LONDON — When Claire Bergkamp was completing her master’s degree at London College of Fashion, sustainability was a fringe topic and she was one of the only students who chose to focus on it. She took up the role of sustainability manager at Stella McCartney in 2012 — at a time when such positions were unheard of — and went on to become sustainability and innovation director at the British label, building a full sustainability team and spearheaded an ambitious environmental, human rights and innovation strategy.

Almost a decade on, the sustainability conversation is no longer on the sidelines. Her early efforts are being rewarded, and her expertise is in high demand across the fashion industry, which is under pressure to reduce its environmental impact. As well as maintaining an advisory role to the Stella McCartney board and to the chief executive officer, Bergkamp has taken on the role of chief operating officer at Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit focusing on “accelerating the use of preferred materials across the textile industry.”

Here, Bergkamp breaks down the basics of material sustainability that she believes brands and consumers alike need to be aware of, and highlights the work Textile Exchange is doing in setting global standards; tackling issues such as the need to switch 17.1 million metric tons of conventional polyester to recycled polyester by 2025, and educating firms about the aftermath of their sourcing choices. She also talks about what is shaping up to be the next big challenge for the industry: biodiversity.

WWD: What are the best ways for fashion firms to approach fabric sustainability?

Claire Bergkamp: A company has a few ways of approaching material sustainability. The first is traceability and direct collaboration with farmers and the supply chain, building those bridges, developing programs at the farm level. But the easiest ways to make a claim is to buy a certified material because that standard and certification verify the claims [that a material is indeed recycled or organic] on your behalf.

Traceability is always hard: It really depends on a company’s business model to some degree, how complex it is and the relationships they have with their supply chain. It’s certainly not impossible, but it has traditionally been complicated. There are some technology solutions that are coming into the marketplace which are making things easier. We’re looking into them at Textile Exchange, and they will help with that digital traceability, but I personally don’t think anything can replace relationship building, really getting to know people in your supply chain and developing stable relationships where traceability can be a part of the conversation from the beginning.

WWD: How is Textile Exchange working to set global standards when it comes to eco-fabrics?

C.B.: We have the gold recycling standard, which verifies the claim of something being recycled; we have standards like the responsible wool standard that verify claims of animal welfare or responsible land management, and we verify claims on responsible down. These standards are developed through a multistakeholder approach. It’s not something that we have developed on our own. (We’re) using feedback from farmers and companies under certification verification bodies that follow international best practices around ensuring that standards are set in a consistent manner. Basically, they check our standards, on top of us checking our standards, to provide that verification and integrity to the claims being made.

WWD: Are there specific materials that pose the biggest challenges and create more environmental damage than others?

C.B.: It’s not a case of this versus that, but understanding what’s the best within each material: Choosing organic over conventional cotton; choosing recycled over virgin when it comes to polyester, nylons, and anything that’s nonrenewable, and making sure you’re choosing wool from a farm that practices good animal welfare and is treating the land well. There’s a place for all materials, but each material needs to be addressed in its own space and we need to look at its impact, as well as shift those impacts more holistically.

We’ve got some big challenges for certain materials: Polyester is the most used material in the industry by quite a bit, so we really need to increase the use of recycled polyester by a lot. We just launched a recycled challenge in collaboration with the U.N.’s Climate Charter to ask the industry to switch 17.1 million metric tons of conventional polyester to recycled polyester by 2025. In order to do that we have to release scales and some innovations around recycling. It can’t just be mechanically recycled water bottles to achieve that. We need to recycle textiles back into textiles, which is a very small percentage of what is being used.

WWD: Is there a sector of the market that has been more prone to change and adopting the Textile Exchange standards?

C.B.: In every segment of the industry, whether it’s luxury, sports or more high street fashion, there are leaders everywhere making use of standards.

Standards usage is growing every year and I really believe in the power of a standard. I think that if you want to be making an on-product claim, especially an on-product claim around materials, standards are the only factual way to do that. They provide that verification and that ability to stand behind your product and what you’re saying about your company. That’s why they are growing every year, and we are developing new standards, because the market needs them.

WWD: What are some of the new standards and benchmarking tools you are currently developing?

C.B.: I do think that biodiversity is one of the next big topics that we need to think about globally, textiles included. At the end of last year, Textile Exchange launched a biodiversity benchmark tool to start helping companies understand their biodiversity impacts, what they can do to positively impact or to stop negatively impacting biodiversity in the supply chain. It’s a very complicated topic and it’s the early days of the industry kind of wrapping its head around its biodiversity impacts and how their supply chains are pushing up against that. There are some obvious ways: Anything that’s coming out of a forest will immediately have a biodiversity impact [because] around 80 percent of [terrestrial] species live in forests. There are less obvious areas like cotton sourcing: Depending on where you’re growing cotton in the world you can also have a significant biodiversity impact, so the industry is mapping that out and trying to understanding where the biodiversity hot spots are and how they overlap with their supply chains.

In those areas of overlap, we will be focusing on raw materials more. It’s something we’re working on and we’re also collaborating with the Fashion Pact because this is one of their primary areas of focus as well.

WWD: Apart from the benchmarking tool, how are you approaching biodiversity?

C.B.: Our umbrella work right now is a new strategy, launched publicly at the end of last year, on greenhouse gas reduction and looking at biodiversity soil and water impacts within. That means a transition and refocusing of effort for us. Looking at things like regenerative agriculture is going to be a big part of that, understanding how that can be scaled and how we can sequester carbon, how we lock it away in soil and natural resources. We want to make sure we can help the industry navigate biodiversity in a way where it doesn’t become this new buzzword without meaning but maintains its scientific meaning and backing.

There’s so much opportunity in this moment to just really scale things that have been really small. Brands are ready to move quicker with us, because our targets are for 2030, we’re talking about nine years from now, not 50 years from now. So over the next 10 years, we have to see some radical transformation.

WWD: How do environmental and human rights issues across the supply chain interconnect?

C.B.: There are many facets to making a claim on sustainability. At Textile Exchange we are primarily focused on the environmental side and on materials, specifically raw materials, but there are other organizations out there that focus on human rights. We think it’s the industry and the company’s responsibility to connect those dots, to make sure that all of the aspects of sustainability are being looked after. That can include chemical compliance, renewable energy or circularity, which we don’t focus on in our organization. We’re really clear on our expertise, but we’re also very clear that we aren’t ignoring the other areas, we really think that the whole picture needs to be taken into account, so we invest in partnerships and point to other organizations’ expertise.

WWD: To achieve this is it crucial for brands to hire dedicated sustainability teams? You were one of the first to take on such a role at Stella McCartney, but is this becoming common practice?

C.B.: Having a dedicated team and in-house expertise is critical in ensuring there’s someone in the organization that can connect those dots for you. We’re really there to support, we are happy to play that expert role, but at the end of the day how it is implemented in a company, that’s up to an in-house dedicated resource to translating our expertise.

Especially younger designers coming up through the ranks understand that it is not a “nice-to-have,” it’s a “have-to-have.” There’s a mentality shift that has started to happen over the years, but moving it to the next level will require more transformation and more investment into changing things. The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is thinking we can go back to “business-as-usual.”

WWD: Did the pandemic play a role in shifting brands’ focus to more sustainable and less wasteful fabrics?

C.B.: Some issues, including climate change, became harder to ignore and reverberated across everything, whether you were a designer buying fabrics or a person buying something for yourself. In that slowing down there was a shift, but it kind of shifts back and forth because there is also that interest to go back to normal, and to pick up what is perceived as lost: Lost profit, lost sales, whatever that may be. We need to be careful to not believe in false silver linings there, too.

WWD: What role does education play in preparing the next generation of industry professionals to better understand supply chains and material sustainability?

C.B.: There’s been a lot of change: It may not be the number-one priority, but it’s certainly not in the corner. I’m giving a lecture at Harvard Law School later and it’s something that I’ve now been doing for quite a few years in a row. The general counsel at Stella McCartney also runs a short course in fashion law there and the students are always fascinated to know more. There’s an opportunity to deepen the knowledge in schools because what I see a lot when designers are starting out is that they’re really interested in waste and upcycling. It’s kind of an obvious place to start and there’s really a lot of waste on the planet, but at the end of the day that is really hard to scale as a business. So, a lot of really incredible designers that start off doing upcycling end up running into a problem.

What still needs to happen in design education is helping designers and people entering the system, understand the system better, understand sourcing or the difference between organic and conventional cotton. Those things should become top of mind, so when they’re walking into a design studio, the first thing young creators would say is, “I want to use recycled polyester and don’t want to use virgin polyester or I want to use organic cotton.” That’s missing a little bit and we need to connect the dots further. There’s definitely an interest, but understanding the options and the decisions they’d need to make is probably not there the way it should be.

WWD: From your perspective, are consumers the ones responsible to understand these issues and make responsible purchasing decisions? Or does the responsibility lie with the companies?

C.B.: I think companies have the first level of responsibility because the customer can’t do much if they’re not being told. It’s up to companies to provide that information. Certifications and standards are the easiest ways to do that when it comes to materials and environmental sustainability specifically. In many ways that’s a great place to start for a  customer or a brand, being able to have that on-product story about the materials, because materials are in a lot of ways the most tangible part. What you’re interacting with outside of the design, is the material.

So if you’re someone interested in sustainability, looking for something organic, recycled or certified and picking the certified over the noncertified is a great first step toward educating yourself and making more responsible and sustainable decisions on your purchasing. But I don’t expect customers just yet, to feel like they need to be responsible [for a product’s] biodiversity impact.

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