Released in The Interline’s first Sustainability Report, this executive interview is one of a ten-part series that sees The Interline quiz executives from major companies on what the term ‘sustainability’ really means, as well as the integral role they play in supporting brands and retailers in their sustainability strategies.

For more on sustainability in fashion, download the full Sustainability Report 2023 completely free of charge and ungated.

Key Takeaways:

  • A disconnect persists between brands’ and retailers’ sustainability expectations and the ability of suppliers to deliver the required data – making multi-tier engagement and collaboration essential to achieving industry objectives.
  • The key to that collaboration could lie in the kind of dynamic, real-time data collection, consolidation, analysis, and communication provided by solutions like TradeBeyond.
  • No company, no matter how committed, can solve today’s mounting sustainability challenges entirely on its own. Leveraging outside partnerships will be key to any successful sustainability strategy.
Do you believe “sustainability” is still a useful term for defining the complex road that fashion needs to travel? What does that word mean to you, and how does your definition manifest itself in your company’s approach to designing solutions for fashion’s most urgent challenge? 

In years past, fashion has used the term “sustainability” too narrowly, but over time the word has grown to become more all-encompassing. For us, sustainability is a multifaceted priority that encapsulates environmental stewardship, ethical labor practices, and transparent supply chains. We consider it a long-term investment that pays dividends in the form of a more durable supply chain, greater consumer trust, and ensured regulatory compliance. 

At TradeBeyond, we see sustainability as one of the most critical challenges that apparel and footwear companies will face for the foreseeable future. With its broad scope, our modular platform ingrains sustainability into every part of the fashion supply chain, from product design, to sourcing and supplier management. It introduces data-driven transparency and establishes quality checkpoints at multiple stages, including vetting suppliers for social and environmental sustainability, going beyond merely meeting regulatory requirements. And impact measurement tools in our PLM allow designers to quickly compare the environmental impact of the materials they choose. We designed TradeBeyond to help fashion brands holistically approach sustainability because we believe that the complexities of sustainable business can be managed effectively and efficiently only when viewed as an integrated whole. 

With the speed that the regulatory environment is changing, and the shifting attitudes of consumers, how prepared is the fashion value chain to cope? What are the biggest barriers that brands and retailers face? And how ready is the global supplier base to deliver on the levels of disclosure and data sharing that new standards of environmental and social responsibility are going to require? 

The fashion industry is grappling with a rapidly changing landscape where regulations are tightening and consumer preferences for sustainable and ethical practices are rapidly hardening. The biggest barriers brands face include outdated supply chain systems still reliant on manual processes, lack of transparency, and the sheer complexity of implementing sustainable practices across a global network of suppliers. On the supplier side, there’s tremendous work to be done. Multiple studies have shown that suppliers lag behind retailers’ growing sustainability expectations. Achieving true sustainability requires actively engaging with a company’s entire supplier base, down to the Nth tier, so all parties are committed to the same priorities. 

This is where TradeBeyond provides invaluable support by equipping brands with real-time data, advanced traceability, and vendor management tools. Our platform acts as a liaison between brands and suppliers, ensuring both parties are aligned with the latest environmental and social responsibility standards. We believe that such up-to-the-minute, transparent data is not a luxury but a necessity for implementing sustainability initiatives successfully and tracking progress toward shared goals. 

It’s tempting to think about sustainability as a defined problem with a defined solution. The reality is that change needs to happen across the value chain, and that everything from design to sourcing to shipping will need to be challenged to contribute data that must be aggregated and analyzed to build a full picture. Does this make a case for consolidating different, disconnected software solutions as a fundamental part of a sustainability strategy? 

Absolutely. A fragmented approach to sustainability hinders businesses from seeing the larger picture. Relying on multiple, disconnected software solutions often creates silos of information that can lead to inconsistencies and, ultimately, flawed decision-making. A full understanding is critical to solving sustainability challenges. TradeBeyond offers an all-in-one platform that gathers, aggregates, and analyzes data from every point in the supply chain, making it possible to implement sustainable practices at every stage, from product development to production to shipping. With our multi-enterprise platform, companies can monitor everything from the carbon footprint of their suppliers to the material-level impact of a product, all within the same system. We believe that a comprehensive software solution is the cornerstone for any serious sustainability strategy.  

For example, some of our most current innovations include the addition of environmental impact action management tools, rendering scope 3 carbon reduction targets attainable. Within retailers’ current workflows, TradeBeyond facilitates dynamic and real-time communications through which emissions data from factories is collected, consolidated, and analyzed.  Corrective action plans are developed, aimed at putting the factory and the brand on track to progress against published targets. Smart alerting and AI triggers keep all informed automatically when suppliers fall behind the agreed goals and corrective actions that were previously enacted. As the single, centralized repository for both data and progress against critical action plans, while also acting as the communication and collaboration platform for information exchange, TradeBeyond is dramatically reducing the work involved in managing and monitoring sustainability initiatives. 

There are arguments to be made that the social and environmental sides of sustainability are inseparable, given how closely intertwined climate change and the stability of the supply chain are, but do you see them as separate challenges or as two parts of the same whole? And how does that dictate the way you think about TradeBeyond as a platform for helping fashion businesses to achieve their sustainability goals? 

We view the social and environmental aspects of sustainability as intricately linked elements of a cohesive whole, especially for an industry with such a vast footprint as fashion. Climate change has direct implications on labor conditions, while poor social practices are often correlated with environmental abuses. TradeBeyond’s platform is built with these interdependencies in mind. We offer features that monitor both social and environmental metrics concurrently, building these safeguards into companies’ existing workflows. Our platform, for instance, can prevent merchandisers from sourcing from factories with expired certifications, or logistics teams from shipping orders with incomplete chain of custody information in countries where such documentation is required.  

By offering a unified solution, we make it easier for brands to tackle these interconnected challenges systematically. We believe that tackling both these elements in tandem is the only way to efficiently achieve true sustainability, but that holistic approach is only possible with a multi-enterprise platform, since other solutions are far too narrow. A traditional PLM is too limited in its scope to address all supply chain processes – only a platform like TradeBeyond can build sustainability into every department’s workflows. 

There are a lot of technology and service companies, right now, working to own a piece of the overall sustainability picture. But the scale of the challenge, and the depth of the collective action needed to really move the needle, are both beyond the ability of any single company to deliver. What’s your approach to interoperability and integration? And why do you believe it’s in the industry’s best interests? 

No company, no matter how committed, can solve today’s mounting sustainability challenges entirely on its own. Leveraging outside partnerships is key to any sustainability strategy. That’s why our platform is engineered to support partnerships with key leaders in multiple fields of sustainability. By integrating with a broad scope of NGOs and sustainability partners like amfori, Worldly, WRAP, and RESET Carbon, we make responsible sourcing exponentially more efficient and cost-effective.  

I’m glad you asked about interoperability, too, because we’re proud to offer the most interoperable platform on the market. Siloed systems, by their very nature, create not only inefficiencies and redundancies but also barriers. Data gets trapped, insights remain undiscovered, and opportunities for sustainable optimization are lost. This built-in interoperability ensures that you maintain an efficient supply chain – without it, additional costs can creep in and inefficiencies can slow time to market and drag at profit margins. When investing in digitalization, it’s crucial that fashion retailers adopt the most seamlessly compatible systems possible. 

For a lot of fashion businesses, compliance with regional regulations is the priority target, but long-term sustainability is about individual and collective action to rapidly improve fashion’s environmental and ethical credentials. What do you think the future looks like at that whole-industry level? And what does that mean for your roadmap and your customers? 

Compliance is undoubtedly a driving force spurring companies to take action, but the end goal is an industry that takes its own initiative to secure a sustainable future. We foresee an industry increasingly defined by collective actions that focus on true, long-term sustainability rather than mere regulatory compliance. Take, for example, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), the non-profit dedicated to promoting ethical manufacturing. WRAP works directly with manufacturers and suppliers, setting rigorous standards for labor practices and overall factory safety. By doing so, it provides retailers with a reliable benchmark for assessing their supply chain’s sustainability. Organizations like this are helping to shape an industry that is proactive about its responsibilities, rather than merely reactive to regulatory pressures.

TradeBeyond recognizes the value of such initiatives, and we continually update our platform to align with these evolving industry standards. Remember, when it comes to sustainability, the bar is always rising. For an apparel brand, meeting consumers’ expectations in the future could mean pivoting to organic, non-deforested cotton while ensuring closed-loop water systems in production, reducing overall water wastage. Today’s best practices will be inadequate five years from now, and every new sustainability concern brings with it a gamut of regulations, which add further complexity to an already intricate supply chain landscape. Brands are grappling with not only implementing new processes to address these concerns but integrating them seamlessly into their operations to maintain a competitive edge. This dynamic reinforces the criticality of digitalization. By adopting a platform like TradeBeyond, brands can ensure they continue to remain ahead of global regulations and consumers’ expectations.