Jaana Quantaince-James has a difficult, but exciting job.
The head of sustainability at fashion juggernaut THE ICONIC, Quaintance-James is tasked with making brand more ethical and sustainable, without sacrificing the bottom line.
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And while it could be argued that fast fashion companies’ business models mean they can never be truly sustainable or ethical, Quaintance-James argues that major businesses, like THE ICONIC, can do the most good.
“The potential is ginormous,” Quaintance-James told Yahoo Finance ahead of the Online Retailer Conference & Expo today.
What makes a brand ethical and sustainable?
Australian sustainable fashion app, Good on You rates fashion brands on transparency, supply chains, fabric and impact, in addition to criteria addressing brands’ processes to improve.
Additionally, Good on You rates brands on whether workers are paid a living wage along the supply chain, how transparent they are about this, how they dispose of waste and how they use water. It also considers the use of animal materials like fur, leather and wool.
For a brand to be considered ‘Great’ it will usually already have an ethical brand-certification, and has been built to be sustainable and ethical “from the ground up”.
Why should I care?
When brands ethically source and produce their clothes, it shows that they care more about the people who make their clothes than their products, Ethical Clothing Australia said. If shoppers are purchasing those clothes, it shows that they stand for the same things.
The Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh killed 1,134 garment makers in 2013, most of whom were underpaid and working in dangerous conditions. That factory supplied clothes for many Australian fast fashion brands.
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And according to a study from charity Barnardos, around three in 10 women consider their clothes are old after wearing them three times, contributing to the 6,000 kilograms of clothing waste Australians throw out every 10 minutes.
The combination of factors means Australian shoppers are increasingly looking to make better choices, and purchase less clothes.
Who leads the charge on sustainability?
Smaller fashion businesses have historically led the charge on sustainability and ethical sourcing practices, but it’s larger organisations that can drive large scale change just from the virtue of their size and their powerful position in the market, Quaintance-James argues.
Essentially - if shoppers are buying ethically already, they’re not the ones to be converted.
“It's actually [about] making them [other shoppers] go, ‘Oh, yeah. I actually am concerned about this thing, but I haven't been doing anything because I don't know how to do it’,” she said.
“If we could get them to change that in the way that they shop, then that is how it will really have a really significant impact. We have to take it out of the niche and into the mainstream. And, until we do that, I think it will continue to be piecemeal.”
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Founder of retail charity platform i=Change, Jeremy Meltzer agrees.
i=Change automates charitable giving at a corporate scale by having retailers sign on, pledging to donate $1 to one of several i=Change selected charities with every online sale made.
It’s about using the sheer power of retail for good, Meltzer told Yahoo Finance.
“I feel we're reaching a really critical point in history in that businesses, in order to remain relevant, must begin to engage very directly in this [ethics] space,” he said.
“We're seeing it play out... from the Slavery Act that's coming online, to the movement of B Corps towards sustainability, to all different forms of ethical enterprises, social enterprise.
“What's exciting now, is that this is being driven by consumers who are saying to brands, ‘What do you stand for? What is your purpose beyond your product? What are the values that underpin your business?’”
When brands begin to answer the question, big things can happen.
At THE ICONIC, four pillars supporting ethical sourcing, the environment, the community and responsible governance and action have come into effect, while the company engages with factories to boost standards.
The company also launched its Considered range in April with 300 brands. That’s since grown to 400.
To be part of Considered, garments need to hold at least one of 30 different sustainability criteria, which is shared with the shopper.
“So, for example, if an item, a T-shirt, was made from organic cotton greater than 75 per cent, then it would hold the sustainable materials badge as a part of Considered. Similarly, if an item was vegan, then it would be holding the animal-friendly badge as part of Considered.”
Packaging is now recyclable, although many customers don’t know that, and the company is now assessing its carbon footprint and experimenting with recycled polyester.
How can fashion companies become more sustainable?
Questioned on whether large fashion companies’ sustainable campaigns are tokenistic in the face of widespread consumer and throwaway culture, Quaintance-James said her personal mantra is “progress, not perfection”.
“Companies should be measured more on their progress at the time,” she said.
If a company only had one per cent of their collection classed as sustainable, and that number refused to shift as the years went on, then that’s a problem.
But at the same time, it’s unrealistic to expect a company with five per cent sustainable fashion to jump to 20 per cent within one day.
“We have to appreciate the complexity of driving greater sustainability within organizations and recognise that everybody has a role in supporting and encouraging,” she said.
“I think that's one of the things we're trying to achieve with Considered, is that it's not all about range today. It was 6 per cent when we launched In April, and it's over 8 per cent today. But, it is about demand and supply.
“Brands need to hear that customers want it and, uniquely, brands need to supply it if customers want it. So, there's a particular kind of work that needs to be done around the expectations that are set by consumers, I think, and brands need to respond to it.”
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