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Understanding Sustainability in an Unstable World

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

First, there was Brexit. Then there was Trump. Now we have talk of undoing trade agreements and potential trade wars. On top of this drama, we also have weak retail sales in many parts of the world, lackluster global economic growth, technological disruption, widening economic inequality, greater economic anxiety, and on and on. Make no mistake: these are not sunny times. We live in a period of rapid change.

For our industry, macroeconomic and social trends, as well as politics, are ominously large these days – in many ways glowering at our industry at a time of vulnerability. Gosh, the traditional models of business don’t seem to work like they once did for many companies. When we add in the uncertainties of global politics, simmering social unrest, and technological change it’s easy to see the world through increasingly dimming glasses. Talk of conflict between the U.S. and North Korea only takes the anxiety quotient to a new level.

It’s easy to get caught up in all of the negative headlines, to become cynical about the future of our industry. After all, so many of the forces and influences at play these days are beyond the ability of any industry – let alone any single government --to control. Sure, things are tough, but there are reasons to be optimistic. It’s not all doom and gloom. Indeed, through it all, though, our industry continues to evolve and continues to innovate. It copes (and in some ways thrives) on all of the uncertainty in the world today. Adversity breeds innovation. Our industry isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet – oh no, it wants to make a better towel.

And there is nothing more innovative that’s come from our industry than sustainability. Think about it: the industry supply chain originates with fibers, then processes those fibers into textiles, which from there are cut and sewn in garments and made-up products, with the final destination of a sale to a consumer. Each step of this supply chain has sprouted dozens of sustainability initiatives. Many of these initiatives began with the vision of environmental advocates, while many others began as after the hard work of industry executives. Regardless of its origins, sustainability is now a force in our industry and comes at a time when consumers demand sustainable products. Not only do many consumers want to know how a product is made, but also from where a product originates.

Today’s sustainability initiatives began with the organic movement. To their credit, advocates of organic production, particularly in cotton, helped to change industry perceptions of the value of unfiltered, untampered, natural products. It sold well with many consumers, which in turn attracted the interest of many companies – for a time. That’s where organic hit a wall: it lacked scalability. The economics of organic production will always destine it to a comparatively small portion of the fiber and textile markets. For example, there can never be enough organic cotton grown to meet the needs of global brands and retailers. Enter sustainability: it provides scalability while also supporting environmentally-friendly growing and manufacturing practices.

The flip side of scalability is efficiency, which enables lower costs. Hence the value proposition for our industry today. It’s a better way of doing business. Innovative and profitable, so many companies now embrace sustainability as a business strategy. For sure, many companies see sustainability as the right thing to do for the environment and all of the inhabitants of our planet. Many more companies, however, see sustainability for the economic possibilities, meeting the needs of customers, and a philosophy of business focused on improving efficiencies and technological innovation. It’s pretty exciting, actually, and stands in sharp contrast to all of the otherwise seemingly dim prospects for our world. There are so many initiatives worth mentioning – such as the Better Cotton Initiative, Fashion for Good, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, to name a few -- but the bottom-line for our industry is that innovation and creativity are far from over. And despite the gloomy headlines about the economy and politics, there's good reason to pause and take stock in the fact that our industry continues to function as a source of creativity. For sure, our industry will look different in the decades ahead, but the industry has taken steps to structure what that future can be -- thanks to its embrace of sustainability as a business strategy. Note: This article was originally published on on August 4, 2017.


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