There is an abundance of inspiring stories of greening in the textile and leather sectors. To scale up their impact, these isolated process innovations need to be transformed into full blown industrial practices. The Apparel Impact Institute (Aii) works with facilities hands-on to fuel a larger industrial shift towards cleaner and more responsible production. This Op-Ed was written by Kurt Kipka, VP of Programs, the Apparel Impact Institute (Aii)
The Apparel Impact Institute (Aii) was formed in 2017 with an objective to identify, fund, scale and measure the apparel and footwear industry’s proven environmental improvement solutions, focusing on energy, water and chemical reductions. Its best-known and most successful programme is Clean by Design (CbD), which uses a ‘best practices’ methodology for facilities of any size, type or location to reduce their environmental footprint. After reaching 200+ facilities in more than a decade of implementing the programme, it has emerged as a bankable model that delivers quantifiable results.
When the realities of COVID-19 set in, the Aii had to quickly adapt to new ways of working and rapidly innovate within its programmatic approach to continue making progress. Some of the changes included coming up with creative ways to replace in-person site visits and training, and other changes meant solving how to grow and expand programming at a time of uncertainty. The Aii was not alone in facing these challenges, and other organizations can definitely benefit from what we learned during this year of change.
Expanding or starting programmes in new locations is complex and nuanced even without a global pandemic to navigate. Still, the indicators of success that the Aii has identified have only become more critical when considered in a post-COVID industry. The Aii is adapting current programmes to meet the needs of the moment and the new realities of the industry. For example, it has developed remote processes to replace in-person site visits while still maintaining high standards of partner engagement and verified results. Making these kinds of changes «in flight» is made possible with a solid programmatic foundation already established.
One of the most important elements of building any programme is creating a support system for carrying it out. Prior to COVID-19, this work would have been accomplished in large kick-off events during small group discussions where peers could share experiences, challenges and solutions with one another. That peer-to-peer engagement is where the Aii’s programme participants gain the confidence and motivation to implement their own environment projects. However, during a pandemic, these honest conversations must be facilitated virtually. Pre-webinar questionnaires that help to categorize participants into smaller groups for targeted discussions on what is most meaningful to them have been found to be particularly useful. With the changing realities of interaction, the community of practice needs to evolve accordingly.
To be successful in implementing and sustaining quality programming, it is critical to have technical experts and engineers available and committed to supporting the work. Most importantly, the experts should be located in the programme region whenever possible. Local experts are better equipped to overcome cultural and language barriers and adapt the programme to account for regional nuances brought on by regulations and available technology. Plus, leveraging local partners can reduce travel expenditures for a programme and, of course, during a pandemic, experts are more likely to avoid travel and physically visit a factory only if needed.
It is impossible to begin doing good work in a new region without good data. Starting out, one can gather primary data while conducting on-site visits. Even if the intent is to use a specific tool or question set for future information gathering, personal experience can lead to a line of questioning that maximizes the quality and conformity of data collected. When site visits are not possible, in many cases, the same results are possible by starting small with a limited question set and one-on-one discussions. In doing so, one can establish the programme’s goals and objectives, establish relationships and slowly build up to the level of foundational information needed to attain quality programmatic data.
Regardless of the programme, there are foundational attributes that can help ensure success. Still, perhaps the most critical of all is to align the project with organizations and people who are as passionate about the work as you are. Having a network of support enables ongoing learning and innovation necessary for adapting when challenges arise.