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In the Loop

C&A's Jeff Hogue on ‘pilot-washing’ and unconventional collaborations

The innovative CSO chats about designing circular apparel at scale.

This article has been adapted from the Circular Weekly newsletter, running Fridays. Subscribe here. This article is the second in a series of brief interviews with circular economy leaders that are showing the way. Read the first one with Ron Gonen, co-founder of Closed Loop Partners.

This week, I spoke with Jeffrey Hogue, global chief sustainability officer of the Belgium-based fashion retail chain C&A, which is forging a path towards circular apparel at scale. C&A has a track record of driving the apparel industry forward, having launched the first Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold denim jeans last year (and the first Cradle to Cradle T-shirt in 2017). It is also an active member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Make Fashion Circular initiative and a founding brand partner of Fashion for Good. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Lauren Phipps: What are you excited about right now?

Jeff Hogue: I’m particularly excited about what unconventional collaboration means in the circular economy. Every industry and every business can work together to harness the opportunity. This is one of the first times in my career where there are so many opportunities that we haven't even imagined yet. It makes me excited about how a business actually rises to the occasion to define what an unconventional collaboration looks like and who the unusual suspects could be. It’s really an open book. If we can get a lot of brands inspired in this same way, you’re going to see a lot of interesting things happening.

Phipps: Given the excitement and momentum, what do you see as the biggest obstacle in advancing your work?

Hogue: Incremental approaches are sometimes needed, but there are way too many of them right now. Jason Kibbey [CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition] once called this "pilot-washing." You create a pilot of something but there’s no intent to scale.

For some of these circular innovations, we have to just agree that it shouldn’t be a competitive advantage. We should share our learnings, open-source and move together towards a solution.
At least for me, the biggest challenge is bringing something from a pilot where the economics and the consumer drive for the purchase of a circular product are just not there. How do you sell it in and take the leap of faith to scale? Sometimes you have to just bite the bullet. Right now, people aren’t ready, but we’ve got to go. And if we don’t go, we’re going to miss the boat. That to me seems to be a very large barrier right now.

Phipps: What do you think it will take to overcome that? Is it just taking the leap of faith, more consumer demand, something else entirely?

Hogue: I hate to be very trite and repeat what you hear at every sustainability conference that you go to, but collaboration is really what’s key. At least in our industry, given the fact that it’s so fragmented and large and wide and deep, if one brand does something it can make a very small change. But if a handful of brands or even more than that, 20 brands, decide to go in the same direction or agree to follow the path, you’re going to see much more impact quicker.

From a competitive advantage standpoint, having a really sustainable or well-designed product is a differentiator. However, my big question is whether that should be the case with the things we’re trying to address, really big issues and problems in society.

For some of these circular innovations, we have to just agree that it shouldn’t be a competitive advantage. We should share our learnings, open-source and move together towards a solution. I don’t know if that sounds too naive, but there is a lot of competition around sustainability attributes when there probably doesn’t need to be because we’re all going to benefit.

Phipps: What is keeping you up at night?

Hogue: A lot of things. At least for me in my character, I always have a lot of ideas and I don’t know how to land them all simultaneously. It really has to do with one question: How are we going to create this collaborative, pre-competitive environment at scale? Everything I’ve said excites me, but it also keeps me up at night. There’s not really a good solution right now, it’s slow.

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