From the source: Melinda Tually, Fashion Revolution Australia

Responsible sourcing strategist and Fashion Revolution Australia co-ordinator Melinda Tually is passionate about helping businesses develop ethical supply chains and sustainability strategies. Here, we chat with her about the brands driving innovation and change, the problem with boycotting businesses and the future of sustainability.

Inside Retail Weekly: Tell me about the work that you do and what it involves.

Melinda Tually: My consultancy is called Ndless:The New Normal and I help brands develop change management programs in responsible sourcing. That covers both ethical sourcing, including workers’ rights, as well as sustainability, such as their environmental impact.

The work changes with each client and it can take various forms as it depends on where the business is at in that area of responsible sourcing. They could be starting out or already addressing some areas but don’t have them defined in any framework or strategic way, so we formalise ad hoc projects into an approved strategy that gives them some direction, goals and targets.

For some, it can start with mapping their supply chain and tracing back to develop a core list of their suppliers, as often that’s not really held in any central place in the business.

IRW: What interesting projects are you working on at the moment?

MT: Change management projects with brands. I’m developing three-year strategies for some companies, while for others which are in the implementation phase already, we are looking at sustainable fibres and converting conventional fibres to sustainable versions which can be quite tricky.

People think it’s relatively easy to switch from conventional to organic fibres. For some it can be, however for others it can mean either on-boarding new suppliers which isn’t always ideal or working with existing ones that have their own supply chains and have someone they’ve been getting their fabric from for 20 or 30 years. This requires conversations and a lot of relationship-building to say, “We’d like you to get some different cotton for us. You work with these mills now, but this might mean you need to change mills to source this new fabric.” If you’re a small customer, this can make it even harder.

IRW: Not all brands want to talk about what they’re doing in that space, though.

MT: If brands aren’t talking about their responsible sourcing or shouting about it, often people assume it’s not happening which isn’t necessarily true. Brands need to find their comfort level when talking about this topic as it’s new ground for many, but the scene has definitely shifted in the past few years. The expectation to have a position on the issues and demonstrate you are aware of and addressing them has greatly increased. Both customers and industry want to see progress as they become more aware of the negative impacts of the industry so it’s both a moral and business imperative. Transparency is now here to stay.

It’s not an easy space to navigate though as the expectations are high. We need to celebrate progress and not expect perfection. Systemic change management takes time. We can’t revolutionise the fashion industry overnight, so we need to give brands a chance to develop programs and adopt best practice. This doesn’t mean the industry couldn’t be working faster and delivering bolder change sooner though. The cohort of brands now taking action is growing which is fantastic but that’s come off a pretty low base. We need to see more commitments and investment across all tiers of the industry to effect the changes we need to see in the time we need to see them.

As consumers, we can’t overlook our responsibility either. We haven’t been asking these questions of brands until more recently – in the mainstream anyway – so behaviour change with regards to overconsumption and driving prices down also sits with our own habits.

There is a lot of complexity and nuance in these issues that’s hard to communicate at times. We can jump to very binary notions, like a cheaper cost price must be ‘sweatshop’ and expensive must be ‘good’. It’s really not that simple. Some of the lowest cost price items – and this doesn’t account for the externalities in terms of environmental and social impacts that are the ‘true costs’ – can be made in very safe, compliant factories. The reverse is just as true. Higher cost price does not always guarantee better conditions. It absolutely can, but it’s not a rule. That’s why it’s important to hear from brands themselves to understand what actions they are taking.

IRW: In the past, you’ve said naming and shaming businesses that have issues with responsible sourcing doesn’t work. Why is that?

MT: Campaigns can drive conversations internally, which may not take place otherwise so they can propel action. At the end of the day, change takes a varied approach and multiple levers are necessary. There’s a balance between highlighting an issue and closing down what could be a constructive conversation. When a successful outcome is the focus of mature stakeholder engagement, real progress can be achieved. We need people to be able to be vulnerable and comfortable in saying, “We don’t know how to do this, there’s no precedent in this country” or, “We genuinely want to do it but we don’t know how”. This kind of conversation can open up doors to collaborative efforts on practical solutions and progress.

Fashion Revolution considers the changes we need to see as systemic and industry-wide. We also feel it’s important to celebrate progress. There is a lot of wonderful change taking place so we need to foster that to encourage more. If you see another brand or your competitor stepping into the space and doing something, it can lead you to think, “If they can do it, we can too” and it can develop a healthy sense of competition, which isn’t a bad thing. There’s a bit of a race going on now, which is encouraging to see.

IRW: What frustrates you most about the retail industry?

MT: I think the traditional model of retail needs a shake-up. There’s innovation happening around the model itself and I don’t see enough businesses adopting these innovations. There’s a great opportunity for incumbent fashion companies to be looking at the rental market, for example. We’re seeing the stats that two-thirds of our wardrobe will be made up of consignment or rental by 2030, which is a huge shift. The market share of this part of the sector is growing rapidly already. How are brands preparing for this? The move towards access over ownership has taken place in other industries like film, music and cars. Why not fashion?

We need to get past the excessive overproduction driven by high MOQs [minimum order quantities] and long lead times which can be terribly wasteful and instead look to the efficiencies of tech that supports made-to-order and rental.

IRW :What brands are doing interesting stuff right now, in your opinion?

MT: I think Patagonia has been a great example of being very public with their principles. They’ve recently changed their mandate from ‘Do no unnecessary harm’ to ‘We’re in business to save the planet’.

They recognise they’re in business making products and that still has an impact, but they’re doing as much as they can to reduce that impact and then proactively lobby to protect the environment for example. When the US government changed the tax rules last year and they received a US$10 million refund, they donated that refund to environmental causes. They’re part of 1% for the Planet and support a lot of grassroots organisations with these grants.

I think that boldness is what we need more of and brands willing to take the lead. Retail activism can be an incredibly powerful change agent for good. Patagonia is one of the poster children for sustainable retail but what I also like is they’re very open. If you go on their site it’s quite transparent and if they’re not where they want to be, they’ll say so: “We are hoping this fabric will soon be 100 per cent recycled but we can only get to 80 per cent at the moment” for example. Marks & Spencer are similarly transparent. Innovation is still taking place so we can only go so fast in some areas.

That vulnerability is really important because it allows other brands to see that if pioneers might be struggling, it’s OK for them to be too. It fosters shared intelligence and collaboration. There are quite a few forums now where brands are sharing knowledge and discussing challenges in the pursuit of industry-wide change. The barriers are down when it comes to many of these issues as they are pre-competitive in nature. Upholding worker rights or reducing environmental impact shouldn’t be a USP [unique selling proposition].

Reformation in the US has made sustainability sexy for the millennial generation. They communicate the issues as well as their action through customer-facing channels like newsletters and on-site product descriptions really effectively, making it central to their messaging.  

Kmart and Cotton On are both part of some of the most important multi-stakeholder initiatives around, like ACT [Action Collaboration Transformation] initiative on living wages as well as being members of the Bangladeshi Fire Safety Accord and the Better Cotton Initiative for procuring more sustainable cotton.

Tigerlily just released a sustainability report and Spell & The Gypsy Collective has released their second impact report and progressing in this space too. They are making commitments and communicating their progress on them. In the last few years in Australia, we’ve seen a sophistication and maturity in this area of the industry, which is really motivating.

Kelly Slater and John Moore of Outerknown consider materials extensively but have also used fair-trade-certified factories, which few brands are doing. They’ve developed a paper about benefit fibres and how it’s more expensive to bring in and procure sustainable fibres than it is conventional ones. So if it’s cheaper to get polyester, you’ll drive consumption of that fabric. They’re proposing instead that if tariffs were dropped on sustainable fibres, more brands would use them. When it becomes an economic imperative, you can obviously shift things much more quickly. They’re thinking outside of the box. It’s about industry-wide shifts and how they can change the system – and system thinking is where we need to be.

Then there are quieter brands like Kowtow in New Zealand. They work with organic cotton farmers in India. They’re also fair-trade-certified, looking at all the inputs and really demonstrating that no matter what size of brand you are, you can still have a really thorough view and understanding of all the impacts of your business.

Outland Denim are proving that purpose-led brands can indeed win the race. Their model of rescuing victims of sex trafficking and training them up while earning decent wages and receiving education is seeing them in demand from some of the biggest retailers and department stores in the world. Combining ethics and aesthetics makes sense in every way.

A.BCH is an emerging brand from Melbourne. Courtney Holm, the founder is a progressive thinker and hyper-transparent. Her mission is for her business to be zero-waste and zero-impact by using natural and biodegradable fabrics. She’s getting a lot of attention locally and internationally. She was recognised by Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and showcased in Amsterdam at Fashion for Good.

IRW: What are your thoughts on circular fashion?

MT: Circular fashion and textile waste has dominated recent conversations, perhaps at the expense of other issues sometimes. Circularity is exciting and essential but of itself it doesn’t stop overproduction or overconsumption unless a full circular model is also adopted. We can’t have this conversation in isolation.

The industry is producing 150 billion items of clothing every year. We’ve only got 7.5 billion people on the planet. Natural resource depletion makes recycling textiles a business imperative not just a nice thing to have so it definitely makes sense to be repurposing existing textile waste and for circular textiles to be an essential strategy for all brands. The technology and infrastructure to make it a reality at scale is still a way off so the model of production has to be addressed simultaneously. There are a lot of other issues that are also urgent like living wages, water stewardship, chemical management – the list goes on!

IRW: Where do you think the conversation around sustainability is moving now?

MT: I think the future of fashion is circular from a business model and materials perspective, so we are seeing more brands hire subject matter experts internally to drive that change. Businesses like Asos, The Iconic, David Jones, Country Road, Spell and Cotton On are all investing in that space, which shows you how serious they are about it. From a resourcing perspective, we are going to see more of this, because you do need someone in that role. Typically it can be an add-on role to a production manager or a buyer. It becomes apparent rather quickly that the task requires a level of subject matter expertise, just like forecasting, range planning and patternmaking does, so people are being hired in these roles more and more now.

The future will see vastly different business models of fashion – made-to-order, online consignment, peer-to-peer trading, limited runs, rental and subscription. The nature of how we consume is changing. On the design side, we can’t ignore the very obvious changes in weather patterns as a result of climate change. We’re seeing the warmest winters on record. Are brands looking at this and pivoting their collections or still producing for winter and summer like they were 10 years ago? Designing and planning for climate change is real.

On-demand will become much more popular because technology is allowing for it now – 3D knitting machinery can make a jumper in an hour. I think there’s a balance between slow and fast fashion that we can meet and made-to-order can do that. The waste that this can prevent is huge. With about 30 per cent of what is produced never making it to the shop floor, there’s a great possibility in this kind of technology to reduce all kinds of inputs from being wasted – energy, water. The fashion industry is responsible for about 8 to 10 per cent of carbon emissions and that’s forecast to be one-quarter of global emissions by 2050. One-quarter just from the fashion industry? We can’t let that be our legacy.

We’ll see more rental too – not just the GlamCorners and Rent the Runways – but incumbent brands having their own rental platforms. They’ll realise, “We have an online store, we can identify some items we’re happy to rent out” .

More traditional retail space will be given over to this model too, such as department stores as Rent the Runway have done by locating within Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. Who would think that a bricks-and-mortar department store with a  traditional business model would welcome their perceived competition like that? Neiman Marcus saw the opportunity that if you rent the dress, you might then buy the handbag or accessory from them. Consumers mix up their purchasing behaviour so it makes sense to be giving them different options. Rental platforms now offer subscriptions and they’ve gone beyond formal attire to work wardrobes, so at every level it’s satiating that desire for something new while being more economical and environmental. People are even using rental for when they travel and land in a new city rather than pack so much.

Smaller retail footprints with drop shipping services similar to Everlane will be more common and shopping centres will cater to rental kiosks and repair stations as people value their goods more and are encouraged to extend the life of their clothes. We’re going back to the idea of product stewardship, and legislation is forcing that too. So companies are responsible for the longevity and lifespan of their products, and  for then taking them back. Nudie Denim and Patagonia have repair stations, and I envisage chains of fix-it boutiques and platforms for people to learn how to sew and mend. I think people want to be involved in their wardrobes more.

We’ve seen how popular customisation is but it also makes people hold onto things longer as they’ve got more of a personal attachment. If it’s got your initials on it, you’ll think more carefully about giving it up.

And transparency of course is already becoming the new normal. Nudie Denim has for a long time been transparent about their supply chain. You can go online and it will tell you the factory where a certain jumper has been made and it will give you the address and a summarised audit report and importantly what progress has been made.

This kind of information transparency is increasing, but we do have to question the value of the information being provided in this shift. Is the information we can now provide always useful? Is it driving impact and driving change? It’s an exciting time with the likes of blockchain and open-source data, but we need to keep focusing on why we are sharing this information and whether it’s leading to the changes that we want from transparency. As an industry, we need to be prepared to pivot and shift our approach – to understand what we are trying to achieve and keep assessing efforts along the way.

IRW: I think a lot of businesses panic and it’s a kneejerk reaction.MT: Indeed.  And that doesn’t always serve us well – it’s a short-lived response that’s not really about long-term change. I think the industry’s going to look pretty different in the long run but it is a challenge to be considered and take time in this fast-paced world we live in.


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