Responsible Fashion: Integrating Ethics and Aesthetics in the Value Chain

By Francesca Romana Rinaldi, originally posted on Eco Fashion World


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Consumers all over the world are becoming increasingly attentive to the environmental and social impact of the products they buy. They belong to the niche often known as ‘cultural creatives’ or LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability).

When we speak of LOHAS we refer to a type of consumer that pursues, through daily choices, a lifestyle based on ecological sustainability and an attention to their own health and that of the planet. Consequently, when shopping, this consumer chooses carefully, is aware of the importance of quality and of the origin of products – and that includes fashion products. Understanding LOHAS customers – and segmenting them – is fundamental for the companies to be successful. Are they addressing a “fundamentalist”, a “health fanatic”, a “fashionista” or “moderate” consumer?

The book “The Responsible Fashion Company” (Greenleaf Publishing, 2014) has been written for students, researchers, managers, professionals, and, of course, for LOHAS consumers, with the intention of raising awareness and providing information on how to manage eco-sustainability in fashion. In short, it is about how to be a more informed and proactive consumer.

By interviewing many experts – after several years of research – I had the opportunity to discover some best practices. I would like to briefly introduce some of these with reference to issues which are particularly important for certain phases of the product life-cycle:

– Innovation in the value chain
– Reduction of environmental impact and use of resources
– Transparency and traceability of the value chain

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Some best practices for eco-sustainability

Innovation in the value chain: Sinterama Newlife™

For over 30 years, the Sinterama Group has been an internationally important benchmark for the production of polyester filament yarn. Having made a strategic decision to engage in responsible innovation, and with significant investment in research and development, Sinterama has brought to market Newlife™, a technological platform offering a wide range of recycled polyester threads of high quality and performance, 100% derived from post-consumption plastic bottles collected and processed entirely in Italy by mechanical and non-chemical means.

The final Newlife™ product has many applications (fashion clothing, sportswear, underwear, technical clothing, workwear, medical clothing, outdoor garments, furnishings and accident prevention textile), guaranteeing performance and quality levels which are at least equal to virgin polyester threads but with considerable savings in terms of resources and cost to the environment. Newlife™ was chosen by Armani and Valentino for Livia Firth on her first Green Carpet Challenge, and has also been used by Max Mara.

Reduction of environmental impact and use of resources: Levi’s Water<Less™ jeans

Eco-sustainable fashion also means reducing energy and water consumption, and not just using raw materials that have a lower impact on the environment.

Transparency and traceability of the value chain: Patagonia

Patagonia’s philosophy is summed up in its corporate mission statement: ‘Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions for the environmental crisis.

The company’s eco-sustainability can be summarised by some key initiatives:
– 1% for the Planet. Patagonia donates 1% of sales to hundreds of projects, which work towards reducing negative environmental impact all over the world.
– The use of environmentally sustainable materials. Since its early years of activity, Patagonia has invested in the research and development of fibres such as recycled polyester and organic cotton, with the overall objective of reducing the environmental impact of each stage of production.
– The Common Threads Initiative. This defines the series of commitments that Patagonia wants to take on—consumer awareness and involvement—to reduce environmental impact.

The transparency and traceability of the value chain represent a strong element of differentiation for Patagonia compared with other sportswear brands. A section of its website, ‘The Footprint Chronicles’, provides a detailed list of all suppliers with their main information. Transparent communication of business behavior is guaranteed by The Cleanest Line, a blog for employees, friends and clients dealing with various topics on environmental sustainability and sustainable lifestyles in an experiential and involving manner.

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People Tree (Photo by: Miki Alcalde)

Transparency and traceability of the value chain: People Tree

People Tree designs garments to be produced by hand as much as possible, so their products have small carbon-footprints too. The rest of their eco-policy is pretty straightforward: they promote natural and organic cotton farming and avoid using damaging chemicals in production (where possible, they use recycled and biodegradable substances instead). Also, they try to recycle what they can, and always aim to protect water supplies and forests in the environments they work in. Basically, if there’s a green way to do something, that’s the way People Tree tries to do it!

People Tree aims to be 100% Fair Trade throughout the supply chain and is committed to the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) principles. Their Fair Trade products are purchased from economically disadvantaged groups in the developing world. People Tree uses traditional craft skills like hand weaving and hand knitting and organic cotton through Fair Trade to guarantee a living wage,  product development, training and advance payments and regular orders to support economically marginalised communities and protect the environment.

The company actively supports 50 Fair Trade groups in eight developing countries: the majority are development organizations and social businesses working to WFTO standards.

From vicious circle to virtuous circle

While consumers are becoming more interested in responsible fashion, and some best practices are developing in international markets, the eco-sustainable fashion segment is still quite small compared with the total industry. How can it grow?

As I have written in chapter 3 of the book, I believe that in order to move from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle, which is based on the creation of shared value for stakeholders, a different combination of elements is necessary:

  • The need for the consumer to be informed correctly and thoroughly to ensure continuous interest
  • Partnerships between the various operators (buyers, companies, public institutions and mass media)
  • A culture of innovation
  • Consumer education through dynamic and inclusive communication.

It is useful to reconsider the meaning of sustainability: not as something secondary but a strategic lever for a company, an integral part of its basic strategic orientation. This is why investments in sustainability should focus on the core business and not on the marginal business.

Summing up in a sentence, it is all about integrating ethics and aesthetics in the value chain.

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Francesca Romana Rinaldi is co-author with Salvo Testa of “The Responsible Fashion Company”, Greenleaf Publishing, 2014. She is professor of competitive strategy in creative industries and fashion management at Bocconi University in Milan, and is faculty member of the Luxury & Fashion Knowledge Center at SDA Bocconi School of Management and the Master in Fashion, Experience & Design Management. Since 2013 she is Director of the Master in Brand & Retail Experience Management at Milan Fashion Institute (intra-university consortium between Bocconi University, the Catholic University of Milan, and the Polytechnic University of Milan).
She is also an international consultant for companies in the fashion and luxury sector, mainly on topics regarding digital strategies, brand management, and business sustainability. She started the Bio-Fashion blog in 2010 with the intention of raising awareness and providing information on themes pertaining to fashion and sustainable lifestyles. It is followed by companies, opinion leaders, and associations. A freelance journalist, she contributes to several specialized magazines both in Italy and abroad.

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