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Business Impact Symposium examines industry sustainability

In a world draped with fast-change clothing trends and inexpensive toss-away wardrobes – all of which harm the environment – three clothing industry executives described the fashion world’s sustainability efforts at the April 8 kickoff panel for the Cornell Business Impact Symposium 2021.

The symposium, which is virtual, runs through April 17.

The industry itself exacts an environmental toll. In 2018, the United Nations said that fashion production discharges 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and accounts for 20% of global wastewater.

The symposium’s first panel, “The Cost of Cheap Clothes: The Impacts of Fast Fashion on Labor and Environment,” was moderated by Tasha Lewis, associate professor of fiber science in the College of Human Ecology. More than 330 people attended.

Issues included water pollution, water needed to grow cotton and the amount of carbon the industry uses.

“We consider water a business-critical issue,” said panelist Agata Smeets MBA ‘11, director, global sustainability group at Gap Inc.’s Hong Kong headquarters, who sets her company’s environmental sustainability strategy for sourcing.

“If there’s no water, we cannot do business,” she said. “Some of our suppliers in our supply chain are in water-scarce areas – and that presents a very real risk to us.”

In partnership with suppliers, Gap is developing a water strategy for its manufacturing operations and a water-use strategy in raw material production, such as in growing the cotton. “We’ve added a focus on carbon emissions because of the Paris Agreement,” Smeets said. “Early last year, in January 2020, we published a science-based target to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Vanessa Barboni Hallik ‘04, founder and CEO of Another Tomorrow, a sustainable luxury clothing company, said her group uses only organic cotton and then sustainable wool from farms that employ high animal-welfare standards. “In terms of where we think that we can still do better,” she said, “it’s increasing our recycled fiber content and we are quite focused on cellulosic fibers.”

The conference was organized by Mark B. Milstein, clinical professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, at the SC Johnson College of Business; Monica Touesnard, associate director at the center; and Safiyyah Abdul Hamid, the center’s coordinator.

The second panel, “Achieving Equity: The Power of Community Organizing and Small Business Revitalization,” met April 9. Brian Lucas, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School moderated a group including Lourdes Zapata, president and CEO of South Bronx Economic Development Corporation; Purnima Mohan, economic development coordinator at the Westminster Economics Development Initiative; and Gladys Brangman, founder of Business Leaders of Colors.

The group discussed minority small businesses’ importance to economic revitalization. “Small businesses… tend to hire locally,” Zapata said. “It’s not just an economic opportunity for its owner, but also for members of the immediate surrounding community.

“Small businesses are the ones that have their finger on the pulse of the cultural needs of communities, particularly within communities of color,” Zapata said. “They are most culturally responsive to any goods or services that might be sought-after by local residents…. They provide a real stabilizing force in a community.”

All of the virtual panels can be viewed on eCornell, including the April 12 panel on “Changing the World Through Social Entrepreneurship.”

Upcoming panels include:

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli