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Is Sustainability the new buzz word for Efficiency?

by Jackie Lewis

by Jackie Lewis

Course Development Director, MOTIF

Am I a cynic but what’s the big deal, why are we struggling to understand how to mobilise change in the sustainability arena? What’s so difficult to understand about minimizing waste and maximizing resources for the better of the industry and the people employed in it? Haven’t we all been working towards this goal for years? Sustainability has become the new buzzword on everybody’s lips; evoking passion and confusion, while we struggle to understand the role we’re playing in the bigger picture and what to do next. Isn’t sustainability just an acronym for good business practice and efficiency?

With so much noise around the topic, sensationalized press reports and statistics aimed at grabbing attention and gathering support, my fear is we become overwhelmed with the challenge. Let’s face it, even the most informed audience and seasoned professionals are struggling to understand what is true, and what they should do in response. I put myself in this camp, as an industry insider, having worked in manufacturing, retail and as a consultant, but at the end of the day I’m also a consumer of fashion, with expectations and needs. Let’s remember the importance of the consumer as our reason to exist, after all supply and demand are the most fundamental concepts of economics. The only caveat to this point is our mutual responsibility to contain over consumption which has a direct correlation with waste and price deflation!

How can the fashion industry be really sustainable?

My personal connection with sustainability is based in a deep understanding and love of the industry and a belief that we have a responsibility to future proof it for the generations to come. So, let’s strip it back and ask ourselves what we can do and how we make sense of sustainability.

Firstly, from the onset of time Clothing has been a basic need for human beings, defined by Maslow as “a physical requirement for survival,” intrinsic to the pursuit of safety, belongingness, esteem and self-actualisation. The fashion industry evokes creativity, passion, empowers confidence and employs more than 75 million people worldwide. The scale of the industry is such that it plays a significant role in shaping the world’s economic and social landscape. In my humble opinion our number one duty of care is PEOPLE; sustaining business through profit, protecting employment and creating environments that nurture human enrichment. That’s the initial step in creating a sustainable business model.

Then there is the issue of the PLANET, how to minimise our impact on the world we live in – can we do better? The answer to this is simply ‘Yes’. It’s a well reported fact that the Fashion industry is ranked as one of the most polluting industries in the world alongside mining, lead smelting and mineral extraction. The industry needs to step up and drive more efficient manufacturing processes and use of resources. Back to my original question ‘is Sustainability just the new buzz word for Efficiency?’. Maybe this concept is easier to understand and relate to in a business context?

Let’s explore factors that might drive a business to act, you might be surprised by the answer. According to the report commissioned by ING ‘From Sustainability to Business Value Finance’ (ING, 2018), the top three reasons for implementing sustainability targets in business today are driven by a desire to grow revenue (39%), reduce costs (35%) and/or protect their brand (30%), not a requirement to comply with regulations. Business now appreciate the importance of keeping pace with competitors on sustainability, as consumers begin to drive the agenda.

Bar chart presenting factors, by decreasing order of importance, driving companies to act on sustainability: revenue growth, cutting cost, brand reputation, keeping pace, regulation, cheaper financing, tax benefits, attracting employees.

Is Sustainability at variance with Efficiency?

Taking the first two factors, growing revenue and driving efficiency, made me reflect on my own personal experiences in the fashion industry, shaped by managing product development and technical teams in both retail and manufacturing for over 25 years. Constantly targeted with improving business process, driving efficiencies and reducing costs, at times I became disillusioned with my role as a business leader. Measuring success against targets such as sample hit rate, lead time, buying in margin and returns, in a drive to deliver sales, market share and profit margins, I found myself asking “Why?”. What was our purpose and were we really adding value to the industry and focusing on the people employed in it?

To demonstrate the point further, I’ll share some examples of business achievements and changes which I’ve experienced along the way:

1. Digitisation of the colour approval process. In the early 1990s by moving away from physical samples, reduced physical lab dips by 80% and associated costs by 60%. This allowed the business to react quicker in season to trends and be more competitive.

2. Merged two large UK home shopping businesses in the mid-to-late 1990s and aligned product development and approval processes, including migration of the pre-production sealing process to our off-shore team. Reduced operating costs by 30%, while managing 40% more options, again delivering more choice to the consumer at pace.

3. Implemented clear Good, Better, Best standards for product engineering with a leading EU value retailer, which improved buying-in margin while maintaining quality (driving a £2.5m saving on top-selling styles).

4. Delivered the prestigious Alvanon ‘Fit certification’ in September 2015, the first EU value retailer to achieve this award. Implemented fit strategies, standards and processes to improve product consistency, reduced sampling and improve customer experience. We took this all the way to the customer, leading to better size communication online. All these cumulated actions resulted in increased online sales, reduced returns and a more efficient product development process.

All of these are typical achievements you would expect from a business leader delivering efficiency, supported by Lean processes and Six Sigma methodology. I then asked myself what was missing, when the root cause was clear, the approach was customer-centric, and our results exceeded expectations. What drove me to ask “Why?”. The answer for me was the definition of these achievements, badged as ‘efficient’. Do we want to be remembered as overachieving on efficiency or something greater?

Troubled by this dichotomy, I realised that, sustainability and efficiency are so closely linked, perhaps they are the same?

From that fresh angle, my 30-year journey might have been defined very differently: rather than describing myself as a ‘commercially-focused technical professional’ I could claim to be both a commercially-focused technical professional and a true sustainability advocate, who has made a difference to people and the environment whilst delivering efficiency and profit.

In considering whether sustainability and efficiency are one in the same, and accepting businesses are more accustomed to defining success measured by a set of financial roadmaps and KPI’s (sales, market share and profit), maybe the solution is to simply give corporate social responsibility more meaning and focus in today’s market by using financial revenue growth and efficiency as the hook.

Conclusion

The re-positioning of sustainability as just good business practice might feel like a humble attempt at philanthropy, lacking in values or principles. When has it become a bad thing to make a profit though, and why can’t profit co-exist alongside sustainable business strategies? These elements will be essential for anyone looking to future-proof their business. It now means investing in your people, future talent, environmental impact, and long-term business priorities. In this new age of corporate governance, issues like people & training, transparency, privacy, community engagement and process efficiency are becoming second nature in daily business discussions. New stakes are emerging around what it means to be a sustainable company and what components need to come together to make apparel both competitive and sustainable.

This personal insight, maybe an alternative view but is predicated in the fact that we must engage industry leaders in order to drive real change and talk to them in a language they understand, setting realistic goals that drive progress for PEOPLE and the PLANET. After all, it’s not rocket science, all we need to do is ask ourselves “what is the most efficient way to do this?”

On my next post, we will look at the broader impact of sustainable business strategies, the pillars for success and review how knowledge, education and perseverance will help us to make informed choices, driving a step change and future proofing the fashion industry. Until then I encourage you to look back on your own business achievements and objectives through new lenses and with a rejuvenated sense of purpose.

 

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