Leslie Johnston, executive director of C&A Foundation

Leslie Johnston, executive director of C&A Foundation

Driven by concerns the fashion industry isn't working to improve the lives of the 150 million people who make our clothes, the C&A Foundation is tasked with the single goal of making it a force for good. Here executive director Leslie Johnston tells just-style how the corporate foundation affiliated with global fashion retailer C&A is trying to be the catalyst that transforms the sector to be both sustainable and responsible.

From Brazil to Bangladesh, C&A Foundation is aiming to spark change in areas that remain a challenge for the fashion industry. This includes speeding the uptake of sustainable cotton, eradicating forced and child labour, improving working conditions, fostering a transition to a circular economy, and building resilience in vulnerable communities.

And it has achieved much in its short three-year history, including financial support, expertise and networks to help its partners make a difference.

Helped by a 46% hike in funding from C&A in 2016 to EUR55.5m (US$42.3m), in the last year alone it funded 26 new initiatives; helped 75,000 cotton farmers and workers through its cotton, working conditions and forced labour programmes; and supported the transition of over 25,000 farmers from conventional to organic cotton, while engaging the Indian government and universities – as well as brands and retailers – to accelerate the organic cotton market.

The list goes on. It has helped 10,379 survivors of forced and child labour build their vocational skills and secure dignified jobs; and supported 5,315 garment workers to benefit from improved working conditions and wages through programmes that change ingrained behaviours of the apparel industry.

The Foundation has also collaborated with a growing number of global organisations over the last three years including Cotton Connect, Save the Children, The Freedom Fund, Canopy, and Cotton Made in Africa.

"The challenges we all face are so vast that we simply can't work in isolation"

"The challenges we all face are so vast that we simply can't work in isolation. But together, we are greater than the sum of our parts," Johnston says.

To this end one of the most important roles of the Foundation is to try to enable a shift in mindsets across the entire apparel sector and empower a collaborative approach that transcends corporate constraints.

A call to re-think fashion industry

One of its most recent and high profile initiatives has been to co-create 'Fashion for Good', which unites innovators, brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations and funders to find more innovative and sustainable ways of producing fashion.

The motivation for the move, Johnston says, is because not enough is being done at a high level.

"The essence of Fashion for Good is that it's positioned to be a brand initiative; it's open, it's inclusive and we're asking brands to join us so they can be part of the solution. The core of it isn't necessarily coming up with the best idea to change the industry; the core is taking some of the innovation that already exists and helping to scale it up and embed it in the supply chain.

"There's a lot of great innovation out there, but the challenge is how do you get that to embed in the 1920s era spinning mill in producing companies? Brands aren't really set up to do that."

C&A Foundation leads calls to re-think fashion industry

The initiative fits well into the C&A Foundation's drive to change mindsets and encourage businesses think differently about sustainability and ethics.

There is a public facing element, too, called The Launchpad Experience, based across two floors in its historic building in the heart of Amsterdam where the public can learn more about how their clothes are made, and raise awareness around what they can do to help.

The biggest challenge, however, is down to cost.

"Sometimes there is a cost to changing the way your dyehouse or your manufacturer works"

"Sometimes there is a cost to changing the way your dyehouse or your manufacturer works," Johnston explains. "One of the things we want to do with Fashion for Good is not only support those innovations we think can change the way clothes are manufactured, but support some of the enabling environmental factors that can get those embedded in the system."

Johnston points to the technology around waterless dyeing, which she says has not taken off at scale. The Fashion for Good Acceleration Fund will address this by helping local lenders provide finance to allow new innovations and sustainable production methods to really take off.

"I don't think it's necessarily a lack of want, it's just behaviour change."

Johnston readily admits the C&A Foundation's ambitions are big...but she also concedes it is not a task for one organisation alone.

"Our mission statements are big and bold and we're working hard to achieve those. But this isn't possible unless the industry buys it. Everything we do should be shared with the world. We want to get more regenerative practices out of the competitive phase and put more into pre-competitive. That is tough right now. A lot of brands are still in that competitive space because it's sexy and nobody wants to give up their secrets."

Yet transparency in innovation isn't the only challenge. Visibility across the supply chain is a recurring theme across the global fashion and textile industry.

"It goes back to the old adage that if you don't know then how can you act," Johnston says. "We've been looking at [innovations] that will increase transparency, whether it's nano technology going into cotton fibre or more transparency on the murky middle of the supply chain. It's critical."

Taking a collaborative approach

This drive for transparency led the Foundation to team up with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and BRAC University in December to fund an initiative to digitally map the country's ready-made garment industry.

The aim is to provide accurate, credible and updated RMG factory information to industry stakeholders in a manner that "enhances confidence in the ability of the sector to contribute to equitable development in Bangladesh."

C&A Foundation funds Bangladesh transparency programme

Johnston says that despite taking some time to get the BGMEA on board, the initiative is going well.

"It is a very labour intensive initiative but I'm confident with how it's going. The question once the information is out there is: How do we make sure real change happens? We believe once the government has a better handle on what's happening with un-registered companies, they'll be better able to act on it. But we'll see. It's a learning curve for us. It's not enough just to put data out there. You also have to support the actors to make the changes."

While the C&A Foundation remains the core funder, the aim was to get additional donors on board.

"We've had some positive discussions with other funders, and talking to other brands there is interest, but the funding is not as large as what we provide as the catalytic funder. The most important thing, of course, is they are adding the information."

The success of the initiative will likely determine whether it moves into other countries as well, something Johnston says she is absolutely keen to do.

"There are some countries that are higher priority for us. There is a really exciting opportunity with Myanmar because they're growing their industry so there's an opportunity to do it right. Of course we have to be careful about replicating the Bangladeshi model in the country, but we just placed our first Foundation colleague in Myanmar to start looking at what the possibilities of transparency are there."

Becoming the enabler

Johnston believes real change in the industry will not happen until all the players act – not just a handful.

"There is a sustainability consciousness we have that isn't really shared around the world. If you look at the efforts being made by brands we all know and love, they're trying to do their best. But there are a whole bunch of other actors out there people have never even heard of, brands working in sensitive countries that are growing...and that is a little bit scary."

Johnston believes this ultimately comes back to a lack of demand from consumers for change.

"It's tough for companies to want to do the right thing if they feel their customers don't really care about this stuff. That's the challenge."

While much still needs to be done on the consumer side to encourage brands to embrace the business case for changing their models, Johnston is confident it can happen.

"The time is right, right now, for a shift in the business model"

"The time is right, right now, for a shift in the business model, moving from that make, take waste, model of the current industry to a more regenerative model. All the work on the circular economy, all the good work the Ellen McArthur Foundation is doing, all the efforts by brands to embrace circular collections, that's all good stuff and I think that is probably going to save us.

"Fashion is such a wasteful industry. So for me, if we do our job right, we can be one of the enablers of this broader shift."