There is a lot of confusion about the issue of sustainability, with more than 500 ecolabels and few common guidelines. We talk to Federico Brugnoli to cast some light on the matter

Fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry, after the petrochemical industry. The time has come to focus on sustainability and the environment. This applies to clothing, shoes and all other sectors of fashion. But sustainability is a complex issue requiring all-round evolution or revolution affecting all stages in the value chain, not just the product itself, which is the final step in a process that must take into account environmental, social and process sustainability, including certification. We attempt to cast some light on the topic with Federico Brugnoli, graduate in Environmental Sciences and founder of Spin360, a company specialising in development of new sustainable business models and innovative technological and organisational solutions. Curator of MicamX, he also works on Assocalzaturifici’s VCS-Verified and Certified Steps programme, a form of certification for products and services in the footwear industry, and Scientific Director of the Master’s Programme in “Fashion Sustainability and Industry Evolution” at Accademia Costume & Moda’s Milan campus.

What does sustainability mean, in fashion?

Sustainability is one of the most important issues facing humanity today. It’s a complex scientific problem which I believe the majority of consumers fail to understand. Sustainability can be measured, and the current trend is to connect the issue of sustainability with communication; we don’t believe this is right, because the industry needs to address the issue with pragmatism and wide-ranging plans. If we look at the historical definition, sustainable development means satisfying the demands of the present without compromising those of the future. Sustainability is seen as the meeting-point between three major spheres of interest to humanity: economic, environmental and social interests. This is a very general definition, and the concept is not a new one, as it was first introduced in the United Nations by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who presented the Our Common Future report in 1987. All kinds of things have been said about sustainability since then. Now, without a precise definition of what sustainability actually is, there is a great risk of confusion on the market.

Why has sustainability become so important for fashion?

Sustainability has become important in fashion in the past few years for a number of reasons. The first is that according to a number of studies, after the petrochemical industry, fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry, because materials of both natural and synthetic origin have an environmental impact at various stages in their transformation. This has had a great impact on the media, becoming the topic of aggressive campaigning by non-governmental organisations, such as Greenpeace, which have attacked a number of fashion brands with the goal of making the headlines. In response, the fashion industry has set up associations specifically addressing the issue of sustainability, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition or the ZDHC programme, concerned with clean, sustainable chemistry.

How can we define the word sustainability?

There is no single definition of sustainability in fashion. It definitely has to do with a number of general principles, such as clean production with few or no pollutants, with the traceability of raw materials, the circular economy and upcycling. Our optimised approach to sustainability, and the principle on VCS-Verified and Certified Steps are based, is holistic in nature. What this means is that sustainability must not underestimate certain issues: various aspects of environmental protection, secure supply chains in terms of human rights, workers’ health and safety, consumer protection with fashion products containing no harmful substances, and fair competition, an issue linked with counterfeiting.

The industry needs to address the issue with pragmatism, wide-ranging plans and an holistic approach

What is the fashion industry doing?

The fashion industry has responded with general initiatives such as the Fashion Pact, in which major brands have signed a document addressing issues such as climate change. It is true, however, that the big brands, which are the customers of the Italian footwear industry, have defined what sustainability means to them, and their definitions are all more or less in line with the macro-topics, but every one of them is a bit different from the others. What we are doing is attempting to propose an approach that covers all the topics, so that companies can keep everything that may be defined as sustainability under control.

There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the issue, however. Is this primarily a problem for the companies, or the consumer?

The British say that sustainability is industry-driven. I have trouble believing that the vast majority of consumers are really aware of sustainability. But this doesn’t mean the companies can afford to ignore it. Apart from a niche of particularly aware and informed consumers, I believe it is unlikely that a consumer will go into a shop, whether brick and mortar or digital, and ask how sustainable a product is. But it’s also true that if a major fashion brand is caught out for unsustainable business practices, this can result in major damage to its reputation.

What are the most common misunderstandings when discussing sustainability?

Without mentioning any names, allow me to cite the example of a major retail brand that came up with a special line described as sustainable and widely advertised for these qualities that made it different from the rest of its production. The problem was that the rest of its production carried on as usual. One of the biggest misunderstandings is that if you set up a targeted communication mechanism, all the rest must also be in line. We sometimes focus on a particular line or product involving a specific issue, such as materials from regenerative agriculture, but fail to keep under control all the other issues I have mentioned.

What are the common guidelines for the fashion industry, with so many different ecolabels?

It’s true, there are too many of them., for instance, has mapped more than 500 different forms of sustainability certification. The idea behind the VCS Verified and Certified Steps project, we are working on with Assocalzaturifici, is not to provide yet another form of certification, but to make the most of existing certifications, because every one of them covers a specific area of sustainability. For example, ISO 14000 focuses on environmental protection, while SA 8000 is concerned with human rights, and ISO 45000 focuses on workers’ health and safety. So we want to make a holistic map of sustainability without neglecting any aspect, to allow companies to make appropriate choices, even combining one or more of the existing certification schemes. Allow me to explain: we have a list of about 160 requirements, and we have taken the strictest forms of certification in accredited circles and mapped out where these forms of certification apply, so that a company can cover a high percentage of the sustainability requirements, which is what customers are demanding companies do. Practically, what we are trying to do is set up an optimisation mechanism so that companies will be ready to respond efficiently to the tests customers demand of their brands.

How can we sum up the steps in this path toward sustainability?

Sustainability must be both within the company and all along the production chain. Our method currently applies to top-level suppliers, who in turn can apply it to their own suppliers, all along the supply chain. The steps a company needs to take are: attentive self-assessment, knowing where to start and understanding which gaps need to be filled in by planning actions for improvement. This means self-assessment, planning and implementation of corrective actions. In self-assessment, it is important to take into account the country in which we operate; in Italy, for example, a number of issues involved in sustainability are already regulated by law (workers’ rights and health). The company must have codes of conduct and organisational systems that already take these elements of sustainability into account, and have a process for educating its employees about these rules. The final element is control, which also has to do with the issue of certification.

What is the cost of sustainability, and will consumers ending up paying for it with higher product costs?

Sustainable production is not always more expensive. We are experts in life cycle assessment, analysis of the product’s entire life cycle, which demonstrates a correlation between the environmental impact of making a product and its cost. Producing with greater consumption of energy, water, and chemicals, and shipping all over the globe, will have a greater environmental impact and, clearly, a higher cost. So it’s not true that sustainable production means higher production costs. It’s clear that certain industries or countries offer greater guarantees of sustainability but have higher labour costs. We know that a part of the fashion industry, fast fashion above all, has moved most of its production offshore, but luckily we are now seeing a process of reshoring in the medium to high end of the market, including footwear.

Flavia Colli Franzone