International Environmental and Social Responsibility Frameworks
By Belinda Carp
For many years, the textile industry has been responding to the sustainability challenge. Different sectors of the industry have been responding at different rates, and in different ways, to this challenge. Most recently, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has made great strides to make sustainability a more-than-niche concern for the fashion sector. Modern concerns about sustainability focus on not just environmental sustainability, but also social and economic sustainability as well—the famous “people, planet, and profit” triple bottom line. Different sectors of the textile industry around the world have adopted a number of environmental and social sustainability frameworks over the years. Here are some international frameworks that are gaining traction in addressing the “triple bottom line.”
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
In 2015, the United Nations (UN) set out a series of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to provide a framework for companies in all industries to improve their sustainability. In March 2019, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion was launched to provide a framework for the fashion sector specifically to contribute to the SDGs through coordinated action. Through this alliance, the UN commits to “changing the path of fashion, reducing its negative environmental and social impacts; and turning fashion into a driver of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations are as follows:
- No Poverty
- Zero Hunger
- Good Health and Well-Being
- Quality Education
- Gender Equality
- Clean Water and Sanitation
- Affordable and Clean Energy
- Decent Work and Economic Growth
- Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
- Reduced Inequalities
- Sustainable Cities and Communities
- Responsible Consumption and Production
- Climate Action
- Life Below Water
- Life On Land
- Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
- Partnerships For The Goals
Textile supply chains are long, complex, and international. There are few, if any, of the sustainable development goals, which don’t apply to the industry in some way. Put another way, the textile industry has the potential to make a positive impact on many lives.
For example, responsible employers in low-cost countries where apparel is manufactured can address the goals relating to (but not restricted to): poverty, hunger, health, education, sanitation, energy, decent work, and inequality.
Those in wealthier nations can address all of the above—especially those relating to economic growth, innovation, sustainable cities, responsible consumption, climate action, life below water, life on land, and justice. The least specific goal is possibly number 17, which is all about collaboration. However, this one could be the most relevant and applicable to all those in the industry who are seriously committed to their social and environmental responsibilities.
An example of how companies are working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals is H&M, a multinational clothing retailer, which supports Goal 10 by welcoming, accepting, and celebrating all employees based on individuality, and regardless of differences. Externally, H&M claims to act as a steward for diversity and inclusiveness by engaging with its customers through global marketing campaigns, and collections that aim to recognize and support everyone’s right to be, and to express, who they are. In 2017, H&M launched the UNIdenim collection featuring six denim garments made to be worn by all customers, regardless of gender.
There are many other examples—such as the clothing companies which support Goal 12 by collecting used garments in their stores to divert clothing away from landfill and towards repair, reuse, re-commerce, or recycling.
Other companies in the textile supply chain are developing technologies to reduce energy and water usage (supporting goals 6 and 7), designing products for durability and recyclability (supporting goal 12), addressing fiber particulate “microfiber” pollution (supporting goal 14), and producing regenerative fibers for use in the apparel sector (supporting goal 15)—to name but a few.
Another framework which is quite rigorous in its assessments is B Corporations—a global movement of people who are committed to using business as a force for good. The movement includes a range of businesses of all sizes. Their aim is to create meaningful work with dignity and purpose, and to reduce poverty and restore the environment.
“B Corp” offers rigorous certification which assesses the overall positive impact of the product or service, and the company that stands behind it. It assesses a company’s impact on its workers, customers, community, and environment. Crucially, companies which are certified B Corporations also amend their legal governing documents to require their board of directors to balance profit and purpose.
Selected Certified B Corporations in the textile and apparel industries include:
- Argentina: Lulea Mindful Athletes;
- Australia: Australian Brands; James & Co; and Outland Denim;
- Brazil: Flavia Aranha Comércio; and Reserva;
- Canada: Encircled; and The Good Tee;
- Denmark: Organic Basics;
- Germany: Sympatex Technologies;
- Italy: Save the Duck;
- Kenya: Enda Athletic Inc;
- Mexico: Carla Fernández;
- Netherlands: MUD Jeans International;
- New Zealand: Kathmandu; and WE-AR;
- Norway: The Good Store AS;
- Peru: Hösėg; and Las Polleras de Agus;
- Spain: Ecoalf Recycled;
- UK: Finisterre; JoJo Maman Bebe; and Riz Boardshorts Ltd; and
- USA: Askov Finlayson; Athleta; Eileen Fisher; Helpsy; Jetty; Karen Kane; Patagonia; and Synergy Clothing.
More than 3,300 companies in more than 70 countries, from 150 industries, are united in one single goal.
The first step towards becoming a certified B Corporation is the assessment of the company—at which stage the company learns how to build a business which is better for its workers, for the community, and for the environment. The next step is to compare the company’s answers with others, so that it can identify the areas for improvement. Finally, the company is encouraged to create a customized plan for its business, using guides provided by B Corp.
Not surprisingly, the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia is a certified B Corporation. When commenting on the impact assessment carried out during the process, the company noted:
“The B Impact Assessment incentivized us to take the time to quantitatively measure the performance of our programs. For example, we provide several opportunities for employees to participate in environmental or social activism. But we didn’t know how many employees participated and to what degree. But this Assessment asked us those tough questions, and we took the time to measure and manage the participation and outcomes of these programs. This has given us a better understanding of which ones are most effective and which ones could be made more robust. Because the Assessment gathers all of this information in one place, it allowed us to really recognize our strengths as well as see where we have room for improvement.”
There are many standards, guides, and help in all forms for companies committed to improving the level of their environmental and social responsibility. It’s a question of finding the one which suits the company best. B Corp and UN SDGs both provide guidance. B Corp certification is rigorous, and the UN SDGs provide support and clarification about the issues which need to be addresses. The next step is to make the commitment and do it!
About the Author
Belinda Carp is a freelance business consultant and writer, specializing in textile sustainability and communications strategies. Contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or via https://www.linkedin.com/in/belindacarp/.