Fashion Faces Forward
Uncategorized | Sep 10, 2020 | Gabelli School of Business
By Claire Curry
Imagine your wardrobe featuring the latest designer styles, crafted from organic cotton and colored with natural, chemical-free dyes. Accessorize with Reishi mushroom leather handbags and shoes stitched together in factories that honor fair and equitable labor practices, with companies behind them that help to raise communities out of poverty around the globe.
For a growing number of consumers, this is the perfect picture. It’s also a snapshot of the vision business leaders are aspiring to achieve as they work to transform an industry notorious for its negative impact on the environment.
“Fashion is responsible for 20 percent of the industrial wastewater on the planet and about 10 percent of all carbon emissions,” said Cara Smyth, leader of Accenture’s Responsible Retail Sustainability practice, a Gabelli Fellow, and founder of the new Responsible Business Coalition at Fordham.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Toxic chemicals and dyes are flowing through the world’s waterways, and landfills are overflowing with discarded clothing. It’s the product of decades of gross overconsumption and “fast fashion,” trendy styles that mimic runway looks but are manufactured and sold at a fraction of the cost of the original, luxury-brand versions.
The apparel industry has earned a reputation for being one of the largest polluters in the world. In addition to its massive carbon footprint is the matter of social responsibility: Some companies have been cited for negligent labor practices like unfair wages, child labor, and poor factory working conditions.
But times are changing as business leaders look beyond profit and recognize their responsibility to protect people and planet.
“We’ve been talking about sustainability and climate change for years, starting with the U.N. Global Compact,” said Frank Zambrelli, executive director of Fordham’s Responsible Business Coalition and a sustainability consultant at Accenture. “Some of the greatest strides have come from business and we’re coming to an age where there’s an intersect between cultural awareness and the environmental, social, and governance actions of corporations.” Zambrelli added that, though it’s an oversimplification, if we could address the issues around raw materials, manufacturing, livelihoods, and waste, “we could largely fix fashion.”
It’s a $3 trillion industry that represents roughly 3 percent of the global GDP, employs 300 million workers, and provides products that are universally needed and consumed. Experts say that because of its breadth and transitional nature, fashion is hardwired to drive change across the global business landscape.
Leading by Example
PVH Corp., whose brands include household names like Calvin Klein, IZOD, and Tommy Hilfiger, is one forward-facing organization that has been a game changer in the corporate responsibility arena. In fact, the company’s formal purpose statement is: “We power brands that drive fashion forward— for good.”
According to Chairman and CEO Emanuel “Manny” Chirico, BS ’79, the company’s “Forward Fashion” strategy, which is built on the company’s longstanding commitment to corporate responsibility, targets three main goals: reducing the company’s negative impacts to zero; increasing its positive impacts to 100 percent; and improving more than one million lives across the PVH value chain.
“Just like we have clear financial targets that we talk to our shareholders and investors about—what we see for the next three to five years, how we can grow, what kind of cash-flow targets we have—we felt it was equally as important to formalize our Forward Fashion strategy and put targets and ambitions out there and be very transparent about it,” he said. “We set clear, measurable targets that we can hold ourselves accountable for.”
A key concern is agriculture, and more specifically cotton, an apparel staple that is also an extremely water-intensive crop. To put it in perspective, growing enough cotton to make one T-shirt takes 713 gallons of water or the equivalent of what one person drinks over two-and-a-half years.
“That has been a focus for us, trying to develop processes that use less water and when it is used and reused, that it is cleaned and filtered and put back into the system,” Chirico said.
In addition to rethinking raw materials, the industry as a whole has had to take a hard look at labor. “One of the lessons we’ve all learned and what we’ve tried to do as we go into new frontiers is to start with the end in mind,” he explained. “To work with local governments and talk about safety requirements and make sure that they are enforced, and to establish what the wage base needs to be, built off of an appropriate living wage [in that area].”
Strength in Numbers
Acknowledging that no one company is equipped to find solutions for all of the industry’s sustainability issues, Chirico emphasized the power of partnerships. For example, PVH works with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) for guidance on environmental issues. Other collaborations help to improve the quality of life in communities in which the company operates. A PVH partnership with Save the Children provides early childhood education and training to prepare young adults to enter the workforce in countries like China, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. Another with Christel House in Bangalore, India, assists families with a range of supports, including education, meals, healthcare, scholarships, and job placement.
Teaming with other fashion organizations is also essential to develop concrete, socially conscious solutions for problems that are specific to the industry, Chirico explained. PVH is one of 41 companies that participate in Fordham’s Future Fashion Coalition. A subgroup of the Responsible Business Coalition, it leverages the intellectual capital of industry CEOs and scholars to devise strategies to reform the apparel industry.
“Our vision is to build coalitions of CEOs in a number of business sectors around key sustainability issues, beginning with fashion,” said Donna Rapaccioli, Ph.D., dean of the Gabelli School. “The goal is to develop a purpose-driven, common agenda for collective action across these industries, and to infuse business education with the knowledge and solutions needed to develop the leaders of the future.”
It’s one thing to talk about science-based targets and the U.N. sustainable development goals, but businesses must also shape them into realistic practices, added Smyth. “How do we facilitate businesses that have international supply chains to make adjustments and changes to really transform? Getting that orchestra to play a new tune is a very exciting challenge.”