Skip to main content

Using data to turn the fashion industry into a force for good

Clothing mannequin with measuring tape draped over its shoulders
sangkhom sangkakam

Serial social entrepreneur Maxine Bédat is at the center of the relatively small but growing — and increasingly influential — sustainable apparel movement. As founder and director of the New Standard Institute (NSI), she leads a "think and do tank that uses data and the power of citizens to turn the fashion industry into a force for good."

And as author of the newly released "Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment," Bédat takes readers on a fascinating trip around the world that reveals potential routes to a more sustainable future through fashion.

GreenSportsBlog was excited to get her perspective on how the green sports movement — also relatively small but growing — can maximize its influence and impact.

GreenSportsBlog: Congratulations on "Unraveled." I believe its travelogue-style reporting on the life span of one garment will engage readers and provide an important boost to the sustainable fashion movement. We will get into the book in a bit, as well as your takes on the on the green sports movement. But first, how did you become a sustainable fashion entrepreneur-author?

Maxine Bédat: My pleasure. And I am excited to talk with you about the green sports world. I was at a U.S. Green Building Council event awhile back. There was a presentation about the greening of sports. I had no idea so much was happening in that space — it was exciting to see.

Now, to your question about how I got here. I’m a first-generation American — my family is from South Africa so I saw some of the horrors of apartheid. So, during law school, I was fortunate to be able to live in Tanzania, clerking for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda just next door. Not surprisingly, it was a life-changing experience. While there, I would visit markets. It was fascinating to me to see who makes garments, how they’re made and how they’re disposed of at the end of life.

Beyond that, I saw so many examples of amazingly beautiful work from local seamstresses, craftswomen and men, but they would barely make anything for their efforts. This experience led me in 2011 to launch my first startup, a nonprofit called The Bootstrap Project, with the mission of improving the lives of artisans in the developing world. We helped them learn new skills, expand their businesses, share their customs and traditions, and revive the world’s most beautiful crafts.

We share information about sustainable fashion standards in plain language with the apparel industry as well as with the fashion media. By doing so, we help the industry accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices.

I’m not exaggerating either: If these products had "Made in Italy" labels, consumers would react differently and pay a lot more.

Through The Bootstrap Project I found that most people don’t know where things come from, nor do they have a clue about how they’re made. That lead me to launch Zady.com.

GSB: What is Zady about and how did that solve the "people don’t know how goods are made" problem?

Bédat: I launched Zady in 2013 to provide a shopping platform for consumers who care about the origins of the items they purchase. We sold traditional women’s workwear and casual wear.

As for how the goods are made, we tracked the entire supply chain and provided that information on every product we sold. Competitors actually thanked us for doing this.

But, in the end I decided I didn’t want to sell clothes anymore. Rather, I was much more motivated to push the fashion industry forward on sustainability, from environmental and equity perspectives.

GSB: How did you go about doing that?

Bédat: I launched The New Standard Institute in 2019 with the help of Alejandra Pollak, our director of operations. NSI is a nonprofit that uses and demystifies data to help the fashion industry, as well as consumers and media, move to a much more sustainable business model and at a faster pace.

GSB: And how do you go about doing that?

Bédat: We share information about sustainable fashion standards in plain language with the apparel industry as well as with the fashion media. By doing so, we help the industry accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices.

GSB: …What are some examples of the New Standard Institute’s work?

Bédat: "Roadmap for The Rebuild" is a report that lays out how the four major stakeholders of the fashion industry — citizens, media, small and medium size brands, and large brands — can use their power to ensure that the industry measurably and meaningfully reduces its negative impact on our world. And make no mistake, that impact is negative. That’s why we all have the responsibility to act.

"Standards in Plain Language" clearly spells out what the many standards put forth by the industry — from Better Cotton to Organic, from Blue Sign to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) — are looking to accomplish, including areas of impact, at which stage of production, as well as strength of enforcement. We want this to serve as a guide for stakeholders to make smart brand purchasing, media coverage and individual purchasing decisions.

GSB: The green sports and green building worlds have similar problems: several overlapping certifications that can cause confusion among stakeholders, so the New Standard Institute is providing an important service, indeed. Now let’s talk about your book, which officially launched June 1, published by Penguin. You followed the life cycle of one piece of clothing — all around the world! Talk about the gist of the book and what you want readers to get out of it.

Bédat: It was a two-year journey for both me and Alejandra. Because apparel brands have defined what sustainability means — it’s cool, it’s aspirational — we’re divorced from what it means environmentally and what it means to the real people on the ground. So, we traveled around the world — we were both pregnant for part of it — literally following the life and death of one garment, a pair of jeans, from fiber creation to yarn and textile creation to "cut and sew" to distribution to purchase to disposal.

We tracked the involvement of everyone we talked to in the book in this one garment.

So, we met with cotton farmers in Texas, who are trying to decide the benefits and the risks of going organic. Then we went to China where the bulk of textiles are made, in the mills and the warehouses. And then to Bangladesh, where 80 percent of their exports are garments. And that’s just a small fraction of the story.

GSB: It is a fascinating and important story. When you think of the entire sweep of the experience, what policy prescriptions come to mind that would help make the fashion industry less harmful, and part of the solution?

Bédat: Before I respond, I have a question for you: Did you know that, in the 1960s, 95 percent of clothing for the U.S. market was made in the U.S.? What do you think that percentage is now?

GSB: I don’t know — maybe 10 percent?

Bédat: Less than 2 percent. Garment workers led the union movement in this country; they fought for the creation of the EPA. And then we ignored them as the industry went overseas, and to our great peril.

To even begin to turn this around, we’re going to need global environmental and labor standards to which all producers will adhere to begin to level the playing field. This includes accounting for the carbon emissions embedded in the entire life of a product, and then disclosing those emissions in a transparent, timely fashion.

GSB: Let’s talk about the large apparel brands, responsible for sizable chunks of industry emissions. Many in the sustainable fashion world have leveled greenwashing charges against the big guys. What are your thoughts on the large brands and what might compel them to raise their sustainability games?

Bédat: They’ve made some strides here and there, but they’ve not gone nearly far enough. And it’s not only on the environment and climate. Their legacy on racial injustice — jeans are made of cotton and cotton was the economic engine that allowed slavery to thrive in the American South.

But more recently, NSI has been focusing on policy and legislation that can help address these issues at the core. So, sustainability just becomes the rules of doing business.

GSB: What would an example be of a policy and/or legislative solution that NSI would support?

Bédat: We need to have legislation that requires clear, relevant and transparent reporting. Legislation that requires environmental reports to include, at a minimum, a quantitative baseline on energy, water and chemical use, as well as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Those reports must be required to conform with the universal environmental accounting standards set forth in the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard and the GHG Protocol Scope 3 Standard. This would provide an apples-to-apples comparison of different companies’ impacts. And along with this disclosure, companies must set targets in line with the Paris agreement.

We need to have legislation that requires clear, relevant and transparent reporting.

GSB: Pivoting to sports, athletic apparel has a huge cultural imprint. But how big is the segment relative to the overall fashion industry?  

Bédat: In the U.S., sportswear is hugely important. In fact, it is the biggest segment of the fashion industry here. And, while they have made some progress…

GSB: …Like adidas and its Parley for the Oceans line of apparel and sneakers made from plastic ocean waste…

Bédat: …Yes, but there is significant greenwishing there…

GSB: Green wishing. I like it.

Bédat: For example, the big players in sportswear have committed to be carbon negative by 2040. That sounds great but there is no clear evidence that they’re on a meaningful path to achieving that goal.

GSB: That time frame is so far in the distance; it’s easy for current managers to kick the can down the road and do very little in the short term. Now, what about athletes? In the last decade or so, some athletes have become fashion icons. A subtext to that is the idea that it’s cool to keep buying more stuff. With that in mind, how can athletes become part of the solution?

Bédat: Of course, people look up to athletes and in many cases, there is pressure, especially among young people, to keep up with their favorite stars, clothes-wise and sneaker-wise, by buying more and more new stuff. This cannot continue.

Of course, Patagonia is the "North Star" of the sustainable sports apparel world. They’re not perfect but they get an awful lot right. The fact that they have free repair services so you don’t always have to buy new. That’s impressive.

This story first appeared on:

GreenSportsBlog

More on this topic