INTERVIEW: Positive Impact Awards, Jason Kibbey, CEO, Sustainable Apparel Coalition

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In 2010, Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway helped gather the top leaders in the apparel industry, non-governmental organizations, academia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an inaugural meeting to determine the feasibility of working together to create an index of social and environmental performance assessments. That collaborative effort became The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose vision is of “an apparel, footwear, and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.”

Five years ago, Jason Kibbey, now CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, sold his sustainable underwear company PACT and joined the SAC to lead the collaborative effort of the over 200 brands working together to drive social and environmental change.

Jason says the Coalition’s main focus is on building the Higg Index, a standardized supply chain measurement tool for all industry participants to understand the environmental, social and labor impacts of making and selling their products and services. According to the SAC About page,”By measuring sustainability performance, the industry can address inefficiencies, resolve damaging practices, and achieve the environmental and social transparency that consumers are starting to demand.”

This year’s Positive Impact Awards will be honoring and awarding Jason for his “Leadership in Advancing Sustainability Through Collaboration.”
I recently caught up with  him to have a conversation on some of the good work he’s doing worldwide to help better the fashion industry.

DEB JOHNSON: The SAC has been recognized with this year’s PIA award for advancing sustainability through collaboration – can you talk about collaboration as a core principle of the SAC?

JASON KIBBEY: I didn’t create that foundation of collaboration at the SAC, it really came before me. I was passionate about seeing how design and sustainability and action on social and environmental issues could all come together, but I also recognized the challenge that one brand or one company can’t really change the systemic issues on their own. The SAC is a group a people who are very personally committed to systemic change and really like working together. They recognized that this was going to be an uphill battle and we were never going to fix the system if we didn’t collaborate at scale. We learned quickly that it’s very difficult to work on one particular issue together because each of us brings different values and it may be of a different importance to different constituencies and different cultures and markets. We’ve been using the concept of a scaled assessment tool, the HIGG index, as our organizing principle. This has brought people together to work on a wide variety of issues that in sum can really change the system. To be honest, we’re doing really well in getting people to work together on measurement – where we still need to improve is taking that measurement into action and bringing to scale and seeing these changes happen on the ground.

DEB: What are some of the specific areas that the SAC is focusing on?

JASON: We look at sustainability through the lens of facilities and through the lens of brand and when you add these lenses together you really get this picture of how to measure systemic, industry wide change. The environmental side is focused on energy, wastewater and chemistry from design, to manufacturing, to end of use – really all phases and decisions throughout the supply chain that impact product sustainability. On the social side it’s a lot more focused on the brand practices that shape how well workers are treated. We look at how workers are managed at the factory level from wages, to worker safety to the freedom of association. If we do our job right we and we see HIGG scores improve it will really bring systemic change to the industry.

DEB: So what issue are you personally most concerned about?

JASON: I’m going to turn you question upside down. I think that the single-issue thinking has actually been one of our biggest impediments. Unfortunately one single issue has an attention span of one to two years so we make just enough movement to stir things up but not enough improvement and change to actually solve the problem. If you look at these issues, energy, water, waste, how we treat workers as partners they point to to a need for a much more holistic world view how do we make our processes regenerative, sustainable and just to make the world better.