External review 

C&A’s vision is to make sustainable fashion the new normal. This is a bold and ambitious vision, which will require this key player in the global apparel system to not only transform itself, but the actual system around it.  A new normal won’t flow from incremental change, it will require systemic change, in other words the emergence of a different operating model for apparel.

So, how does one business, albeit a pretty large one operating in Europe, China, Mexico and Brazil, transform a system? This sustainability report gives us lots of clues, and tells me that C&A absolutely has the potential to shift the apparel system.  Why do I think this?

First, the business understands that it needs to respond to future trends impacting its business in different ways.  When it comes to the impact of long-term mega trends on day to day business, which for apparel are significant (and include water scarcity, high temperatures putting pressure on textile production; rural depopulation etc etc) then the response needs to be one of adaptation.  This is why the business is working hard to reduce its water and carbon footprint, for example, and is investing heavily in creating resilient, future-proofed supply chains, particularly when it comes to cotton.

There are then the faster moving trends which impact day to day operations, and for the broader retail and apparel industry is a very long list, with the continued march of omni-channel, changes in shopping patterns and preferences for example, all putting incredible pressure on day to day operations in the apparel system.  C&A is working hard to respond to these trends by launching initiatives such as ~WearTheChange, their first global, multi-channel sustainability communications campaign.

And there are the dynamic and fast moving trends bubbling away at the niche of any system, which for apparel include technologies such as block chain and regenerative approaches to agricultural production  These are the innovations, if harnessed with passion, that offer huge opportunities to create new normals, and is where, when it comes to the circular economy, the C&A business is blazing a trail – being the first mainstream apparel brand to bring the first GOLD level Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) Certified products to market in stores around Europe.

The second proof-point indicating a business serious about creating a new normal is C&A’s commitment to collaboration. As the first brand partner for Fashion for Good, for example, the business is helping to scale potential game-changing social, environmental and technological innovations across the broader industry. And the business has a deep and productive relationship with the C&A Foundation, a pioneering Foundation working across the entire apparel industry, tackling systemic challenges in a way that is designed to create the enabling conditions for the system to transform.

The third proof point? Values and integrity.  This report oozes authenticity, honesty and a clear values-led approach.

When it comes to how all these future trends might interact, there are clearly different possible futures for apparel.  There is one possible future where all the current trends interact to create a much more sustainable apparel system, where technologies such as blockchain have been harnessed to increase transparency, and hence access to capital and other services for small holders, where regenerative agriculture has scaled and we are seeing truly sustainable production, where the retail model and consumer attitudes have both shifted and we see fast fashion replaced by a closed loop model where recyclability and re-usability are the common attributes (think C2C everwhere). 

Equally, while each of these future trends might have positive sustainability outcomes in isolation, the prevailing status-quo might mean that these positive outcomes don’t manifest in a systemic way, and the system remains unchanged, with the well-known negative impacts we see today scaling, to leave a system that is not sustainable, and might never be so.

The C&A business has the potential to harness the dynamism in the system around it, and play a key role in the transformation of apparel, and make sustainable fashion the new normal. This will need the business to consider one more proof-point – create  a compelling long-term strategy to sit under the vision, a strategy which is clear about all the levers the business can pull, acting alone and in collaboration, to make sustainable fashion the new normal. 

In turn, this will need the business to lean into its 177 year heritage, and play the long-game. Being an apparel retailer today, with a large portfolio of high street stores, is tough.  There may well be a temptation to focus on fighting the fires of today, at the expense of not fuelling the flames of longer-term business plays. Transforming apparel will require deft navigation of some very real short-term pressures, experimenting and failing fast, and the courage of conviction that it is not possible to have a sustainable business in an unsustainable system.  There is a compelling logic to create a sustainable apparel system, I would urge the C&A business to continue to embrace this challenge.

Sally Uren
CEO, Forum for the Future