Sustainable Fashion: A Brand New Bag


Last Wednesday, Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and the Sustainability Practice Network (SPN) hosted a panel of inspiring and knowledgeable women who shared their insights and latest developments in sustainability within fashion industry. The conversation was led by Debera Johnson, Executive Director of the Pratt/Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator and Executive Director of the Pratt/Center for Sustainable Design Strategies. The panelists were: Kate Daly, Executive Director, Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners; Meghan Ryan, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR; Megan Meiklejohn, Sustainable Materials & Transparency Manager, Eileen Fisher; and Tara St. James, Founder, Study New York. In the hour and a half, the panelists make the case in point the importance of sustainability for our future and the environment, transparency in the supply chain and innovations leading big change.

We begin with Kate Daly, the Executive Director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in triple bottom line companies who are advancing circular economy, emerging recycling technologies, and in sustainable consumer packaging. Kate defines circularity as a concept of “keeping molecules in play”. She makes the comparison of circularity in the natural world where bionutrients are recycled and reused to shift from the take-make-waste linear economy to a more regenerative one. Some of the business models include collaborative consumption -reuse, remanufacturing- making sure we are in this closed loop and not sending into the landfill that actually are valuable materials whether it’s electronics, plastics or textiles. With NYC’s goal of becoming zero waste by 2030, there are emerging companies using mechanical recycling (shred and reuse) and chemical recycling (reconstituting the material). Currently in New York, 193,000 tons of textile waste end up in landfills, costing the city millions of dollars just to put it there. The opportunity for innovation is tremendous and there is a huge competitive market advantage for New York to stay on top of those trends and its global status in the fashion world. When Tara St. James launched her line in 2009 called Study NY, her first collection was entirely zero waste.

Another aspect of circularity can be found in regenerative agriculture. As a lead of sustainable materials and transparency manager for 4 years at Eileen Fisher, Megan Meiklejohn states that on site verification is most valued along with their commitment to sustainability and transparency. Aware that supply chains for garments are extremely complex, Eileen Fisher tries their best to map and trace supply chains from farm to garment production with emphasis of soil and land quality. Rebuilding biodiversity of the soil results in both carbon drawdown and improving in water retention. Having traveled to New Zealand, Australia and Argentina when sourcing sustainable wool, they quickly learned that healthy land = healthy sheep = high quality wool. Sustaining relationships with their dye houses and textile mills are key, as well, in educating their suppliers what it means to be sustainable and in keeping those lines of communication open.

Ethical labor is another big issue in the supply chain. The culture of fast fashion has ignored the fact that someone, somewhere made that garment and in the end it doesn’t justify the the low cost in the making of that garment. At Study NY, Tara St. James adds the human touch by asking the maker of her garments to sign the label in order to make that connection with her customer. Since the factory disaster at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh a few years ago sparked the global movement called Fashion Revolution, with teams in over 100 countries around the world campaigning for systemic reform of the fashion industry with a focus on the need for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain. Meghan Ryan adds that there is a great movement among brands to become more transparent of where clothing is made. For example at BSR, Meghan mentions of a collaboration among large apparel brands that focuses on worker engagement in factories such as implement digital surveys and other tools to elevate worker voices back to brands and stakeholders. Another source she gives us is IPE’s Green Supply Chain: Brand Map is a great resource to see where brands like Puma or Gap Inc.’s factories are located on a map as a way to publicly verify their environmental compliance. This also pressures their competitors to be held more accountable on their initiative to be transparent. More advances, we are seeing a large momentum around wage digitization. Paying workers via bank transfers directly, especially empowering women workers to have access to their own money and to have more control of household purchases as a result.

In the financial sector, Meghan Ryan teaches us about a new financial model created by Puma and BMP Parisbas Bank to improve environmental, health and safety and social standards. A supplier is scored by their adherence to the company's social and environmental standards through an auditing process. If they score well, this can help them access preferential lending rates and other financial incentives. Meghan noted that a big tension point in the industry is that most suppliers would love to be more sustainable, but there is a cost and they need to access capital at a rate that makes sense for them. Large brands like Puma can act like a broker to enable suppliers to access key financing they need to make capital improvements and spend more on their employees, simultaneously becoming more sustainable.

With advancements in textile technology like Bolt Threads using bio-mimicry to create spider silk, 3D printing to accommodate on demand manufacturing, and automation in the supply chain on the horizon, it is no wonder that is said “the road to sustainability is a JOURNEY, not a destination”. We are seeing the ripple effect of this movement across all sectors globally. It was great to experience this panel in a different environment such as Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and hope this inspired a new generation in different fields of study.


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