With Sustainability & Sanitizer Front and Center, How AAFA’s Executive Summit Merged the Industry’s New Normals

Against a backdrop of increased uncertainty borne of the fast-spreading coronavirus, footwear and apparel executives convened in Washington D.C. on Tuesday and Wednesday for the American Apparel and Footwear Association 2020 Executive Summit.

At the venue, The Conrad Hotel, tables adorned with mini hand sanitizers (one per seat) and reusable metal cups — provided by outdoor standout Patagonia Inc. — were a fitting illustration of the two pressing themes that would dominate conversations at the event: coronavirus and sustainability.

For the latter — one of the events long-planned and central topics — speakers served up a sobering reality to fashion purveyors: “We need to do better,” Avi Garbow, an environmental advocate at Patagonia, told the packed house.

Presentations focused on the severity of climate change and drew on examples like the California wildfires to take the industry to task for its purported overuse of resources and other potentially harmful practices. Still, even those harsh reminders were tempered by messages of encouragement and support.

Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, explained that the 250-member organization was founded 10 years ago out of an unlikely partnership between Walmart and Patagonia. The two retailers “from opposite ends of the spectrum” came together on their realization that “there is no way that any one company is actually going to solve this [sustainability challenge] on their own.”

“There are so many great organizations who are [finding solutions and can help],” she added. “So what we have talked about is how we start to really focus our efforts to help support the industry.”

One such way, noted Razvi, was through SAC’s formation of the Higg Index, a suite of tools that helps brands and retailers of all sizes to measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance.

Still, according to Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer of the Global Fashion Agenda, who cited proprietary research, 40% of the fashion industry has not yet taken any coordinated action on sustainability. He further noted many members of this group are small firms with limited resources and a lack of efficiencies to implement sustainable initiatives.

For those grappling with the daunting possibility of overhauling their supply chains, speakers like Ravzi broke down next steps to more sustainable fashion supply chains in small, digestible bites.

“What you can do in the next 10 minutes is start measuring,” she explained. “We all know that you we just can’t manage what you don’t measure. And you have to know your supply chain as well as you know your business.”

AAFA executive summit
The AAFA Executive Summit took place in Washington, DC on March 3 and 4.
CREDIT: Courtesy

The AAFA summit also touched on another hot topic in retail right now: Diversity and inclusion.

During her session on Wednesday, Tracey Walker, senior director of internal client services at RSM US LLP, recounted figures around the importance of D&I.

One example: Companies with high levels of racial diversity see 15 times more revenue than those that without high numbers of diverse staff, she said. Walker went on to encourage executives not to fall into the pitfalls of emphasizing diversity or inclusion — a trend that sees companies hire diverse talent but suppress or discourage the expression of differences and unique perspectives in the workplace.

Instead, Walker said leaders should avoid homogenous teams ­— or the comfortability of employees who think exactly the way their bosses do — noting that in professional environments, individual differences are an asset to performance.

For a room filled leaders from all areas of the industry, topics like diversity and sustainability can create uncomfortable moments as they often challenge long-held systems and corporate practices.

But this week, one might get the sense that those themes — which have at least been in fashion’s ethos, albeit at varying degrees, for some time — were a welcome diversion from the lurking uncertainty of Covid-19.

Amid rampant fears surrounding coronavirus, AAFA president and CEO Steve Lamar said the organization received a lot of positive feedback for its decision to carry on with the executive summit — an event that’s usually planned several months and sometimes years in advance. (In contrast, the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America canceled its executive summit, which was slated for March 18 and 19.)

[In order to] make our decision to keep our summit as scheduled, we’ve been staying close to medical authorities — consulting them as well as our members,” he explained. “What we wanted to make sure to do is respond in a fact-based manner and that we were making sure that our attendees were going to be protected — that we were taking the prudent, practical steps to ensure their health and safety.”

The strategically placed hand sanitizers were one such step. The organization also sent an email to attendees ahead of Tuesday’s summit kick-off outlining several protocols and basic protective measures to be adhered to throughout the event.

“Please minimize physical contact with other attendees and consider a ‘no-handshake’ policy and refrain from hugs, using alternative greetings such as a wave or nod,” the memo read. “Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.”

As of Thursday morning, more than 96,000 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed, and 3,300 people have died. Many Americans have expressed worries about the continued spread of the outbreak to more communities in the United States, while retailers and brands have lamented the illness’ potential impact on businesses and supply chains.

Other panelists and speakers at the AAFA summit included: Tommy Caldwell, renowned climber and ambassador at Patagonia; Brittany Burns, director of strategy and development at Fashion for Good; Colin Browne, COO of Under Armour, Inc.; Sarah Clarke, EVP, PVH Supply North America, PVH Corp.; and Kellie Davies Brown, senior director of Owned Brand Sourcing & Development at Target Corp.

Browne was also named chairman of AAFA this week.

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