Reflections on the United Nations DPI/NGO Sustainable Fashion Briefing

I woke up on the morning of the UN DPI/NGO sustainable fashion briefing to this Business of Fashion article, 4 Anxieties Keeping Fashion CEOs Awake at Night. After reading through Tim Noaks’ four anxieties, which include the outdated business model, the rise of AI, human resources, and environmental sustainability, I thought to myself, but isn’t this all just a symptom of the outdated business model? This could easily be condensed into one overarching issue of an industry stuck in the past, with subheadings for technology, fair and safe workplaces, and sustainability.

Improving these standards and embracing a people-planet-profit triple bottom line seems to be the answer for the 4 anxieties, and I was excited to go to the United Nations to hear more about how we are working towards this as an industry. As I got ready to leave for the briefing, Marie-Claire Daveu’s words from the article stuck in my mind, “We cannot advance alone.”

The UN DPI/NGO Sustainable Fashion briefing has been buzzing around online between thought leaders and influencers in the fashion industry. With the weight of the UN behind it, the event garnered a lot of attention and (at least for me personally) high expectations for solutions and steps forward for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The panel comprised of leading actors in various arenas of the sustainable fashion industry, from transparency within artisan cooperatives, private public partnerships and socially conscious fashion brands, to nonprofits saving the world’s endangered forests. Patrick Duffy, the founder of the Global Fashion Exchange, served as the moderator and panelists included, Shivam Punjya (Founder and CEO of behno), Andrea Reyes (Fair Trade Advocate, Educator, and Small Business Owner), Amanda Carr (Director of Strategic Initiatives at Canopy), Ashia Dearwester (Chief strategy & Partnerships Officer at Nest), and Lilian Liu (Manager of Partnerships & UN Relation at the United Nations Global Compact). 

After listening to the panelists and talking to students, business owners and advocates attending, I came away from the panel discussion with the following two conclusions: 1) Like Daveu stated in the BoF article, collaboration is how we’ll move forward in sustainable fashion, and 2) we have an information problem. Consumers are either unaware of how their clothes are made, or even if they are, they are overwhelmed about the idea of shopping sustainably.

Collaboration for Sustainability

All panelists highlighted collaboration as a way to accomplish the UN SDGs using fashion as a vehicle for change. From bringing together communities and working with garment workers to improve labor standards to leveraging corporate power for change. 

Specifically, three panelists struck a chord for me on the impact of working with profit driven companies to drive social change. Amanda Carr from Canopy, Lillian Liu from the UN Global Compact and Ashia Dearwester from Nest all told stories of collaborating with major corporations from Patagonia to H&M in order to accomplish their organization’s missions.

Canopy has been particularly successful in working with big name brands to persuade them to change their policies and stop sourcing from endangered forests for their rayon and viscose fabrics. Starting in 2013 with no brands committed to eliminating endangered forests from their fabrics, Canopy has been able to garner the support of 105 brands in just 4 years to commit to the initiative. The UN Global Compact guides corporations on how to partner with the UN to accomplish specific SDGs. They have focused on eliminating competition between companies and creating a collaborative environment for corporations to solve the SDGs. Ashia Dearwester spoke of Nest collaborating with West Elm to create artisan made baskets in the Philippines, all while maintaining a transparent supply chain. 

The bottom line is to get rid of barriers for solving the increasing sustainability problem in fashion. Although it’s slow going, this mentality is catching on throughout the fashion industry from large luxury conglomerates like Kering to fast fashion brands like H&M and American companies like PVH and Gap Inc. As these policies are put in place and organizations like Canopy unite brands for sustainable causes, I’m interested to see how the impacts are measured and in company environmental, social and governance (ESG) tracking and corporate social responsibility reporting.

Breaking Through the Noise

Reaching consumers and building a movement is challenging when people are over stimulated by smartphones and so far removed from the problem. They don’t see the on average 20 hands their clothes pass through to get to them and therefore don’t think about these people when they’re buying a $5 t-shirt. (This Fashion Revolution video is a great example of this) Or from an environmental perspective, there’s the fact that a t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to produce, enough water for one person to drink for 900 days. Another factor that is not a part of the average consumer’s buying decisions. 

On top of that, there are a vast array of causes to get behind in the realm of “sustainability” and it can feel daunting the throw your weight behind the whole cause. The UN Global Compact has taken on this challenge as the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative and has identified 17 SDGs. But even with these defined areas and the trendiness of sustainability, people still don’t understand the scope of the problem and how they can be agents of change on a personal level. 

I was surprised that at an event like this, where people are aware of sustainable fashion issues, the audience was shocked to realize that production of fabrics like rayon and viscose are made of wood pulp and are leading to deforestation of endangered forests. It also made me wonder how many issues like this are swept under the rug because people are not looking? 

I didn’t come away with a strong sense of how to fix this issue, and it’s something I’ve struggled with since starting on my conscious fashion journey. You want to have everyone care about sustainability, but it tends to move in increments with topics that are trending. Right now there is the viral videos about plastic micro fibers being washed into our water streams as the result of washing our polyester athleasure wear, but there are so many issues that deserve their own viral videos. 

I’m hopeful that every step helps, building a movement is by nature a slow build. We’re at a tipping point of making sustainable fashion top of mind for consumers as they walk into their favorite store, and maybe they’ll start moving to clothing swap memberships instead or deciding that they don’t need anymore clothes. 

The panel discussion was concluded with a fashion showcase of sustainable designs, which were a beautiful reminder of what is possible and a welcome departure from discussing the complex issues of low-income populations having access to sustainable fashion, deforestation in the amazon, and subcontracting issues in garment manufacturing. I look forward to strengthening this community in future events and allowing space for the teamwork that was championed during the panel.

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