Internal communication key to driving resource efficiency in fast-fashion world

Sustainability professionals working within incumbent fashion retailers need to be more closely aligned with procurement departments in order to accelerate the transition to more sustainable fashion industry.

That is the view of edie Live 2017 speaker Jo Mourant, who swapped a career in the buying department at Marks and Spencer (M&S) to become “part of the solution” to the fast-fashion culture as a senior consultant for not-for-profit organisation Made-By. 

Made-By seeks to work with the fashion industry to improve the environmental and social conditions that retailers and suppliers work in and has previously worked with the likes of H&M, New Look and Ted Baker to either strengthen or develop sustainability strategies.

Mourant, who is speaking at the edie Live exhibition in May, is responsible for business development in the UK and the US and works with retailers that are involved the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), managed by WRAP, on consultancy projects and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders.

It is these relationships, both internal and external, that will need to be fine-tuned to ensure that sustainability is being treated as a core business value in other departments such as procurement and buying, Mourant told edie.

“We find that the sustainability teams really know what they’re doing, they’re all experts in their field,” Mourant said. “But what they need helping with is selling [sustainability] to their product teams and senior management. A lot of it comes down to education and helping them understand and develop the business case for sustainability.

“Sometimes sustainability teams need help educating procurement teams on why certain raw materials are better than others and how to support the introduction of these new models and helping them develop and enhance strategies.”

New business models

Mourant is a firm believer that business models need to be revolutionised in order to prevent consumers purchasing items that are eventually stored unwanted in wardrobes – research has established that clothing items totalling at £4.6bn across Britain remain unworn and retailers are slowly introducing new services aimed at promoting reuses amongst consumers.

Around 40% of the UK’s clothing market, based on retail sales value, are signed up to the SCAP scheme, which in turn sets action plans in place for companies to detail their carbon, water and waste reduction targets. Many of these targets have seen retailers focus on consumers by trialling take-back schemes and clothes recycling projects – such as the ones showcased by H&M.

While Mourant, who first found her passion for sustainability after almost a year of working on M&S’s flagship Plan A sustainability programme, is keen to highlight the active push from businesses in combating sustainability issues, she is concerned that the introduction of new business models is an ongoing progress that will take time to develop.

Before joining the Plan A team, Mourant worked in the M&S buying department for close to eight years. Mourant feels that one of the issues that those working in buying and procurement departments face is that they struggle to impact decisions outside of that specific department. As business models evolve, Mourant believes that businesses should be working to equip their departments with the right knowledge and questions that create a holistic approach to sustainability internally, as well as pushing the agenda externally towards suppliers.

“For sustainability departments, it is very easy to use language that we all know, but outside of the sector, very little people understand it,” Mourant said. “Product teams normally don’t have the time to learn about the issues or gain a greater understanding. They need to hear the toplines and what things are going to save time, money and make products more sustainable.

“We are working to equip buyers and product developers with the knowledge of what they’re sourcing and who they’re working with so that they know what questions to ask the suppliers. The more that brands ask for things, the more suppliers will have to change. Suppliers usually work for multiple brands and all of them have to ask for change for it to take effect. We need to equip the brands to ask the right questions.”

Siloed sustainability

Made-By offers consultancy assistance across a range of issues including cotton, leather and chemical ‘detoxes’. Even though consumers are becoming more concerned about these issues, ethically-sourced products will still be placed onto a market where price and availability reign supreme.

The circular economy, championed in the fashion industry by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and even the sharing economy – supported by WRAP’s REBus Life Plus programme – are proving viable options to tweak how consumers interact with products.

But, as Mourant warns, changing the mindset of consumers will take a “very long time”, which may not be implemented quickly enough to have the immediate desired effect. In anticipation of the acceleration of these models, Mourant believes that supplier and retail relations will prove vital to creating products that work in reuse, renting and recycling models.

The introduction of fibre recycling methods – currently being explored by the likes of US firm Patagonia – and designing everyday products such as T-shirts and jeans to work in renting or sharing environments are the two big areas where Mourant is hoping to see progress.

Fortunately, the emergence of sustainability as a viable and economic business option – both Unilever and Ikea have highlighted the business growth associated with sustainability and products – now equips departments with an ability to establish better internal relations to drive resource efficiency, as long as the language and approach is adjusted.

“Product teams are really interested in the sustainability agenda,” Mourant added. “They either know lots of things but don’t know how to implement them, or they didn’t really know much to begin with but are really willing to learn. Sometimes it just helps having a third party to come in a really sell the purpose.

“One of the first and most important steps is just getting people in the same room together. In big fashion businesses, menswear might not speak to womenswear and neither of these teams would talk to the sustainability teams. Getting people to engage with the right people, on the right topics, is ‘make-or-break’ for whether something ultimately succeeds or fails.”

Jo Mourant at edie Live 2017

Made-By’s Jo Mourant is among the expert speakers appearing on stage at edie Live 2017 at the NEC Birmingham on 23-24 May. 

Mourant is appearing in the final session of the Resource Efficiency Theatre on Day Two of the show, which takes a closer look at how organisations can mitigate material risks and reduce complexity in supply chains.

Find out more about edie Live 2017 and register for your free two-day pass here.

Matt Mace

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