Bangladesh pushes garment industry to "tipping point"
The recent garment factory tragedies in Bangladesh are pushing the industry towards a tipping point - as consumers call for increased sustainability and information about where their clothes come from, according to speakers at the recent Source Sustainability Summit.
The Rana Plaza building collapse in April "put the spotlight on sustainability," according to Tamsin Lejune, managing director and founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum - and those in the sustainable apparel sector need to "build on the outrage" to create positive steps for change.
In a rousing keynote at the London event, Baroness Lola Young, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, said that over the past three to four years, politicians have started to see the link between the fashion industry and some of their other concerns - like the environment, education, equality or social justice.
Speaking about the development of the high street in the UK, Young said: "It's becoming increasingly difficult to describe the high street as the democratisation of fashion when other people are being oppressed and losing their lives."
But she emphasised that any change will require a global approach. "It's very much about how we can collaborate around the world," otherwise different groups will end up duplicating their efforts and not getting as far.
"After Rana Plaza, there has been a change, there had to be a change, and it's up to all of us to keep the momentum," said Young.
Maher Anjum from the Bangladesh Brand Forum emphasised that Rana Plaza is "not a byword for what Bangladesh stands for". She highlighted what the apparel industry has brought to the country in terms of economic development, and emphasised that there are other positive initiatives taking place in the country's apparel sector.
"Some of the best work" on natural dyes comes from Bangladesh, and that there is innovative fibre use taking place, using bananas and pineapple - and companies must help to continue this innovation.
Intake margin vs Exit margin
Speaking more broadly about George at Asda's sustainability efforts, Paul Wright, head of quality and ethical teams at the clothing retailer, said the company is working to implement lean manufacturing in many of the 700 factories it buys from.
The programme not only helps to create certainty in the supply chain and higher quality products but, when this is commercialised, buyers see the benefits.
He noted that buyers aren't measured only on intake margin, but also on source and markdown.
This idea was echoed by Asos's ethical trade manager Alice Stevens, who said that focusing on intake margins is "not good enough" and that exit KPIs help to change the way buying teams make choices.
Part of this, she said, is to provide buyers with a better understanding of what their factories can do - for example suggesting that one factory is better but more expensive, which leads to fewer returns as the workers invest more in creating better quality products.
Currently, Asos has a section on its site called the 'Green Room' where clothing that has sustainable or social benefits is sold. Stevens said she wished it was not necessary to separate lines like this, and that in the future she would like everything the company sells to have sustainable qualities.
However, she emphasised that the "sustainable agenda has to sit within a commercial agenda."
Luxury and sustainability
Luxury brands are also becoming increasingly sustainable, with Lejuene describing how a third of brands showing at London Fashion Week last season had some kind of sustainable attributes in their offer.
Daliah Simble, head of production at Roland Mouret, said that 90% of the company's manufacturing is done in the EU, with 50-70% of its range being made in the UK.
While the manufacturing side of the business is "quite sustainable", the fabric side is less so. The company would like to source its fabric from UK mills, but has not been able to source fabrics with the stretch, quality and technology it needs to make the designer's signature highly-structured dresses.
She also highlighted the eroded skill base in the UK, and the loss of production management from university degrees in the country, adding that there are now "very few production specialists able to broker good relationships".
Meanwhile, Michael Beutler, director of sustainability operations at French luxury group Kering, discussed its efforts to develop Environmental Profit and Loss Accounts across the group's stable of brands.
He described the EP&L as "core" to what the business does and allows it to better understand where things come from and how they are made. By placing a monetary value on their environmental impact, It helps frame environmental impacts in a business context.
He said the programme gives the company a "360 degree view" and is a good tool to "help guide our strategy".
This approach has also offered new insights beyond the original PUMA EP&L, with Beutler saying that the company found aspects of its footprint that it hadn't thought about before - like hardware on bags and footwear.
"It gives us a new lens" to look at sustainability and our business, he said.
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