Decentralizing Fashion Sustainability by Sasha Cohen, December 10 2014, 1 Comment

Integrating Sustainability

Patagonia has adopted a new decentralized approach to sustainability which eliminates the separate sustainability group and incorporates sustainability-concentrated positions in their related departments of the company (e.g. those with environmental materials expertise were moved into the materials department; folks with social labor and environmental impact skills are now installed in the design department).

Patagonia management saw real limitations in having a Sustainability Department: top-down management and departmentally-isolated innovation. The ultimate goal is to integrate innovative sustainability thinking, values and goals into every employee and understand the full footprint of the company through the supply chain.

I do wonder if decentralization is just dressing the issue in different clothing and if including the sustainability positions in different departments will dilute the unity of sustainability goals. It would be interesting to know what problems Patagonia was seeking to address by making these organizational changes – were there financial savings realized by eliminating a stand-alone department? Was the argument posed that goals could be met with less cost and time by streamlining processes and facilitating inter-department discussion and innovation? There would be great value to do case studies or reports which could illustrate the changes and measure improvements at Patagonia and other companies with decentralized approaches to sustainability.

Decentralized sustainability makes sure knowledge, responsibility and accountability reside where execution takes place. This is key with sustainable fashion companies which vet and improve every material and process (as Patagonia does).

Rick Ridgeway, VP of environmental affairs at Patagonia, worked with the SAC/Sustainable Apparel Coalition to create the Higg Index 2.0. Levi Strauss & Co., an early member of the SAC, also collaborated on the first Index. The Index draws on measurement tools used by The Global Social Compliance Program, Nike and the Fair Labor Association, to name a few. This tool helps organizations standardize measurement and evaluate the environmental performance of apparel products across the supply chain. Companies are assessed at the brand, product, and facility levels; from the design of a product, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use and care and finally the end-of-life of the product. The tool provides great potential for communication and collaboration that spans manufacturers, retailers and brands–which bodes well for industry-wide transparency moving forward.

For the first time in this industry, the Higg Index enables companies to compare their successes on equal ground with competitors, often generating an instant desire to improve. Does the Index aid in achieving the ideal of transparency in the competitive world of fashion production and design? Does use of the Higg Index and chasing the ideal of transparent conflict with competition and trade secrets/patent rights? I would be curious to see these points addressed.

"Mindful production”, a partner to decentralized sustainability, is the use of resources, ethical practices and ecological liability to reorganize the industry from the ground up. The intention is to shift responsibility so that everybody is accountable for the areas they control. The SAC hopes companies at all levels of the value chain will also continue to exchange sustainability best practices amongst themselves.

“They can have a conversation with those areas beyond them as well, and really shift the dynamic from top-down to more of a matrix, so that everybody is playing a real role and improving environmental and social performance across the supply chain,” said Jason Kibbey, Executive Director of the SAC.

We live in a world based on the power of metrics and measuring progress. New teams are organized around the principals of the Higg Index suite of tools. The merits of the decentralized approach will emerge with time, refinement and application.