This article was originally published in The Interline’s first Sustainability Report, which was published shortly before the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s annual meeting in Boston. To read other opinion pieces, exclusive editorials, and detailed profiles and interviews with key vendors, download the full Sustainability Report 2023 completely free of charge and ungated.

Key Takeaways:

  • To face the challenges of climate change, brands, retailers, manufacturers, and other industry players must collaborate and align on a path forward – from individual to collective action.
  • Social progress and environmental sustainability must go hand-in-hand, with labour rights, living wages, and safe working conditions having the same importance as reducing waste and decarbonisation.
  • Despite the best efforts of industry bodies and forward-thinking brands, there is a need for clear and consistent policymaking to move the fashion industry forward – with legislation being used to create incentives towards industry-wide action.

In fashion’s supply chains, we measure a lot. From water and chemicals to greenhouse gas emissions, the levers we pull to increase and decrease measurable variables have profound effects on the communities and environments where we live and work. In these volatile and complicated times, every sign of progress in our industry matters.

And while I’m encouraged by early hallmarks of bigger changes to come, it’s not enough. The financial sector is increasingly engaged around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics, but these efforts are also being challenged, halting progress on work that is increasingly seen as critical to business success. 

Policy, too, is finally catching up, but patchwork, regionalized legislation risks diverting efforts and resources towards meeting divergent standards instead of pulling the industry in a unified direction at the pace it needs to move.

Yes, there is a greater awareness of the need for a transition towards an industry rebuilt with environment and ethics at its core, but we aren’t aligned on how we get there – together.

Which brings me to the most critical point.

Deep collaboration for change needs to happen – now, and at scale

When it comes to decarbonization, the time for pilots and small projects is over. We have less than seven years until 2030, which is the date by which we need to deliver a 45% absolute reduction in order to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. 

This is not an arbitrary target, but a necessity to help blunt the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Progress must happen urgently, and we need to be even more intentional about our actions.

And even though the environmental threat is acute, we also know that true sustainability encompasses both environmental and social progress. Planet and people are fundamentally intertwined. Against that backdrop, companies and supply chains must implement employment practices that prioritize labor rights, fair wages, and safe working conditions to build a just transition to shared prosperity – one that happens alongside deep decarbonization and a radical reduction in waste.

All of this requires one core element: collaboration.

Through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Collective Action Programs, we’ve witnessed the power of that kind of collaboration, as our members work together across value chains to build innovative solutions that address these critical, urgent challenges.

But we need to do more. 

Our industry needs to work together more intentionally on a partnership-based approach. This means brands, retailers, manufacturers, and other stakeholders all coming together to align on a path forward and collaborating to achieve the highest possible level of positive impacts – results that they simply cannot achieve on their own.

Change demands the right tools and programs

At the SAC, we’re helping to facilitate  these shifts by updating our Higg Index suite – which are tools that the industry uses to measure and improve supply chain sustainability, helping them transform their businesses for exponential impact. 

Sustainable Apparel Coalition: Planet Textiles 2023.

The next step is to evolve tools like ours into programs. Last year, we began that process by launching the Decarbonization Program to help companies set science-based targets and reduce their climate impacts. And now I can proudly report that half of our members have taken this critical action — the first step to decarbonization. 

To put this in perspective: The SAC represents half of the entire footwear and apparel value chain, by revenue. So this is great news, but we need all SAC members, as well as companies that are not members, to step up as well. This is not a matter of individual brand protection, but of collective, universal action on an accelerated calendar, encompassing everyone who contributes to the fashion value chain.

Brands and retailers, for example,  will not achieve their goals unless they work with their supply chain partners to co-create solutions and incentives that future-proof their businesses – and we know that finance is critical to success. 

That’s why I’m inspired by new collaborations between philanthropy and corporate entities as demonstrated by the Fashion Climate Fund, which could unlock a projected $2 billion in funding. The fund was launched last year by the Apparel Impact Institute (AII), where the SAC is a founding partner, and I’m excited to see its impact on the industry.

But even this is  still not enough.

Legislation is a carrot – not a stick

The systemic changes that we need will only happen when every part of the system is engaged – and for that, we need policy. As a global convenor, the SAC is actively involved in advocating for harmonized regulation and consistent approaches, such as the European Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF). 

Other bodies and legislatures are making their own progress along similar tracks. Just as brands and their partners must work together, clear and consistent policy is the necessary lever to move our industry forward. Regulations are a necessary step, but they run the risk of paralyzing instead of galvanizing if they aren’t  harmonized. 

Thirteen years ago, when we created the SAC, we all thought that legislation was imminent. But it didn’t happen that fast – and maybe, because of that, our industry didn’t move fast enough. Now, we can’t afford to waste any more time. 

This isn’t just because of legislation. It’s bigger than that. After a summer that was the hottest on record, when temperatures in Death Valley reached 128 degrees fahrenheit (53 degrees celsius), 60,000 people died from heat exposure in Europe, and deadly heat waves impacted 90% of the population in India, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that climate change is accelerating. And no one can escape it. 

Our industry must change the ways we do business – we must evolve. It will be difficult and at times painful. It  may feel like moving mountains, but we need to do it urgently.  Rapid action is more necessary than it was thirteen years ago — honestly, it’s more critical than it’s been at any point  in history. 

Our collective success depends on the power of collaboration. Incentives like legislation will provide the frameworks and fuel for that collaboration, but there will be no substitute for every stakeholder working together.

Partnership is the new leadership

And we know what that collaboration will look like, because this is a journey that’s already underway. 

When we first started building the SAC, all stakeholders agreed that developing tools and frameworks had to be done on a consensus basis. We didn’t always agree and disagreements were absolutely expected. But to hold up progress or passage of tool development, a concern could only be raised to the group if it reflected a “principled or paramount objection” for a member — a concrete statement that they fundamentally could not get behind something.

In those scenarios, a member  had to explain why they couldn’t agree. They had to explain why their company couldn’t agree. And they had to explain why it wasn’t in the industry’s best interest to proceed. It was the red card of negotiations — and it wasn’t to be used lightly. 

I only remember a company using this once. And I believe that’s the mindset the fashion industry needs right now: an openness and a commitment to change that only stops in the most exceptional circumstances. The world demands nothing less.

Yes, there were meetings where people yelled at each other – that happened. And it will continue to happen in the boardrooms of the people reading this report, or in communication with their supply chain partners. 

Sustainable Apparel Coalition Annual Meeting 2022, Amina Razvi Opening Address.

In pursuit of real action, there will  sometimes be fundamental disagreements about an issue or how something should be done. Friction is unavoidable when we’re talking about transformation at this scale and this speed. But our experience of convening stakeholders from across the value chain has shown us that working together to resolve differences and making compromises that everyone can live with will  move the work and the industry forward. 

We all must become partners. Because that’s what you do when you are committed to a bigger mission and a greater good. And there is no greater good right now than industry-wide environmental and social action.

We realized that things aren’t always going to be perfect, but a core value for the SAC is one that I believe fashion as a whole must now adopt: “progress over perfection.” 

We agree to move forward, and to improve as we evolve. We agree that a step in the right direction is better than no step at all. And, over time, one step follows another. 

This type of partnership and this mindset is essential to progress. Everyone reading this report   will play a significant role in delivering the kind of radical transformation that  is critical to build a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient future.