to ensure that the prices remain affordable for customers.”
While it is clear that monetary incentives were a leading solution agreed upon by the panel, the question of accountability and responsibility also stood strong among the participants. Or’s Longdon said it was important to stray away from the concept of “blame”, which often only leads to defensiveness, and move towards the question of “who is my product accountable for once it reaches end of life?” She added that time constraints are a barrier in getting more consumers onboard and informed, stating that: “Rather than persuading [consumers] on arguments, one of the biggest things I tell people is to think about investing in quality rather than quantity.”
She elaborated later that producing quality for all was a key element when bringing together stakeholders and representatives, and that environmental and social aspects were very much linked, as evidenced in the rising clothing poverty in the UK, where people are struggling to afford access to adequate clothing. A similar mindset came from Ganni’s Reffstrup, who also moved accountability further away from the hands of consumers. The designer said that brands shouldn’t expect these individuals to have in-depth knowledge on impact or certifications. When asked the core question of the panel, the designer brought solutions down to both technology and people.
Satrio also shared such sentiments, concluding: “It’s about the human. The ‘human’ is very important because we carry a lot of labour intensive industry. Even though we take care of the climate as well, the most important thing is the people. The people have to be resilient. Then they can adapt along the way and become part of the community together, with the rest of the global team.”