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Blog: Driving sustainable change in the textile and leather industries – Panel discussion at the World Water Week 2016

Sustainability has become a key word buzzing in the World Water Week corridors. The theme for this year’s conference is “Water for Sustainable Growth” – a topic that the textile production sector has been grappling with for years.

Written by: Rami Abdelrahman, Programme Manager, STWIs Global Projects, SIWI

Yesterday’s High Level panel, for example, set collaboration as a defining element in succeeding in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Complex issues, like the water issue, and complex goals like the SDGs, require complex collaborative efforts.

An afternoon session entitled “Driving sustainable change in the textile sector,” set collaboration as the main driver to achieving sustainable growth – with concrete examples from the Sweden Textile Water Initiative (STWI) – a public-private partnership between Swedish brands, the Swedish Government and SIWI – on the European side, while GAP Inc and USAID are exploring collaboration opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic.

Both collaborations aim transform the lives of thousands of textile workers, and others downstream, by empowering workers and building their capacity on everything from resource efficiency to finance and leadership. These collaborations capitalize on the reach of the textile brands in their complex supply chains, on catalytic government funding, and the involvement of competent implementation partners.

Dan Henkle, Senior VP, Global Sustainability, GAP Inc

Dan linked creating safe access to water, a basic human right, to gender equality in the workforce and leadership.  “We have a 135,000 employees working for GAP, and 70% of our workers are women. Our leadership’s gender balance is very similar both in GAP headquarters and local offices. However, the percentage of women working the supply chain is 70%, but the leadership there is different.” GAP worked on personal advancement for women to empower their leadership skills, as one of three key pillars of their work with supply chain, along more environmentally friendly product design of products, and improving the efficiency of production processes.

Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability, H&M

H&M has been working in sustainability since the 1990s. According to Anna Gedda, the challenges we face are systemic and therefore it is important that brands work together. “We need to work transparently and with trust in our suppliers and competitors for a common goal. It is important to work with our factories for the long term, have measurable targets, and provide them with incentives for improvement.” But that is not enough, she adds that working with legislators is also an area that is important but difficult for brands to get involved in, hence H&Ms cooperation with SIWI within the Sweden Textile Water Initiative is important as it builds trust with factories and opens doors to improving legislation in production countries.

One word that all panelists brought up in their opening remarks is “trust”. Another word they included in closing their remarks is “transparency.” Creating an environment to empower trust and transparency is key to any sustainable collaboration, not least, between competitors, and across different sectors.

Elin Larsson, Sustainability Director, Fillippa K

Elin and Anna agreed that brands, whether big or small, share the same issues when it comes to sustainable growth. “We’re entering a new geological era, and we have great power over our ecosystems. We have to take the responsibility, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because we have to survive here on the long run.” She added that her company is moving away from linear towards circular production (recycle, reuse and reduce resources). Calling the textile sector to move from working with supply chains to creating supply-webs, she said collaborating with competitors, customers, suppliers and politicians is crucial. “STWI has provided us a platform to engage with other buyers and with our suppliers, and we can now say that we’ve established the trust for SIWI to enter their facilities and change things on the ground.”

Katarina Veem, Director of the Swedish Water House, SIWI

“Collaborative change is becoming one of SIWIs trademarks. We have been convening water professionals for the past 26 years here in Stockholm, and we know that collaboration is the precondition for success,” Katarina said, recalling the history of the Sweden Textile Water Initiative, which started in 2010 with 30 brands and is now working with 120 suppliers and sub-suppliers in 5 countries. “By promoting shared ownership, learning, and trust towards sustainable change– we’re delivering quantifiable results. Last year, savings by factories reached 5 million dollars.”

Katarina envisions a bright future for the initiative. “We’re moving towards a global Sustainable Textile Water Initiative. Today we have Danish and Norwegian brands, and now engaging other international brands – who share the same resources and future.

Joachim Beijmo, Chief of staff, Sida

As Sida continues to provide catalytic support to STWI, Joachim said it is important to agree on the challenges to agree on how to move forward. “Water is a major risk for businesses and for our planetary well-being. If we look at the global challenge of water, we will not be able to address it without – the access to both public and private financing. So the public-private-partnership model is very useful in this regards. Here we can find a sweet spot between business and development goals.” Joachim said STWI is the biggest partnership between Sida and the private sector. He added that brands provide access to the wider consumer public, where the SDGs and their developments need to be communicated.

Chris Holmes, Global Water coordinator, USAID

While the USAID collaborates with GAP, it also collaborates with other development agencies like Sida, on different financial mechanisms to support global goal achievement. “It was here at the World Water Week last year that we engaged with GAP on our common interest of improving women’s health – so we developed a program to improve their conditions and choices through improved employment environment.” USAID has a MoU with GAP linking sustainable water and health to better employment for women. “We are very focused on the opportunity to reach scale – reach those women and girls who need assistance. In our MoU we are looking at a sector that employs women – and affects households – all along the supply chain. We’re talking about transformation and this collaboration with GAP is one of those transformative opportunities.”

The panelists concluded with lessons learned from working across this matrix of actors: public financing agencies like Sida and USAID, brands like HM, Fillippa K and GAP Inc, and NGOs like SIWI, as well as local consultancies, factories, governmental institutions, and lawmakers. They highlighted long-term capacity building of internal staff teams as key to understanding and addressing complexity of the issues in the textile sector, the importance of improving the pace of financial support through a variety of innovative and collaborative solutions to keep up with the pace of those challenges, and to broaden the scope of collaborative efforts to include other sectors and actors.