Apparel Impact Institute’s Lewis Perkins Says Don’t Get Comfortable in Sustainability

Apparel Impact Institute President Lewis Perkins doesn’t want you to get too comfortable with “sustainability” in the fashion industry. After all, it’s a huge concept and what being conscious means to one might not be to another. And that idea of promoting “conscious consumerism,” well, it’s still all about consuming. Considering the fashion industry’s environmental impacts have reached the tipping point, what Perkins does have high hopes for is that he can empower brands to make measurable change. His hopes are hinged on getting brands maps, tools, levers, maybe even internal compasses to navigate and create valuable data for a brand’s long (sustainability) road trip.

“We keep adding layers to decipher how we interpret sustainable fashion and the circular economy,” says Perkins, “and it’s taking a lot of funding and mind share and if we’re not careful, we will turn it into an exercise of over-funding the wrong things and not supporting other really important aspects of sustainable fashion. We don’t want to just become bean counters,” says Perkins, adding it shouldn’t be “rocket science” to do things efficiently.His new role as President of the Apparel Impact Institute (Aii) will now see him working to shift important projects with “levers” inextricably linked to water and energy efficiencies, renewable energy and green chemistry with positive impacts for apparel manufacturing.

Image: Mill/ impact Initiative

The Aii is a collaboration of brands, manufacturers and industry stakeholders that have come together to select, fund, and scale high-impact projects that dramatically and measurably improve the sustainability outcomes of the apparel and footwear industry. Launched last October, the Aii was co-founded by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), with significant financial support from Target and additional funding from PVH Corp., Gap Inc. and HSBC Holdings.

The SAC is also undergoing maturity with Ecotextile News recently confirming the spin out of Higg Co., a public benefit company that aims to increase both the efficiency and scale of the Higg Index throughout global fashion supply chains. Together with Perkins, Jason Kibbey, the CEO of Higg Co., Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Linda Greer, Senior Global Fellow at the Institute of Public & Environmental Affiars (IPE) will all take part in a special ‘Accelerating Higg’ panel discussion at Planet Textiles 2019 in Barcelona on 22 June during the ITMA event.

Perkins has a history of wedging himself in and transforming the fashion industry. When he moved to Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII) in 2012 as senior vice president, within three years he was promoted to president. During his time at C2CPII, his work with strategic planning, fundraising and activating a vision to transform the market to safe, healthy products made with the highest positive impact to both humans and global environmental ecosystems was well underway.

He also calls this time the “implementation decade,” of sustainability a sort of post-“arking” with the flood of capitalism that began 10 years ago. A time where everyone was getting on board to take on positive environmental behaviors. This became the time where early implementers like Patagonia, Loomstate and EILEEN FISHER were creating entire POV’s around corporate environmental and social responsibility.

“These are the brands whose work in sustainability is just in their DNA at this point and they’ve arrived and where they need to be and when issues come up, they can address the challenges much more easily than a brand just starting out and dipping toe in,” says Perkins. He cites Target as a brand that is making strides going with alternate energy and building deeper relationships with their suppliers. Currently his work with Aii is focusing on mill improvement, one of the most environmentally impactful segments of clothing production. The Mill/ impact Initiative is committed to reducing energy, chemical and water use to scale mill improvements in the textile industry.

“We’ve got to create reasons for why these brands just coming into sustainability should make the switch and to better help them to not go in the wrong direction. What we are trying to do is to show them that having a competitive advantage means better understanding those complex relationships with suppliers and natural resources,” says Perkins.

CBS News recently reported that the apparel and footwear industries together account for more than 8 percent of global climate impact, greater than all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined. It seems as if brands are starting to listen to these grave statistics and are making their own strides forward to make change. Take for example Nike’s recent release of a circular design guide that aims to give the fashion industry a common language for circularity, Google collaborating with Stella McCartney to launch a sustainable fashion pilot to build-out a data analytics for the environment or Parley for the Oceans announcing a Parley ID label to identify garment composition. Brand initiatives are coming out fast and furious with lots of entry points to become more conscious of people and planet.

“I like to focus on fashion and apparel and being called into this fashion space to sink my teeth in deeper,” says Perkins of all the opportunities arising in the industry.

Image: Parley for the Oceans

“Right now creating partnerships with others to report on their impact, and to have a clean slate to build something for impact and measurement, are going beyond visual aspirations and becoming actual KPI’s,” says Perkins, adding that across the industry, brands are hungry to design and create programs that can be scaled.

Perkins cites these impacts are what NRDC Senior Scientist Linda Greer calls a brand’s “gateway drug.”

“We can first look at laundering and manufacturing campuses and doing efficiency work in wet processing, then maybe the cut and sew they’re doing just across the road. We start with taking best practices and how we can develop better efficiencies and maybe fund them, look at the next module item using Higg and look at the progress yearly, then quarterly with meter readings,” says Perkins adding that some of these optimizations could be simply updating to a new boiler. “What we at Aii ask is, how can we build efficiency work but also start cataloguing a mills success?”

Perkins says it’s time to start managing these projects and giving money to science-based target commitments and to pick the right programs, walk in the door of the largest brands and offer a road map.

Of his personal career in sustainability Perkins is really honest.

“I have to ask myself, have I spent 25 years in the right place or made change? People trust me to do the right thing and know I can pivot quickly and come out of a situation with the most honesty possible but what’s my own motive for greater good? I have to ask myself personally hard questions. I figure if I’m not doing something that might get me fired then I need to keep pushing. You have to get yourself out there and never get comfortable.”

Meet Lewis in person at the BF+DA’s final event June 3rd, MAINSTREAMING SUSTAINABILITY: A Conversation with Changemakers at a Time of Change. RSVP!