As a 35-plus year veteran of the decorated apparel industry, I have spent much of my time in senior executive roles focused on product development, marketing, innovation, and sustainability. I have taken part in countless conferences globally and engaged with hundreds of experts in the sustainability arena, but I still struggle to give a simple response to the question, “What is sustainability?”

It’s difficult to provide a simple answer because it’s a complicated subject. The textbook definitions for environmental sustainability include, “… actions that are not harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources in ways that will negatively impact future generations.”

Given the underlying global reach of the textile and apparel supply chains that our industry relies upon, most people define sustainability as something that goes beyond just the environment to also include social and human impacts. That perspective has undoubtedly been influenced over the past 24 months by media reports around textile and apparel supply chains highlighting human rights issues and the devastating socio-economic impacts of climate change on workers’ lives and livelihoods. All these factors make finding that simple answer to the question even more challenging.

My personal definition of sustainability is found at the intersection of environmental, social, and economic impacts related to every one of our practices. I have been fortunate enough throughout my career to see amazing examples of sustainable innovations and responsible practices that are ultimately moving us in the right direction. While most sustainability experts say that there is no magic pill solution for us to instantly make the industry sustainable, we all agree that the path ahead will be filled with small wins along the way, each carving out positive change and moving us forward in our journey.

This article is the first in a series that will cover many areas of sustainability, with a specific focus on the decorated apparel industry and how sustainability impacts your business.

Throughout the course of this series, I will provide insights and clarity around some of the more complicated aspects of sustainability, always trying to bring the discussions back to your business and the industry you are in. One important objective will also be to highlight the opportunities that sustainability can bring to your business, helping you not only operate more sustainably but also as an important driver of profitability and growth.

What’s Driving this Changing Landscape?

The answer to that is also complicated, but suffice it to say the pressures are coming from multiple angles. Media has raised the profile of globalized supply chains and increased awareness of issues in the eyes of both the general public and governments around the world. This has created regulatory shifts in policies and groundswell movements with consumers.

The investor community, long seen as the cause of many of the issues we face, is now increasingly recognizing that risks associated with poor practices and climate change have negative impacts on their investments. Investment firms are now employing sustainability experts and have started demanding more transparent visibility into companies’ supply chains and sustainability impacts. This allows them to factor these considerations into their valuations of these companies.

One benefit to these influences that’s impacting companies’ approaches to sustainability is the attention now being given to it at the most senior levels, unlocking the necessary budget dollars and company resources needed to address issues.

This is Not a Trend

One thing that is absolutely certain: The demand for more sustainable products and expectations around responsible business practices are not going to fade away anytime soon.

Recent research, funded by the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol and done by The Economist Intelligence Unit, showed that 61% of companies have experienced increased demand from consumers for sustainably produced products since the start of the pandemic. That same research showed that 69% of these companies are looking to increase spending on sustainability in their own operations as well as throughout their supply chains.

What Do We Do Now?

You have two basic choices: Jump on the bandwagon and take advantage of this as an opportunity for your business, or stand on the sidelines and risk missing out on any opportunities that are created as a result of this changing landscape.

My suggested path forward is to dive into sustainability head-first and discover the value that can be added to your business (and personal lives). Along the way you will hopefully uncover sustainable practices that can help you reduce the environmental impacts of your business, which coincidentally usually drives better financial outcomes as well.

You may also just take what you learn and add it to your sales toolkit to become a better solutions provider to your customers. Almost all the companies, government departments, educational institutions, events management teams, and charitable organizations that you service have some kind of mandate to reduce their environmental impact or ensure ethical sourcing guidelines are being met. If you can help them meet their own internal goals, you position your business as a more valuable supplier to them and increase the likelihood of their repeat business. This also hopefully gets them to focus on something other than price when making decisions.

If you are one of those people who thinks this sounds complicated and expensive, I caution that the history books are filled with many examples of businesses that stood on the sidelines as their industry underwent change and eventually found themselves left behind.

One of the most famous examples is the story around Blockbuster Video. In the early 2000s, the story goes that they were spending millions on upgrading their stores and looking for ways to maximize late fees on video returns as a good business strategy. At the same time, they refused an offer from a start-up called Netflix to host Blockbuster’s video rentals on their online platform. Fast forward many years and we all know how that story ended.

In the early 2000s, sustainability was not as important a consideration for business strategies as it is today, but had it been at the time, one would have been able to argue that Netflix’s concept of streaming videos online was certainly more sustainable than the overall environmental footprint of thousands of storefronts and all the CO2 emissions related to customers driving to pick up and drop off videos.

I invite you to join me along this journey over the next few articles, discovering the hidden gems within the complex topic of sustainability. In looking forward to the next piece, it will dive deeper into the top 10 tips for running a more sustainable business in the decorated apparel industry.

In an effort to ensure that this content is most relevant to you, please feel free to reach out with suggested topics you would like to see covered by sending me an email to gbell@chasingbetter.ca.