Christina Raab (Cradle to Cradle): "Brands must stop changing suppliers every season”
With the implementation of the Extended Producer Responsibility policy in Europe, fashion companies are becoming increasingly aware of the urgent need to transform their operating model. The demand for environmental responsibility is catching up to them. Cradle to Cradle is advocating for the industry to become more circular. In honor of Global Recycling Day on March 18, we had a chat with Christina Raab (president of the organization that issues a certification to companies) on the upcoming opportunities for fashion and cosmetics companies.
FashionNetwork.com: Global Recycling Day is this March 18. There is a great deal of important vocabulary in the sustainability field. We talk about zero waste, eco-responsibility, circularity, etc. For entrepreneurs, it’s sometimes difficult to find their way around these terms, especially since there are labels for different topics and different markets. How would you explain this?
Christina Raab: All these concepts embrace different topics. They all fall under the Cradle to Cradle framework, which includes concepts of zero waste, circularity, but also includes compliance with legal requirements, such as those established in France. For each of the issues we analyze, there are labels that also allow us to move towards certification. The Cradle to Cradle Institute is a non-profit organization founded in 2010. We are very involved in redefining these notions of circularity and ecoresponsibility. We have a holistic approach by looking at the different aspects of material safety and product circularity as well as clean air, climate change, water and soil management and social equity, which are verified by independent parties. This allows companies to communicate with their teams and consumers about very significant achievements.
But it's very true that there is a lot of confusion regarding these terms. In fact, everyone understands something differently depending on the vocabulary used. For some, if you talk about circularity, they will hear "recycled cotton". Others will understand "waste management". These topics are connected. But there is a strong need to educate the masses so that these terminologies are widely shared and understood. The important thing for us is to be very proactive on the issue of circularity.
FNW: Among Cradle to Cradle’s stakeholders, there are several representatives from major cosmetics, construction and textile companies such as H&M. How do you prevent any suspicions of greenwashing?
CR: There are several facets to this actually. We fund the research and the certification program through licenses that companies pay for in order to use the certification logo on their products. And each company that receives training and coaching pays a fee. We also have the Academy where everyone can have online training. In addition, we are also supported by foundations and charities and we participate in projects funded by the European Commission. Finally, to avoid greenwashing, the institute has established specific criteria. But on a day-to-day basis, independent organizations in each region monitor the progress of the companies. We deliver the certification valid for two years after a final audit.
FNW: The construction industry is very present in your business. Are textiles and cosmetics not as dynamic?
CR: We have a strong presence in the construction industry because one of our founders is an architect. We work with 650 companies worldwide and it's true that half of them are in construction today. However, I have to say that the sector is not quite developed. Most certifications granted to them are bronze. If you look at the cosmetics and textile players, they are much more advanced. Textile companies are often already gold certified and cosmetic companies are a mix between silver and gold.
FNW: Does this mean that companies in these industries are already well underway in their development to meet the standard of your framework?
CR: The fashion and cosmetics industries have already applied a certain supply chain transparency. This transparency facilitates the validation of criteria and, beyond that, these are two industries where innovation is a driving force. Cosmetics, for example, is constantly looking for new formulas and is very reactive to consumer trends. It's the same with textiles. Relationships with suppliers are based on finding the best and most innovative materials. It's the direct relationship with the consumer that forces us to question ourselves.
FNW: Regulations are being implemented on recyclability and non-destruction of products. Are companies aware of this?
CR: These standards are helping to spread awareness about recyclability. Companies understand that it is no longer possible to destroy their products or to send them to landfill. They need to understand what happens to their products after they are sold. The next step is to think about how to keep these products in the recycling loop.
FNW: With this awareness, we are going beyond just using recycled cotton. Is design also becoming an important factor?
CR: In the textile industry, everything starts with the design. If you design with the least amount of waste, it will have a global impact. This means working with the best materials. This issue was originally handled by the sustainability department of a company, but now the design and buying teams are getting involved. It's a necessity for finding the best materials, to negotiate the best deals, and to get the best final product.
FNW: And for brands that are not so developed, how should they get involved?
CR: They need to understand that the days when an isolated action based on environmental responsibility was executed just to tick a box are over. It’s really important to question themselves on how to express its positioning to its consumer and to validate its actions. It can no longer be a company initiative that is not validated by an independent observer. In respect to this, we have a worldwide reputation for our rigorous, science-based approach.
Another tip is that every company needs to think about how to organize themselves with their suppliers. It's really important to have a long term vision. Brands have to stop changing suppliers every season for the sake of costs, but rather build a relationship of trust and develop projects with their partners. Then, the approach must be infused into every department of the company. This is perhaps the most important point.
"Many brands communicate their sustainable developments but the insights are actually with their suppliers."
FNW: Supply chain transformation is something that many companies didn't want to address. Is this changing?
CR: Yes, that's true. It's also because it requires a revision of the way we work, that new processes must be established with transparency. It's a change that has to be made internally. We work with brands but we also work with retailers, and major retailers play a very important role. When a player like Zalando promotes sustainable collections and establishes certain criteria, it represents a very important lever for change throughout the entire industry.
FNW: When speaking to suppliers, some of them seem to be more progressive than brands in terms of environmental responsibility. Is this usually the case?
CR: Production sites in the supply chain are becoming more and more environmentally responsible. Many brands communicate their sustainable developments, but the insights are actually with their suppliers.
FNW: That's pretty good news. It means that there are available solutions for brands.
CR: Exactly. In fact, there is a need for brands to invest in these solutions.
"We're going to see a big acceleration this decade"
FNW: But then, in cosmetics and textiles, what are the constraints slowing down circularity development?
CR: The most essential thing is the right mindset. Managers and teams need to be educated, and there needs to be a greater understanding on these issues. It's more than just launching a recycled polyester or cotton capsule collection.
This raises the question of how to review the supply chain. If the company changes its suppliers every season, it still makes it very difficult to adopt a circular approach. And then there is always a lack of transparency on the supply chain’s organization and on the materials that go into the products. Finally, one of the most important points is that there is no structure in the textile industry today for true product recycling.
FNW: What do you mean by that?
CR: The ideal would be for brands to recycle their products in order to make the same product. Some outdoor brands are starting to avoid mixing materials so that they can easily work with the recycled material. But that means having the infrastructure to be able to take the product back from the consumer, and then put it back into the value chain and make a product of the same quality again. There are models but they are not industrialized. We need to scale up. That means rethinking all the steps and mobilizing consumers, brands, the entire value chain, recycling companies. Everyone.
FNW: Do you have any idea when this might be operational?
CR: The drivers are there! We just need the investments to accelerate them to an industrial scale. I think we're going to see a big acceleration this decade with many brands setting 2030 goals.
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