Environmental Concerns Create Necessity for Sustainable Practices in Apparel

An early-morning meeting hosted at the City Club in downtown Los Angeles challenged apparel-industry leaders to cease the sustainability lip service and begin making genuine changes in garment manufacturing. The event, named “Sustainability? Not everything ‘organic’ can be achieved with a broad brush. How does your business handle the issue?” was hosted by the California Fashion Association, led by the organization’s president, Ilse Metchek, and moderated by Wells Fargo Trade Capital Executive Vice President Kevin Sullivan. He reflected on a bygone era before commenting on the necessary shift clothing manufacturers must make to remain relevant.

“When the city of L.A. forced the dye houses to leave, they simply went to other countries where the byproducts just rolled down the street and my first thought was, ‘Well, it’s the same planet—how does that make sense?’” he said. “Sustainability is no longer an idea on the part of retailers who don’t practice what they preach. It’s become a mandate.”

Included on the panel were insiders who hailed from different areas of the apparel business. These leaders included Michael Smith, principal at the impact fund PonValley; Michael Kane, vice president of the Vernon, Calif., clothing company Karen Kane Inc.; Jeff Seabright, co-founder of Imagine, which helps companies shift toward greater sustainability; and Elena Kocherovsky, formerly of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, where she helped develop the Higg Index and is currently principal consultant at the Anthesis Group, which provides sustainable consultancy.

To increase its sustainable efforts, B-Corporation Certified Karen Kane Inc. has moved toward a process of holding accountable everyone from employees to supply-chain partners.

“The biggest objective is educating everyone within the company regarding what practices we can change to become more sustainable,” he said. “As part of our employee-review process, every year we sit down with everyone who is a purchaser to review how they are purchasing everything from paper to trim.”

While the panelists emphasized the need for immediate change within the apparel industry, they did note companies must take action with real solutions moving forward.

“There is business value to be derived from sustainability,” Kocherovsky explained. “The next five to 10 years are going to look very different. Don’t forget about market share and staying relevant. Investors are starting to ask questions regarding your environmental performance.”

Responding to a comment from the crowd regarding valuation of sustainable efforts in apparel manufacturing, Smith explained that businesses can start small. If companies entertain private-equity partners, Smith noted that those who aren’t working at an environmentally sound or ethical level will be left behind, yet small steps such as repurposing or selling dead-stock fabrics can make a big impression.

“Not only will you get crushed on valuation of where your business is today, but they’re going to consider all the choices you need to make to become a sustainable business,” he explained. “You need to do everything you can for immediate cost savings; when you show that you’re with the trends of the future, you have a much stronger story if you’re selling to private equity.”

While discussing the G7 Fashion Pact that was introduced over the summer by French President Emmanuel Macron and adopted by companies including Adidas, PVH, Kering, Nike, H&M, Burberry, Armani, Gap, Ferragamo and Stella McCartney, Seabright was optimistic.

“The issues are quite significant, and the amount of time we have to address them is rapidly diminishing. There were about 32 CEOs who became committed to [the pact] a few months ago. It’s up to approximately 60 today,” he said, noting that many were European companies. “In California, it feels very much like a European context because we have a progressive government that is focused on important social and environmental issues.”