Louise McCabe (Asos): "Sustainability cannot be an external part of a business organisation"

On 12th October, in Paris, Louise McCabe, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at UK fashion retailer Asos, presented the third 'Asos Made in Kenya' collection, created in collaboration with African ethical apparel manufacturer Soko. It was the opportunity for McCabe to talk to FashionNetwork about the challenges and obstacles faced by fashion brands, as they move in the direction of sustainable development and social responsibility. 

Louise McCabe - Matthieu Guinebault/FashionNetwork

FashionNetwork: Which sustainability strategy is Asos currently pursuing?

Louise McCabe: We have very stringent [sustainability] objectives for our business, for example working 100% with sustainable cotton by 2020. This means we will offer a much more responsible range in denim and other apparel, whether using BCI, made-in-Africa, organic or fair-trade cotton. For now, we chose to collaborate with an organisation specialised in sustainable apparel sourcing, in order to assess the areas in which our business most impacts the environment, looking at cotton, viscose and polyester in particular. In parallel, for this collaboration with Kenya apparel manufacturer Soko, our main concern were the working conditions of textile workers, and the fact that this work may help them move above the poverty line. This is part of our long-term strategy. For the time being, it's only a small, 100% sustainable collection, but it's only the first step. Nevertheless, it's part and parcel of a much broader engagement, involving also the humane treatment of animals, and our commitment to fully map our supply chain.

FNW: Do fashion labels have a duty to act on these issues?

LMc: We play our role, together with our 8,988 partner brands. Some of them are well set in this direction, such as Adidas for example. We can learn from Adidas, and we can use our joint influence to push the industry towards change. As for smaller brands, we can point the way for them to the best sustainability practices, by clearly stating what we expect from them. I believe labels, and major labels in particular, have the responsibility of supporting smaller organisations in this evolution. It will only work if there is collaboration.

FNW: Which difficulties did you encounter in the development of Asos's sustainability strategy?

LMc: To give an example, mapping Asos's supply chain is especially difficult. It's a rather complex tangle. And often, depending on the size of the companies in question, it's difficult to change things for reasons of logistics. Asos is growing between 30% and 40% a year, all of this within an industry in complete upheaval. Keeping up with these changes may prove to be tricky. Supply-chain mapping requires the deployment of a huge amount of resources across a large number of countries. It also requires that we build a relationship of trust with our suppliers. When we were smaller, and so were the orders we submitted, we had less influence. But now that we buy on a much larger scale, we are able to try to persuade manufacturers to change. We still haven't extended this approach to farms, but we regularly publish details of our strategies. Not because we want to say "we are more concerned with sustainable development than you are," but because the entire industry needs to become sustainable and transparent.

FNW: How has the approach to sustainability evolved in your organisation?

LMc: Ten years ago, we began to explain the challenges to our retail division, so that the whole organisation was aware of the issue. Now, it is our CEO himself who is passionate about this matter. At every one of our company's major meetings, he reminds us that "fashion and integrity: this is the kind of company we want to be!" And now that he is explicit about this, everyone is too, and everyone is in synch with this objective. For me, this is like being Alice in Wonderland, while ten years ago I could only approach the issue with kid gloves. Involving everyone, right from the top of the hierarchical pyramid, is vital. Sustainability cannot be an external part of a business organisation. It must be fully integrated with its processes.

FNW: Does the mindset of brands change as rapidly as that of customers?

LMc: You cannot pretend, and claim "Oh yes, we are sustainable," if you only introduce five items complying with sustainable development imperatives. We must acknowledge that, in the fashion industry, the supply chain is notoriously complicated. We know all of the dubious things that happen throughout it. The fact that some buy large quantities of fabric and then discard the bulk of them. We must change this whole consumerist culture to enter the new circular economy, to learn to respect [the environment] and to prevent waste. But sustainable development isn't a race. Consumers are showing themselves to be increasingly sensitive about it, and labels too are increasingly working together on these issues.

FNW: And have suppliers too evolved their approach?

LMc: Africa isn't for the time being a large market in terms of sales, notably due to the continent's logistical problems. We manufacture chiefly in China, East Europe, the UK, India and Mauritius. We feel that manufacturers are beginning to really understand, and to be more open to sustainable development. One of the big challenges we faced in some countries was integrity. We don't expect to be told that "All is perfect in my factory, see." We prefer an honest approach: "It's tough for us, could you help us?" This is the kind of relationship we have been trying to build. And we don't turn our backs at the first disappointment, we don't cancel our orders on the spot, but we try to encourage change on critical issues. Covering our backs is no longer an option, we must improve the existing situation. And because we are transparent about the difficulties we face, we have the support of several NGOs."

Translated by Nicola Mira

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