External review 

This sustainability report comes at a time when the global apparel industry has never been quite so much under the spotlight. As the scale of the industry’s negative environmental and social impacts becomes increasingly understood, the annual barometer of how well the industry is responding to these challenges – the Pulse of the Fashion Industry – shows that while the fashion industry has improved its social and environmental performance in 2018, this is at a slower rate than in previous years. The study concludes that if the industry does not implement changes at a faster rate, it will not achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nor will it meet the Paris Agreement, the significance of which is heightened as the world wakes up to a real and urgent climate emergency.

C&A’s performance, however, is definitely headed in the right direction, with good progress made towards all of its environmental and social performance goals. Highlights include the public disclosure of its tier-1 and tier-2 suppliers’ factories worldwide, 71% of cotton sourced being sustainable certified organic or Better Cotton. and stand-out achievements such as becoming the first retailer to introduce Gold level Cradle to Cradle Certified TM jeans in Europe, Brazil, and Mexico. 

This report also highlights that C&A really understands its huge influence over the 3.5 million people it serves every day around the world. Along with its far-reaching #WearTheChange campaign, now in all C&A retail markets, the business has expanded its in-store take-back programme to new geographies with customers in eight of C&A’s geographies now able to take their unwanted clothes to C&A stores, with customers in the ninth country able to participate in an online take-back programme

C&A is doing all the right things when it comes to sustainability and the business should be proud of its achievements, which put the business in a strong leadership position.

The challenge, however, is that what equates to doing the right thing is changing all the time, with the sustainability leadership bar in apparel rising the whole time, even if there are still plenty of laggards.

C&A is in an excellent position to rise to this challenge. The plans to publish Science-Based Targets for greenhouse gas emissions can’t come soon enough, and I look forward to seeing these featured front and centre in the new global sustainability strategy, planned for publication in 2020. When it comes to the new sustainability strategy, I would like to see this anchored firmly in the mainstream business strategy. I would also like to see evidence that the Executive Board of the business addresses sustainability with the same degree of focus as the standard metrics of business success.

I offer this challenge as I am convinced the next wave of leadership in the global apparel industry will be the emergence of truly sustainable business models. Business models that deliver value over and above the current linear, and somewhat flawed, binary measures of economic success. Until businesses in the apparel industry deliver tangible value creation from the highest standards of social and environmental performance, the most significant systemic barrier currently standing in the way of sustainable fashion will remain. Current market economics.

With its family-owned structure, its 178-year heritage, its deep values, plus C&A Foundation, which is targeting action on a whole range of systemic challenges in the industry, the C&A business is in an unparallelled position to craft and deliver a circular, sustainable business model. There are also the many industry collaborations within which C&A plays a leadership role. How might the business push these collaborations even harder to create the enabling conditions for business model transformation?

The slow-down in progress towards sustainability highlighted in the Pulse Report could ultimately slow down C&A’s own performance, given the interconnectedness of the issues. No business is an island, and it just isn’t possible to conceive of a sustainable business in an unsustainable system, which is how I would describe the current apparel system.

As C&A looks to its next global strategy then, I invite the business to turbo-charge its ambition and define the next wave of leadership in the industry. In so doing, the business will have done its bit to ensure that the industry pivots successfully from the current trajectory, to one where the SDGs are met, and the global apparel industry is circular, regenerative, and truly sustainable.

Sally Uren
CEO, Forum for the Future