Occasionally, I cross paths with executives from fashion brands who have a passion for producing products that give back more than they take from the planet. And this kind of leadership is redefining the old ways of business as usual with radical transparency and accountability to build truly sustainable enterprises. 

During this year’s American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) Executive Summit, I enjoyed moderating a panel featuring industry executives from some of these ‘sustainability-first’ brands. Our discussion explored the meaning of a truly sustainable mind set and the secrets to bringing their vision to life. 

A noble edge gained through standardization and foresight 

Whether expanding a 50-year mission, advancing a three-year-old brand to reshape an industry, or demonstrating accountability with better transparency, some apparel and footwear companies are making quantum leaps in their sustainability programs and building truly sustainable enterprises. But to reach this point, they must first extend their focus beyond doing what they believe are the right things to find areas for improvement and take purposeful and verifiable steps to fix them. 

Take, for example, a three-year-old footwear company represented on the panel. Although founded on sustainability principals, CARIUMA also recognizes that its journey to becoming an industry-changing global brand is just beginning. Tiago Klaus, chief operating officer at CARIUMA, noted that its organization is structured to adapt to exponential growth – especially the supply chain – and will continue to evolve as demand accelerates and changes.

For an incumbent brand more mature in its sustainability mind set, recognizing that more than three-quarters of its emissions come from materials and associated supply chains opened the door to a more strategic perspective. Matt Dwyer, head of product impact and innovation at Patagonia, shared that expanding progress beyond recycled materials to establish manufacturing standards and sourcing policies inspires his workforce to focus on doing what he defines as more good rather than just less bad.

Meanwhile, some businesses operate in a completely different context: rising expectations for transparency in environmental and social impact leave little room for error. Devon Leahy, vice president of sustainability at Ralph Lauren Corporation, explained that setting goals and targets and measuring a complete greenhouse gas footprint are critical steps for creating a foundation for sustainability stewardship. But it’s equally important to design a governance structure across the organization to enable everyone – from boardroom executives to store employees and beyond – to engage, communicate, learn, and review its work as a unified ecosystem

Diverse approaches for building sustainable enterprises

Without question, the industry executives who participated in the panel proved what I’ve always suspected: there’s no single “perfect” approach to sustainability – even in the beginning. Every business has its vision for serving customers who all want environmentally and socially friendly products. 

This realization was especially apparent during our conversation around life cycle assessments (LCA). Recently, Ben and Jerry’s reported that it’s calculating this figure from pasture to spoon and using that information to adjust their supply chain and facilities to reduce its carbon footprint. However, according to my panellists, this one method is just one of many to consider in the fashion industry. 

Leahy felt that LCA could be a valuable tool to calculate relative climate impacts from its materials. Objectively knowing the true environmental implications of switching fabrics, such as from cotton to polyester, can be challenging without this approach. For example, brands could conduct a complete greenhouse gas inventory with this assessment, including manufacturing processes and raw materials that often generate most of a company’s emissions footprint. As a result of the evaluation, businesses can set a realistic, science-supported target for meaningful and long-term greenhouse gas reduction. 

However, some brands face a different layer of sophistication and complexity in their operations, making LCA less feasible. Dwyer prudently advised that to build truly sustainable enterprises, businesses must know what they want and have readily accessible data to get the right answers to gain the full benefit of the assessment approach.  

Companies must learn a lot about themselves and every aspect of their supplier network to implement meaningful changes and improvements across their supply chain – from verticalizing processes to understanding preferred materials are environmentally sound and represent a lower carbon footprint. 

No magic bullet, but a much-needed effort 

There’s no one magic approach to answer the sustainability and traceability needs that resonate for all apparel and footwear brands. However, my panel discussion at the AAFA Executive Summit made clear the importance and urgency of seeing every point across the business operations with an open mind.  

Consumers expect it. Governments mandate it. Social communities rely on it. And our planet needs it to heal itself. But most of all, the economic survival of the business requires it.