Steve Jesseph, president and CEO of WRAP, is challenging the apparel and textile industry to take a long, hard look at its future

Steve Jesseph, president and CEO of WRAP, is challenging the apparel and textile industry to take a long, hard look at its future

In the ten years that Steve Jesseph has been involved with certification group WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production), massive steps have been taken to improve working conditions at factories around the world. But he is now on a mission to draw attention to the next set of challenges that face the apparel industry - including the dwindling natural resources on which the sector depends.

"We've made huge progress on the compliance front, especially in export factories sending products to the US, Europe, Australia and Japan, but we still have a long way to go," is how Steve Jesseph, president and CEO, sums up the achievements made by WRAP over the past decade.

From an initial focus on apparel, WRAP's remit was expanded some three years ago to include all labour-intensive manufacturing. And today it claims to be the largest auditing and certification programme for the clothing and footwear sector, reassuring international brands and retailers that they are buying from socially and environmentally compliant factories.

With his unique perspective of the challenges that have confronted firms as they moved production out of the US and Europe, to Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, Jesseph is clearly not afraid of addressing some of the more difficult issues faced by apparel firms.

On the subject of audit fatigue, that in the past could have seen factories facing inspections from each and every one of their customers, he believes WRAP's single code of conduct has helped consolidate the compliance needs of retailers and brands although, "there will always be one or two who want to add some peculiar pieces to their own code and will continue with their own audits."

And while violations do still occur, Jesseph believes reported breaches should be kept in perspective. Not only does today's smartphone technology makes it far easier to reveal abuses, but: "Are they serious violations where dozens of children work in a factory, or are they health and safety violations?" he asks. 

"Are we where we want to be? No. But I think we're making good progress, especially for the larger institutional brands."

Building a sustainability pyramid
"If I look at building a sustainability pyramid, respect for local law becomes the base of that pyramid, then compliance with labour regulations and environmental regulations, then we move up the ladder towards the environmental and planetary non-renewable resources piece."

And it is here, near the top of the pyramid, that his biggest worries now lie.

"In the near term I think industry in general, and the apparel industry in particular, because of its size on a global basis, needs to look at how it's going to continue to produce apparel at a level that supports what consumers are looking for, and at the same time drive the apparel industry engine when we've got diminishing resources."

Tip of the iceberg
The escalating price of cotton over the last year was just the tip of the iceberg, Jesseph believes, driven by a combination of export bans and natural disasters hitting availability when demand is on the rise from the global garment industry. At the same time, land use has shifted from growing cotton to more lucrative food crops like wheat.

And herein is a major concern for the future. "We've got 6.8bn people on the planet and we're going to peak somewhere between 10-11bn people" by 2050.

"We're not making any more land to grow food, so from a human needs standpoint of food, clothing and shelter, how are we going to provide those basic needs for 50% more people on the planet than we have today?

"At the same time we're not making any more oil, coal, natural gas, iron ore or copper ore. Everybody says we'll build electric cars and use lithium batteries, but there's only so much lithium on the planet, and depending on how many electric cars we start building we can use 1-3% of that lithium per year. So if we're using 3% of the lithium per year, that's 33 years and the world's supply has gone."

As these non-renewable resources run out, the power will likely be electricity from solar, wind, hydroelectric and wave generators - and in limited availability. Water will be a vital strategic resource. And transportation systems that depend on fossil fuel to move raw materials and finished products will be radically different from today. Synthetic (oil-derived) fabrics are also set to decline dramatically or disappear.  

"My concern is what are we doing for future generations? What kind of legacy are we going to leave behind by using many of the non-renewable resources we have today?"

Key questions
Faced with a drastic but inevitable change in the laws of economics, supply and demand, Jesseph is challenging the apparel and textile industry to take a long, hard look at its business now if it wants to have a viable future.

Firms should be asking how they can reduce water and energy usage at a facility level - and increase on-site production of renewable energy; move towards renewable dyes, chemicals and materials; and seek out long-term energy, raw material and transportation supplies.

Also, they should be looking at what steps can be taken to reduce the amount of energy needed to clean garments, currently estimated at 80% of the lifetime energy use for most cotton underwear T-shirts. And whether production can be moved closer to the end customer or consumers to reduce the amount of energy required to move raw materials and finished products from a manufacturing source to the end user.

"If oil hits $300-400 a barrel, how can we justify transporting raw materials in component parts all around the planet to produce a T-shirt being sold at GPB1.20 by a UK retailer? You can't," is Jesseph's response.

"One of the challenges we're going to face - and this is where I believe the unstoppable force meets the immovable object - is that we are simply not going to be able to sustain the apparel and fashion industry and concurrent sales at the retail level as we have in the past, because some of these challenges are far more formidable than anyone can overcome.

"Leaders by their very nature need to take a leadership position, looking at challenging issues and seeking solutions. And unless we start recognising these issues, we are otherwise burying our heads in the sand and denying the reality of our futures.

"If we don't start having these conversations today, we are going to be woefully unprepared when some of these issues come into play.

"The first thing is to be aware that we have these challenges, and the second is to do something about them. If not you, who? And if not now, when? Because tomorrow may be too late."