LILIAN LIU SPEAKING AT THE UN FASHION AND SUSTAINABILITY FORUM
Lilian Liu - Partnership Manager at the UN Global Compact and founder of Fauna
"I firmly believe that businesses can be a key driver to sustainability and social impact."
In 2017 I attended 'Fashion and Sustainability - Using Fashion as a vehicle for Change' at the United Nations, where Lilian spoke about her work with apparel companies to drive the sustainability agenda. Here she gives us insight into corporate social responsibility, its challenges and where she sees the biggest opportunities for brands tackling sustainability.
Lilian, can you tell us a bit about your background and your current role at the UNGC?
I manage partnerships at the UN Global Compact, which is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. We are a principle-based framework supporting businesses to advance UN goals and objectives. As the Manager of Partnerships, my main focus is to make connections between companies and the UN, supporting UN colleagues that are interested in working with the private sector, and similarly help companies connect with the right UN organizations. Since I have a background working in the fashion industry, I also engage with many of our apparel companies.
Having grown up in Sweden but with Chinese parents, I am a child of multiple cultures, where social justice values of Sweden stood in stark contrast to aggressive and impressive economic development in China. This got me interested in international development early on. Throughout my education, I found that non-traditional development methods, such as public-private partnerships and corporate sustainability, the most compelling and innovative. I firmly believe that businesses can be a key driver to sustainability and social impact. This led me to work for the sustainable fashion NGO Redress in China, analyzing labor issues in supply chains for Social Accountability international in Brazil, as well as working on international affairs at New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Swedish Consulate in Shanghai, which created a solid foundation for working with sustainability and responsible business at the UN.
Do you see that there is growth in the number of companies starting to address sustainability and the SDGs in their strategies and initiatives, and how does this translate to on the ground action?
The corporate sustainability movement has grown immensely the past two decades. From charity and philanthropic initiatives, to sustainability being a strategic priority for many companies. Companies have started to do business responsibly, while also finding opportunities to maximize shared value by being more sustainable. There are more corporate sustainability initiatives and consultancies than ever before. The UN Global Compact started off with a handful of companies in 2000 to over 9000 in the initiative today.
Companies are making sustainability part of their core business. Consumers and investors are increasingly paying attention to companies’ sustainability performance. For example, investors are using companies’ nonfinancial disclosures to inform investment decisions, according to the 2015 EY Global Institutional Investor Survey. In fact, 59.1% of the survey respondents viewed non-financial disclosures as “essential” or “important” to investment decisions.
The SDGs are still young, but we definitely see a strong interest from companies. The beauty with the SDGs framework is that it concerns everyone. Many companies are reaching out to us to gain guidance and support on how they can contribute to the SDGs, even aligning their sustainability reporting with the SDGs. We have co-developed an online platform that showcases innovative business contributions to the SDGs called the Global Opportunity Explorer where you can see how some of this translates on the ground!
From your experience, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges the fashion industry is facing to become more sustainable?
A fundamental challenge is that there is still not an understanding of the business case for corporate sustainability across the board - that sustainable fashion is a must and not a must-have. As the UN Secretary-General said in his climate speech last year: “The sustainability train has left the station. Get on board or get left behind.” The companies that performed the best during the financial crisis were those that were sustainable. On the business side, the link between the business case and how companies can operationally become more sustainable needs to be clearer. And on the consumer side, there needs to be more awareness and education, because sustainable fashion in most circles is not mainstream.
We need to make sustainable fashion personal - we could learn a lot from the organic food movement in this regard.
Also, we can do more at the policy level to create much needed large-scale change, either through economic incentives to encourage businesses action, or through compliance mechanisms. For example, policies such as Extended Producer Responsibility for the fashion industry that is getting uptake in some European countries could be explored further globally. In brief, this means that brands are responsible for the product along the full life-cycle, including post-consumer waste and packaging.
LILIAN OUTSIDE THE UN HEADQUARTERS IN NYC. IMAGE: AYR
There is a lot happening in innovation too, but we are still facing limitations to take them to scale. Less than 1% of clothes actually get recycled into fresh textiles, because of difficulties in separating blends, dyes and toxins that make clothes unsuitable for composting, and a general lack in recycling infrastructure. That’s a huge missed opportunity and we need investments in this space so we can fasten the pace.
With the proliferation of ethical and sustainable brands and influencers entering the market, and industry stalwarts touting their so-called sustainability credentials loudly, it can be difficult for consumers to know who to trust. There is also a very real danger of greenwashing as more brands recognise the importance of ethics to a values-driven consumer. Do you have any recommendations for how consumers can navigate this?
This is something I struggle with myself.
I often check out the ‘missions’/‘ethics’/’sustainability’ pages to see whether the brand has a sustainability ethos. Beyond the ‘we care about the people and planet’, are they actually taking any action?
Do they have a sustainability report? If they have one, chances are that they are thinking about sustainability more strategically - they wouldn’t report if there was nothing to report on in the first place.
Also, there are certain factors that increase the chances of the product being produced in a fair way, like the level of transparency the brand provides and if their clothes are made locally, which increases information available about their supply chain. Transparency is not a guarantee for fair production, but at least they communicate what they are doing, showing an important awareness level.
I also look for certifications, like the Global Organic Textile Standard, the Textile Exchange standards, SA8000, etc. Many of the technical certifications are specific to materials and production processes. Certifications mean that a third party mechanism is in place and that it’s not just talk from their side.
Are there any brands you can point out that you think are doing a good job with their sustainability initiatives and communicating this to consumers?
Fashion Revolution. They are a non-profit organization, but deserve a mention here. Plus, the founders Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers are both fashion entrepreneurs. The way that they are humanizing the supply chain issues is inspiring. Oftentimes, sustainability initiatives becomes ‘helping the poor in the developing world’, whereas their Garment Workers Diaries felt really empowering and human. As Orsola de Castro told me a few weeks back over fish soup: “I have a very good antenna for all things patronizing” and they avoid that type of communication at all costs.
Reformation and Everlane are two younger companies that are doing a great job and I believe inspired many brands to follow suit. They might not be the most advanced in terms of materials or sourcing, but they are raising the bar in terms of the supply chain information they provide (for example, Reformation offers factory tours) and how consumers’ choices have an impact.
IMAGE: BANDE DES QUATRES / HUGO ARTURI
You’re also co-founder of Fauna, can you tell us more about this?
I co-founded Fauna (@be.fauna) with Carolina Perlingiere and Rafaela Machado, two friends from Brazil. Fauna curates fashion that contributes to more sustainable industry practices, and carries a collection of sustainable and uniquely crafted clothes & accessories from Brazil.
We realized that there were many great brands from Brazil that were focused on sustainability, but did not have an outlet to reach a global audience and/or the resources to communicate their sustainability efforts. We created Fauna to support these independent brands, connecting them with the global marketplace. We launched small last Summer with about 10 handpicked Brazilian brands, and have many more brands in the pipeline this year.
Another aim was to make sustainable fashion fun, breaking the myth of sustainable fashion being boring. For us, we wanted to combine the playful and colorful aesthetics of Brazilian culture with ethical and thoughtful design, being the go-to place for those who are looking for better and fun fashion.
Finally are there any great resources or tips you can suggest for someone who is new to the issues of sustainability and responsible fashion?
Lighter reads with great facts and practical tips for consumers:
For industry folks: the Common Objective platform
Thanks Lilian, your insight and industry perspective is thought provoking and invaluable!