(Photo Credit: Inditex)

How companies can integrate a more sustainable materials strategy into their business

Companies with a preferred fiber and materials strategy follow a systematic approach to integrating preferred fibers and materials into their business. At the most basic level, this means moving towards sourcing more sustainable materials, but ideally it also involves alignment with global efforts like the SDGs as well as efforts around a transition to a circular economy.

The Material Change Index allows companies to better understand how their engagement compares to their peers. Here are a few overarching approaches that have allowed some of the leading companies to build holistic materials strategies that make a positive impact.


Commit to change

Organizations looking to move towards a more sustainable materials portfolio should start by setting measurable targets. These can be for overall materials use or by fiber, and could focus on growing absolute volumes of preferred materials or increasing the proportion of preferred materials versus conventional. The most progressive organizations link their targets to global agendas like the SDGs or Science Based Targets. And, they make public commitments to keep themselves accountable.

MATERIAL CHANGE IN ACTION: Since 2001, the Inditex Group (which owns eight fashion brands including Zara) has integrated four consecutive multi-year sustainability plans into all phases of the product life cycle: from design and sourcing, to manufacturing and quality control, to logistics and sales. Their most recent raw material sourcing commitments include that 100 percent of the cotton, linen, viscose and polyester used by all Inditex brands will be organic, more sustainable or recycled by 2025. These fibers constitute 90 percent of the raw materials purchased by the Group. “We have always conceived our sustainability project as a work in progress, a never ending task,” said Félix Poza, Inditex Chief Sustainability Officer. “It is necessary to increase the pace of progress – without that it won’t be possible to reduce (or not increase) the impact of the fashion industry. We hope that our commitment and management in this field can be a force for change for the whole sector.”

(Photo Credit: C&A)

Get everyone on board

Setting targets is a necessary first step, but the real work is in meeting them. To do that, it’s essential to secure alignment and buy-in from key stakeholders across the organization. The most impactful strategies might require a longer-term pivot from the way business has been conducted thus far, so business leaders need to become change advocates and investors need to be bought into the change in direction. Finally, the buyers and designers who play an important role in actually choosing more preferred options need to be set up for success. It’s not enough to merely task them with making more sustainable choices. They need to be equipped and incentivized to do so. This means rewarding those that explicitly and consciously factor sustainability value into their decision-making process.

MATERIAL CHANGE IN ACTION: Global retailer C&A began its preferred material sourcing journey in 2005 when it produced and sold one million pieces made from organic cotton. Fourteen years later, that number has increased to over 170 million certified organic cotton pieces per year. The fashion retailer credits this scaling success to sourcing strategy engagement across all levels of the organization — a lesson that is now being applied to increasing usage of other more sustainable fibers, like recycled materials and more sustainable viscose. For example, C&A’s sustainability team trained merchant teams on how to buy organic cotton (including what certifications to look for) and used internal ambassadors to create excitement about the initiative across the business. “Organic cotton brought a tremendous amount of pride and engagement amongst our employees and is seen as a lighthouse for our company values,” explained C&A Chief Sustainability Officer Jeffrey Hogue. “Every employee has the opportunity to contribute through their actions, whether it’s placing certified organic cotton into our collections or serving as an ambassador to our customers on the benefits of organic cotton.”

(Photo Credit: Mantis World)

Invest in collective action

When it comes to the raw materials sourcing stage of the supply chain, the issues that need addressing and the levers that can be used to address them are numerous and wide-ranging. At this stage, it can be helpful to work with others to drive meaningful change. Top performing companies tend to invest in collective action alongside governments, industry bodies and peer companies, and share their learnings widely so that other companies can benefit from them.

MATERIAL CHANGE IN ACTION: In 2017, clothing supplier Mantis World pledged to shift all its production to more sustainable fibers by 2021 — and has achieved this goal two years ahead of schedule. Early in its sustainability journey, Mantis World saw the value in partnering with industry organizations like non-profit Solidaridad, which helped its family-owned factory become the first Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified factory in Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, Mantis World is sharing what it has learned through Textile Exchange’s Pan-Africa Working Group, collaborating on a white paper targeted toward policymakers about the threat of genetically modified (GMO) cotton in Africa. “This would not have happened unless several organizations — big and small — worked together, shared resources to create a piece of advocacy work aimed at government policy,” said CEO Prama Bhardwaj. “When it comes to wider global environmental and social issues, we cannot even define them, let alone solve them, as one business alone. Being part of initiatives where organizations come together, share experience honestly and learn collectively is far more effective.”

Go back to the Leveling Up homepage to explore further sections for insights from the 2019 Material Change Index survey, or learn how you can participate in the 2020 Material Change Index.