What the food industry can teach fashion about sustainability – Vogue Business

Posted: March 1, 2020 at 4:46 am


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Key takeaways:

Fashion can look to the food industry for inspiration and influence in becoming more transparent and sustainable.

Providing resources and support to suppliers and changing the marketing around sustainable options are two lessons fashion can learn from food.

Even the food industrys missed opportunities like lifting up those most negatively impacted in the supply chain offer insight.

When Vanessa Barboni Hallik set out to create her apparel brand Another Tomorrow, she looked to the food industry for inspiration. She wanted to build traceability into her business model, and the food sector had a strong track record for traceable supply chains.

Look at the farm-to-table food movement. It has incredible potential from a business standpoint but also for customers, she says. Its a way to satisfy that craving for the connection that was lost when supply chains spread all over the world.

The food industry can be a valuable influence for fashion, which needs to become more sustainable. Fashion, like food, is a global industry that touches virtually every person on the planet; it sources many raw materials from farms and forests; both industries create tremendous amounts of waste; and the casual purchases that consumers make on a routine basis affect whether and how brands prioritise sustainable values or not.

Fashion, through increased transparency and sustainability, can significantly enhance today's retail experience, says Caroline Brown, managing director at Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm that specialises in the circular economy, and former Donna Karan chief executive. It's not far from what we have seen in organic food today that has already made the steps to regularly share process, ingredients and origin, even down to the specific farm. The end result for both industries is a richer, more interesting and valuable retail experience.

The environmental impacts of agriculture have helped to fuel the growing demand for more sustainable food systems. Farms are the starting point for cotton, wool and other materials in fashion as well, involving practices that are destructive for soil, water supplies, wildlife habitats and ecosystems in general.

Changing farming practices is no small task. It can be costly and labour-intensive, and there are few resources to help guide farmers through the transition away from standard industry practices that depend on heavy use of chemicals such as pesticides. To become certified organic, farms must also go through a three-year transition process during which they must abide by organic rules, but arent yet eligible for the organic certification or higher margins that can generate.

In 2016, Kashi worked with the certification company Quality Assurance International to launch a programme that would pay farmers a premium during that three-year period to help them weather the jump. Starting with two farms and using their products in one type of cereal, the Certified Transitional programme has since worked with 15 farms with six transitional crops going into eight different retail products. Kashi says farmers have received over $1 million in premiums through the programme.

Fashion can take note of Kashis willingness to evaluate the needs of its suppliers, come up with new strategies for meeting them and communicate the process with the transitional label. Jess Daniels, communications director for Fibershed, a California group that promotes regional fibre systems, says the storytelling around the relationship can be replicated by other companies. That's the type of producer-brand relationship we really want to encourage especially in fashion, where brands seem very concerned about relying on labels to communicate with customers.

Support from fashion companies can take the shape of a price premium, long-term buying commitments, zero-interest loans or other types of services, says Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. Patagonia established partnerships with cotton cooperatives in India that boosted not only the economic capacity for farmers to make the transition to regenerative agriculture (considered a step above organic in terms of environmental impacts), but the know-how, by providing things like black lights that function as traps for insects in the absence of pesticides, says Whitlow. She adds this type of support and partnership is vital if the switch to more sustainable agriculture is going to be scaled.

Its a vulnerable time for farmers. If fashion wants to effect change, understanding that ground-level need for investment and support during that transition is the key to the kingdom, she says.

In the food industry, the higher any one brand sets the bar, the more customers start to expect from all brands. Independent consultant Michael Sadowski credits Whole Foods Market with bringing the concept of organic and healthy foods to the mainstream, done in part through effective and compelling storytelling and by promoting supply chain transparency. Industry insiders say theres room for fashion to do something similar by helping consumers connect with a products origins and find sustainable and ethical goods in one convenient place an idea that some online shopping platforms are trying to cultivate for fashion.

If consumers arent demanding transparency from fashion brands en masse yet, it could be partially a result of lack of options, rather than a lack of interest. Apparel can learn from food on the traceability side, says Sadowski.

Another Tomorrow equips its product labels with QR codes that provide details on the provenance and lifecycle of each garment; Hallik says consumers have been eating it up. Ive been really surprised by the overwhelming emotional response. People are reconnecting with where their clothes come from, she says. It also helps to shed light on the mostly anonymous labour that goes into making the worlds clothes. It allows people who have never been seen before by the customer to be seen.

To scale the technologies and efforts necessary to enable those types of solutions, brands can also form collaboratives to pool funding. Thats something food has done and apparel has started to do, through initiatives like Fashion for Good, but could benefit from pursuing further.

Another Tomorrow equips its product labels with QR codes that provide details on the provenance and lifecycle of each garment.

Another Tomorrow

Deborah Drew, associate at the World Resources Institutes Business Center who explores alternative business models that can reduce natural resource use, sees parallels between reducing fashion consumption and efforts to reduce beef consumption. For instance, consumers may be encouraged to replace 30 per cent of the beef in a dish with mushrooms, rather than asked to give up the meat entirely. Similarly, people can look at their closets and evaluate ways to fill it with more durable goods or items that are rented, rather than owned, she says. Can you look at your wardrobe and piece it together in more sustainable ways?

Research on consumer behavior has also shown that labeling a menu item as vegetarian causes many consumers to reject it off the bat. But when the dish is given a detailed description with ingredients and flavours without the potentially off-putting label, people order it. The language around how to make that choice is really valuable, she says. Her team is beginning to study if and how language influences apparel choices in a similar way, ultimately to prevent association of organic or sustainable garments with a specific aesthetic, or those with recycled fibres from being perceived as lower in quality.

There are areas where the food sector has fallen short, and fashion can learn from these as well. In a 2017 report, the nonprofit network Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders argued that the food movement waited too long to bring in voices of people experiencing the most direct negative impacts from the industry. The report also pointed out the opportunities that targeted funding can provide, such as to increase consumer education and advocacy for policies that would standardise and accelerate changes in industry practices.

Another Tomorrow's main wool farm.

Lauren Bamford and Alessandro Furchino/Another Tomorrow

Foundations can play a valuable role by working with nonprofits operating in the sustainable textiles sector to find ways to bring the voices of those most affected by pollution, toxics, and labour issues in the textile industry to the table in the early stages of programme design and movement-building, the report said. U.S. foundations are well-positioned to draw on key lessons from the sustainable food movement and accelerate the development of a coordinated movement that harnesses consumer demand for clean, ethical and sustainably produced textiles.

Helen Crowley, who heads sustainable sourcing at Kering but is currently on sabbatical, also points to the trend of consolidation in ownership of food brands as something for fashion to consider carefully. Parent companies implementing more sustainable practices across their entire portfolios can have a positive influence, says Crowley, but it can also generate a halo effect that can mislead consumers.

Jamie Katz, senior quality standards advisor for Whole Foods Market, says consumers are sophisticated enough to understand that change is gradual and brands could benefit from letting them into the process more. Consumers are hungry to see vulnerability in corporations, she says and for them to be transparent about what they do and dont know about their supply chains and impacts.

Americans dont make their own clothes, let alone their own textiles, and theyre extraordinarily disconnected from the process, says Katz. Fashion has to lead from that space people dont know what they want because theyve never thought of it before.

The food and fashion industries both have long ways to go before either can claim sustainability, but food has made impressive gains in the last decade and continues to charge ahead. With similar dedication, fashion can follow suit.

The transformation in food provided more options and a better outcome for companies and consumers alike. A transformation of fashion will accomplish the same, says Closed Loops Brown.

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What the food industry can teach fashion about sustainability - Vogue Business

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March 1st, 2020 at 4:46 am

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