Incentivizing Sustainable Fashion: Lessons From Social Entrepreneurs – Forbes

Social entrepreneurs like María Almazán of Spain, pictured above, are testing and open sourcing solutions for sustainable apparel.

Social entrepreneurs like María Almazán of Spain, pictured above, are piloting solutions for sustainable apparel that show industry-wide potential.

By Danielle Batist

An estimated 75 million people are now employed by the apparel industry. It’s a number that has almost quadrupled in the last 15 years. With this exponential growth, the not-so-hidden costs of fashion have also increased. But while skeptics say that changing company behavior simply isn’t profitable, social innovators are proving that there are imaginative and practical ways to get factories and brands on board.

A 2016 report by Ashoka and C&A Foundation found that a key barrier to achieving a more values-driven industry is financial uncertainty. Many apparel companies worry that investing in sustainable alternatives brings too much cost and risk. They’re looking for assurance that investments in staff and production don’t backfire, and that there will be growing demand for “ethical goods” from buyers.

The good news is that the industry has for years been showing signs of willingness and readiness. World Fashion Week, which starts today in Paris, prides itself on playing a major role in helping to shape what it calls “fashion’s sustainable future.” But to keep up with the explosive growth, particularly in the ready-made garment industry, factories and brands need to come on board much more quickly, and on a much larger scale.

Open sourcing solutions

As a former employee of a large fashion company, María Almazán believes intrapreneurs – people who want to drive change from inside organizations – are key to the transformation process. “There are changemakers in every organization,” she says. “They are not doing it to get rich but to change the industry. Because the ideas they introduce may sound alien at first, they need tools and evidence to show their peers how it can be done.”

Recognizing the lack of real-world examples of sustainable factories and brands, Almazán set up one of her own in Spain: Latitude. All parts of the organization are in line with its ethical values, from the way factory workers are integrated to the sourcing of raw materials. But more importantly, the entire factory is open-source, functioning as a real-life, profitable example that other brands and factories can reference as they adopt their own sustainable practices.

Understanding the confidentiality demands that many existing ethical brands face in sharing their business practices, Almazán turned Latitude into a not-for-profit company. The next step is to convince wary competitors that Latitude really is transparent and ready to share its best practices for industry-wide gain. Almazán: “The other day I had a meeting with some people from France. I told them: you can come here and I can show you around and share our know-how. They just didn’t believe that we would really do that!”

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