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March 27, 2023

Experts Reflect on Sustainable Business Practices in the Textile and Clothing Industry

Feature Series: Caring for the Future

On March 24, 2023, the Georgetown University Representative Office in Rome, in partnership with La Civiltà Cattolica and the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, hosted an event on “Sustainability in the Textile and Clothing Industry” as part of its Caring for the Future event series. Participants reflected on the implementation of sustainable business practices in the textile and fashion sector in light of Pope Francis’ call to protect our common home, prominently featured in his encyclical Laudato Si.

The event began with welcome remarks from Georgetown Representative in Rome Dr. Debora Tonelli and Ms. Emily Zeeberg, public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. Tonelli underscored Georgetown University’s commitment to support global sustainability efforts while recognizing the challenges in closing the gap between the ideals of Laudato Si and the real world. Zeeberg focused, on one hand, on the United States' concern about the fashion industry—such as fast fashion and its impact on the economy and the environment—and, on the other hand, on the importance of a concerted action amongst industries, governments, and citizens towards sustainability.

Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, introduced the event themes in his remarks on the concept of integral ecology found in Laudato Si.

The perspective to be adopted is necessarily global but must be implemented starting from the local dimension […] The world of textiles and fashion can play an educational and communicative role for new lifestyles, with a view to integral ecology.

He focused on the interconnection of everything and the responsibility that this entails for the human being, laying out three key points for consideration:

  1. The interdependence of responsibilities, or the recognition that our behaviors and lifestyles have global consequences; ​
  2. The awareness that change begins with the ethics of our choices; and
  3. The beauty of sustainability.

Rev. Spadaro observed that beauty opens our minds to many new and stimulating perspectives, which is reminiscent of the role of education and communication in the world of textiles and fashion. Quoting Laudato Si, he concluded, “More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people's quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance.”

Entrepreneurship and Promoting Circular Best Practices

In the first event session, moderator Giovanni Luchetti, who specializes in country, regional, and theme-based investment reports, invited Mr. Giulio Bonazzi and Mr. Matteo Bozzalla to share their visions on entrepreneurship. Bonazzi, CEO and chairman of Aquafil S.p.A., emphasized the need for business leaders to make a radical shift towards developing and adopting circular business models.

We need a virtuous circle that is self-fueling and grows without depleting nature.

Bonazzi pointed to Aquafil's carpet recycling centers as an example: they have provided Aquafil with a way to take back nylon-based products like carpet and fabric scraps that would otherwise end up in landfills and create ECONYL® regenerated nylon. In U.S. states like California and New York, carpet recycling laws incentivize businesses to recycle their carpet, which benefits the recycler and the business receiving the recycled materials, as well as the environment. “The companies that lead the way with circular business models,” Bonazzi explained, “have given us an example of what is possible and an inspiring hope for our future economy.”

Bozzalla, CEO of Italian luxury outerwear producer Valstar, shared that the company is similarly committed to incorporating the latest in circular best practices by rediscovering a slow fashion approach distinct from the fast fashion cycle.

We should craft something to keep and to treasure in the long term, to pass it on to future generations and that possibly gets better as the years go by.

Bozzalla also stressed the importance of educating younger generations, noting that “[slow fashion] is possible if the future generations, thanks to the universities and their own education, are able to direct their consumption towards sustainable and circular garments.” However, the change must be synergistic. As Bozzalla pointed out, “Brands and consumers can change the future of fashion habits and the communication industry, and social media of brands and retailers have to also play their part to properly spread knowledge to a wider audience.”

Government, Strategy, and Corporate Responsibility

The second part of the event focused on government and strategy. Ms. Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab at New York University’s School of Professional Studies, and Ms. Geraldine McIntyre, former chief executive of Sunrise Senior Living, discussed old and new economic models. Jaffe described how the business concept of planned obsolescence, created to generate economic activity and bring the world out of the Great Depression, led to a consumer-driven culture in the United States.

In the context of climate change and sustainable development, we now understand that the ‘take, make, use, waste, throw away’ culture is destructive to the planet.

Governments and consumers are looking to a new paradigm of the circular economy. For example, Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers in U.S. urban settings are turning more to thrifting, buying and wearing used clothes. Jaffe identified a few governments that are already creating new guidelines and enforcement for circularity. Particularly notable is the proposed New York Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act—an ambitious supply chain transparency law that will apply to all apparel and footwear companies with over $100 million in global revenues that sell into the New York market. Failure to comply will be enforced by fines of up to 2% of annual revenues. “New York hopes its apparel regulations will be as mobilizing as California’s rulemaking for automobile standards,” Jaffe said.

Some companies have already taken bold actions in terms of sustainability. Following a terrible fire in a Bangladeshi clothing factory in 2013, McIntyre explained how PVH Corp decided to elevate corporate social responsibility efforts to board-level oversight through the Corporate Responsibility (CR) committee. 

The Bangladesh catastrophe heightened the awareness that this must be something that the company ethically and from a business sustainability perspective must have greater scrutiny and accountability, given our mission to produce not only great clothing but also in a way that is net positive to all our stakeholders.

In 2015, McIntyre became PVH Corp’s CR committee chair, responsible for program-wide strategic review. Her efforts “culminated in a new direction called Forward Fashion for Good,” an initiative that “encompasses human rights, climate change and environmental impact, and sustainable fashion across the enterprise, including our third-party manufacturing sites.” Through this work she has witnessed shifts in external oversight of PVH and the fashion industry more broadly.

We are now entering a new phase in which the company (and industry) scrutiny has shifted from NGOs and consumers to government and regulatory agencies.

McIntyre concluded with an optimistic view about this new phase. “Within the U.S. and Europe, there is proposed legislation around tracking product from source to sale, substantiating claims made about our product, and specific reductions in environmental impact,” she observed. "This will both complicate and accelerate our CR commitments—and while it will be challenging with so many external perspectives to heed, in some ways it will be comforting to know that there is even more impetus for industry to find solutions to the problems that are created by the very nature of fashion.”

Financial Education and Cooperation Across Sectors

The third and final part of the event addressed financial education. Ms. Paola Mungo, professor in charge of sustainable finance at Università Cattolica Milano and of financial institutions and markets law at Bocconi University and former co-chief executive and general manager of the Azimut Group, emphasized that “it’s a sort of cultural revolution where education and financial education have a key role in particular for the next generation. It’s crucial to invest in human capital and in sustainable financial skills.” She highlighted the importance of “cooperation between the different sectors, industry, i.e. textile and clothing, university, public administration and also financial education, creating more synergies for a brighter future and fostering transparency on these topics.”

Mungo also underscored the critical role of sustainable finance for the future.

Sustainable responsible investments represent a long-term strategy that integrates economic and financial analysis with environmental, social, and governance analysis with the aim of creating value for the investors and for the whole society, while at the same time mitigating the financial risk.

In conclusion, Mungo shared that as a leverage for sustainable growth, reorienting capital flows towards sustainable projects is an effective bridge to the real economy.

Innovating for Greater Sustainability

During the event, the “triple helix” model of innovation—the collaborative relationships between industry, government, and academia—emerged as a potential strategy for the sustainable development of the textile and clothing industry and as a way to educate international investors to make better investment decisions.

Generating consumer awareness, creating circular clothing design for longevity and recycling, developing new fibers, and enacting incentives for circular practices emerged as impactful ways the textile and clothing industry can implement sustainable business practices in their operations.

Ultimately, as Rev. Spadaro pointed out in his introductory remarks, the interdependence of responsibility, the awareness that change begins with the ethics of our choices, and the beauty of sustainability are the keys to building a more sustainable world.