Finance supports sustainable ambitions Xandres

CFO Magazine, Niels de Boysere

Belgian fashion house Xandres published its first sustainability report at the end of 2021. Remarkable: the ambitions of shareholder Damartex Group are prominently featured but Xandres also managed to set goals and priorities from its own DNA. CFO Jarno Devedeleer and Sustainability Manager Jasmien Wynants explain.   

Turnover: 25 million euros; employees: 110 
CFO Magazine - image: Jerry de Brie
At the end of 2021, Xandres launched its first sustainability report. Although the Belgian fashion house is part of Damartex Group, which as a listed company has been reporting non-financial information since 2016, it chose to outline its own sustainability path and also immediately included it as a strategic pillar. A conscious choice for CFO Jarno Devedeleer. “We have been working on the sustainability of our products and the production chain for some time,” he says. “That makes it possible to start choosing or prioritizing things from our DNA. Of course, we remain part of Damartex Group. And it has already formulated clear, strategic pillars for sustainability. So from a group perspective, there are different initiatives going on that inspire us but that happens just as much the other way around.” 

Mandate at the highest level

In order to make the sustainability ambitions a reality, a Sustainability Manager was recruited in early 2021. Wynants felt strongly about this trajectory and the ambitions of Xandres, so the collaboration was quickly successfully launched. “We chose to build our own strategic section on top of the already existing framework,” says Wynants. “To do this, we concretely looked at: who is Xandres and what is our identity apart from sustainability? This quickly led us to quality, craftsmanship, longevity, etc. We translated these issues into our own sustainability strategy, set our own objectives and produced our own report. The group has been an inspiration for this, but we have set out our own guidelines from within Xandres. Something like this has to come from the inside. If that is not the case, it is not ingrained enough in the company and the chance is too great that the subject will slip into the background too quickly. This all departed from management, which is precisely why it was given a separate mandate.” 

From code of conduct at suppliers…

“We know that there are numerous things coming our way legislatively, without already having a concrete idea of exactly what everything will look like,” says Wynants. “And if you look at our various stakeholders, you see that we are being encouraged, especially B2B-wise, to act on this. We are doing this in the first phase of our sustainability strategy, for example, very concretely towards our suppliers. We developed a ‘framework for sustainable procurement’ to have a clear grip.” It is important to note that Xandres does not run its own production sites but rather works with production partners. Of those, 40 percent are located in Macedonia.
 
“Those production partners are asked today to sign a Code of Conduct as a first step towards a responsible supply chain. This indicates that there is no child labor, no exhaustive working hours or unfair working conditions. The Code of Conduct is a promise from them to us, and is based on the general principles of Corporate Social Responsibility. Step two was to train our procurement team so they would have the right information in order for them to ask critical questions of suppliers, have the right templates, … We started doing that last year and are now gradually expanding by training our design and procurement team at the Sustainable Fashion Academy.” 

… towards sustainable auditing

Wynants: “You need this if you want to validate what is happening at the production sites. This is a target that was set by the group on the one hand, but which we also contribute to by requesting audit reports from a number of our strategic partners and having them carried out. This is why we joined ICS (Initiative for Compliance and Sustainability). We have since had two of our main production partners audited and they both received a good score.”
 
Devedeleer adds: “Of course, just because an official attestation has been obtained does not mean it’s a closed case. It is important that we build a long-term relationship with the producer. This is primarily about trust and delivering quality, but also about sustainability. We must not forget that an audit is a snapshot. For us, it’s about ensuring that our suppliers score well on a permanent basis.” Audits are accompanied by Corrective Action Plans. “It is important that there is continuous improvement,” states Wynants. “After every audit there will be working points and then it is necessary to have a conversation with each other and follow up properly.” From a finance perspective, Devedeleer sees this as an additional dimension in negotiations with suppliers. “It will be one of the evaluation criteria that will give us a lot more objectivity about the supplier,” he says. “For this, by the way, we have also adapted our ERP system because it adds quite a lot of administration for the purchasing team.” 
CFO Magazine - image: Jerry de Brie
CFO Magazine - image: Jerry de Brie

CFO as a realist

“We know that there are numerous things coming our way legislatively, without already having a concrete idea of exactly what everything will look like,” says Wynants. “And if you look at our various stakeholders, you see that we are being encouraged, especially B2B-wise, to act on this. We are doing this in the first phase of our sustainability strategy, for example, very concretely towards our suppliers. We developed a ‘framework for sustainable procurement’ to have a clear grip.” It is important to note that Xandres does not run its own production sites but rather works with production partners. Of those, 40 percent are located in Macedonia. 
 
“Those production partners are asked today to sign a Code of Conduct as a first step towards a responsible supply chain. This indicates that there is no child labor, no exhaustive working hours or unfair working conditions. The Code of Conduct is a promise from them to us, and is based on the general principles of Corporate Social Responsibility. Step two was to train our procurement team so they would have the right information in order for them to ask critical questions of suppliers, have the right templates, … We started doing that last year and are now gradually expanding by training our design and procurement team at the Sustainable Fashion Academy.” 
CFO Devedeleer himself is mainly involved in the strategic process for a more sustainable company. “Our team mainly comes in to support reporting and setting the right KPIs,” he says. “As CFO, I then have to intervene myself in the balancing act between planet, people, and profit. Sometimes you also have to push choices if our result cannot support certain ambitions. Of course we want to be as sustainable as possible, and we might ask ourselves questions about the production of our clothing abroad… But in terms of cost efficiency alone, there is no doubt about that. Let alone the knowledge that has been acquired and the specialization, as well as the supply of raw materials. You would have to map out the entire chain again. In addition, you are sometimes forced to follow certain flows because of tax issues or customs problems. In addition, of course, I have to ensure that resources are freed up, because this process does have a certain cost. An additional cost. You have to be able and dare to set up this exercise as an organization. Do you charge everything to the customer if you only want environmentally friendly fabrics? And how do we finance all of this? Ultimately, this is a classic exercise that simply belongs to our role…”
 
“When we choose not to participate in actions like Black Friday but resolutely and permanently opt for Green Friday (counter-movement to the shopping frenzy on Black Friday, and an action against overconsumption and impact on the environment, ed.), this has a financial backlash. Nevertheless, we see this as a very positive story that we are very consciously choosing. This is an example where we are not just looking from financial criteria, but clearly throwing sustainability in the mix…” 

“Daring to question the system”

 Wynants is very clear about the usual suspect in sustainability, ecology,. “For sustainable fashion, we actually have to question the whole system. About a third of the ecological impact of a garment lies with the consumers. We have to systematically extend the life span so that we can get out of the fast fashion system. Sustainability is more than ecology. If you buy a T-shirt made of organic cotton and only wear it three times before you throw it away, wouldn’t you have been better off buying a non-biocotton one that you put on many times? We also see a role for ourselves as a brand there. We need to get our customers on board with this way of thinking. To raise awareness, we fall back on a Repair & Care program to give people tips on maintenance, on washing and ironing the article, but also, for example, if there is a hole in the clothing to have it adjusted. Xandres is also one of the few brands where you have a lifetime free repair. That too has come from the DNA of the company: we stand for quality and longevity and we want to go the extra mile in that.”
 
Devedeleer: “That’s a pure cost but of course we don’t leave it at that. It is important to make the most of the life cycle of a piece. In our flagship store in Antwerp, we are also currently testing an application where our saleswomen can see the clothing history of consumers and help them choose an article. If there are combination possibilities with an article that is already hanging in the consumer’s closet, we want to give that advice. In this way, we go against pure consumption but also contribute to extending the life cycle of a garment.”
 
 
Finally, Xandres is also deliberately entering into partnerships to bring more sustainable clothing into stores. “We believe in collaborations and so we seek them on different levels,” Wynants explains. “We have been in the Close-The-Loop network of Flanders Circular & Flanders DC since 2018, where we collaborate with other Belgian SMEs in the field of sustainability. We get inspired by companies who, for example, started their entrepreneurial story from a principle of circular economy. In this way, we also hope to have a further impact and to inspire others because, to be clear, we are not an eco-brand. However, that does not mean that we cannot do better year after year. For example, we set concrete goals in terms of increasing the use of materials with a lower environmental impact and set up collabs that we can learn from. For example, we currently have a collaboration with Raramuri, a Belgian sandal brand that has started to work with our residual materials and has them developed into new products in social employment workshops. Not only do we learn from this, we also give a small, unknown brand the opportunity to appeal to our target group and gain exposure for it. In this way, we are also trying to have an impact.”
About Xandres 

Xandres NV is a Belgian fashion company with a rich history of producing quality clothing for women from size 34 to 56. In 2016, France’s Damartex Group acquired Xandres’ operations. 
 
About ICS 

ICS is an international sector initiative to improve working conditions throughout the supply chain of retailers and brands. It consists of more than 65 multinationals from the textile, retail, footwear, electronics and furniture sectors. The members work together using the same tools to make audits reciprocal, thus combating ‘audit fatigue’, sharing knowledge and best practices. The audits themselves are conducted by ICS-accredited auditing companies but do not bring specific certifications or labels. Members do share the same rules when critical non-conformities are identified. The vast majority of ICS audits are partial or unannounced. Wynants: “Connecting our audits to ICS is a commitment we make. We do not know to what extent this audit, will become one of the mandatory audits for the textile sector and sustainability reporting. It’s hard to estimate but this will give us coherence with the expectations of the group.” 
 
Biographies 

JARNO DEVEDELEER has been CFO at Xandres since 2019. He started his career at EY and was successively in various finance roles, at Kinepolis, CDK Global, as well as one operational role Colruyt Group. At Colruyt Group he spent most of his career, over 9 years. 

JASMIEN WYNANTS became Sustainability Manager at Xandres on 1 April 2021. Prior to this she worked for 8 years at Flandres District of Creativity. Wynants also holds the title of Circular Fashion Mentor at the Circular Economy Club, the international network of circular economy professionals. 

Sustainable business? It’s all about employee engagement

Fashion United, Natasja Admiraal
 
Do you, as a fashion company, want to do sustainable business and realize circular ambitions? Then it is essential to focus on employee engagement, research shows. This is an opportunity that often remains unused in practice. The project ‘In Fashion’ wants to accelerate the circular transition in the fashion industry by focusing on (re)education of current and future professionals. FashionUnited spoke to two driving forces behind this project: sustainability expert Jasmien Wynants and Veerle Spaepen, researcher at Thomas More University College, about the importance of employee engagement and change management.
Veerle Spaepen - image: Karlijne Geudens

Time, space, and budget alone are not enough

Jasmien Wynants - image: Kris van Exel
Many companies would like to make the switch to more sustainable business operations. In doing so, a number of factors determine the chances of success. “Motivated leadership is crucial to making the switch to a sustainable policy,” says Wynants. 
 
“After all, time, space and budget must be made available for this. But, that alone is not enough. Enthusiastic involvement of all employees is the key to success.”
 
“Implementing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) within a company requires a lot of adjustments in the business operations. To ensure that employees have the right knowledge and skills, retraining or additional training is often necessary. It is also important to convince employees of the importance of sustainable business practices.”

Small changes, with a bigger goal

The ‘In Fashion’ project offers companies tools to properly tackle the transition to a sustainable policy. “In doing so, we work according to a step-by-step plan,” Spaepen explains. “That starts with defining the change goals. Suppose a company has the goal of incorporating twenty percent more eco-fabrics into its collection. We then link a change goal to this. Because in order to achieve this, the purchasing team may first need more knowledge of sustainable materials. The next step is to map out the preconditions needed to achieve that learning goal. Think: time to study eco-substances, visiting trade fairs and negotiating with suppliers. In this way, we implement small changes per department to ultimately reach a larger goal.”

From scientific research to concrete tools

A great deal of research has been done in recent years on change management, or in other words: a structured approach to implementing change within an organization. The ‘In Fashion’ project therefore started with scientific research. Spaepen: “Based on this literature study, we developed a methodology that we are currently testing in practice. We are doing this at two different companies.” Wynants adds: “These consulting processes help to translate the step-by-step plan into a method that the entire industry can use. It should eventually become an additional module of Flanders DC’s Close The Loop program on circular fashion. The goal is to motivate companies to get started with this themselves.”
Image: Karlijne Geudens
Image: Karlijne Geudens

Employee engagement: a win-win situation

Involving employees in the sustainability transition is a strategic move. It increases the chances of success and, conversely, it also has a positive effect on the employees themselves. Spaepen: “It results in greater involvement among employees, relationships improve and this ultimately leads to less staff turnover. It also motivates employees to take action themselves and to support the actions of your company.” In addition, employees are increasingly looking for meaning. A sustainable policy can provide an answer to the demand for meaningful work. “More and more people prefer to work for organizations with a social message. This can be important to retain your current employees, but can also be important in new job applications.”

Sharing numbers and success stories helps

Communication also plays an important role in this story. “Sharing numbers and success stories is a great way to keep employees’ passion and inspiration warm,” Wynants states. “Whether that’s an increase in sales of sustainable products, a decrease in energy consumption, a new technology developed or a sustainable partner recruited. Rewarding behavioral change positively can also give people a boost. As a manager, you can be a good example for the rest of the team in this regard.” So making visible the sustainability efforts you take as a company certainly makes sense. It is tangible evidence that provides positive confirmation that you are on the right track as a company.
 
Indirectly, employee engagement also creates more satisfied customers. After all, engaged employees have a positive influence on customers and their opinion of the company. Spaepen: “A simple example: imagine that a sales employee in the store has no idea which sustainable steps you are taking as a brand. Then that person won’t be able to answer any questions from customers about it either. A missed opportunity. Good external communication can therefore be crucial in the customer’s perception of your company’s values. Store employees do not work at the head office, but they are in close contact with the end customer and know what they are looking for. They can therefore provide good feedback, for example what effect sustainable efforts have on buying behavior. That, too, strengthens commitment.”

Good communication about sustainability is an art

Sustainability and climate change are not intrinsic drivers for many consumers to make a purchase. “Translate this, however, into convenience, luxury and life extension of products, and it is suddenly an appealing story. Behavior change should be fun and have a positive outcome,” Spaepen says. “At Thomas More, separate from this project, we also do research on sustainability communication. Marketing and sales departments are used to focusing on sales and conversion. But how does the sustainability story get a place? Which concepts are important, and how can you tailor the communication to the target group and ensure that the message is effective? All of this listens very closely, it really is an art to do it well – and for that very reason worth investigating.”

SCIRT: ‘Recycling for the sake of recycling is not the solution’

Trends, Sarah Vandoorne
 
Five Belgian and French clothing brands are joining forces with research institutes to put high-quality textile recycling into practice. From recycled discards they want to create and sell new designs. “Only if we work together is a circular economy achievable,”.
Evelien Dils - Tom Duhoux - Jasmien Wynants- image: Kris van Exel
It is a towering ambition: to recycle fibers that were until now considered unrecyclable. Yet it is the only ambition that matters, according to Evelien Dils and Tom Duhoux of the research center VITO and Jasmien Wynants, sustainability expert at Flanders DC. “By opting for less uniform clothing, we can bring about change,” says Jasmien Wynants. “Yes, we could have started a project to break down corporate clothing from one type of material, but then we would have been too unambitious.” We don’t participate in low-hanging fruit, says Evelien Dils either. “The European Commission wants to invest money to see what is possible, to push for change, see how far we can get.”
'Under the banner of the circular economy, a lot of things are already coming onto the market, but if there is no demand for them, they are by definition not circular' - Evelien Dils, VITO
With European support, just before summer VITO, Flanders DC and other research institutions, non-profit organizations and SMEs from five countries joined forces with five Belgian and French clothing brands: Decathlon, Petit Bateau, Bel&Bo, HNST and Xandres. Their journey was christened SCIRT, which stands for System Circularity & Innovating Recycling of Textiles. Freely translated: textile-to-textile recycling.

Monomaterials

For years, industry specialists have been looking hopefully to the future of textile recycling. Although much is in motion, the basic premise remains deplorable. The process is expensive, energy- or labor-intensive, the supply is limited, and the quality is often inadequate because the process shortens the textile fiber. For the latter reason, each recycled fiber requires as much or even more new material to provide strength to the garment. With short, expensive fibers alone, you won’t get a quality product. The result? Less than 1 percent of all collected clothing is actually recycled, according to figures from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That’s not exactly hopeful.
Evelien Dils - Tom Duhoux - Jasmien Wynants- image: Kris van Exel
When progress is made in recycling, it often involves monomaterials. These are fabrics that consist of one type of fiber, such as 100 percent cotton, a natural fiber, or 100 percent polyester ¬ a synthetic fabric. A mixture of the two – the popular polycotton – is a lot harder to recycle. Never mind taking a mixed fabric of wool, polyester and elastane in hand, as Xandres does with a pair of pants in the study.
 
“Xandres uses that fabric mix frequently, which means that in the long run it would not stick to just one type of product,” admits Wynants, who in addition to her part-time job at Flanders DC assists the fashion house from Destelbergen as a freelancer. “I do wonder if the research institutes expect that all five brands will succeed in their objective, because that remains to be seen,” adds the sustainability expert.
 
“It is, of course, a study,” Dils responds. “It may be that we have five finished products, it may be that we only have a few that give the desired result. The bottom line is that we are trying. Possibly certain compositions will not get 100 percent recycled, but even then we can measure what percentage is maximally achievable.”

Recycling 2.0

Trying doesn’t just mean recycling for recycling’s sake. “Companies want to get rid of excess textiles as efficiently as possible, so they look for low-value solutions,” says Tom Duhoux. That has provided them with stability so far. They were able to process their waste streams at a reasonably constant speed into products of reasonably homogeneous quality at a reasonably fixed price.
 
“Recycling for recycling’s sake has never been the solution,” says Duhoux. He calls that mindset “recycling 1.0,” an outdated process. Low-value solutions are not exactly synonymous with circular. “Hence the need for recycling 2.0, where we look at what the brands want and the recycling process is tailored to the requested quality,” defines Duhoux. Evelien Dils adds: “A lot of things are already coming onto the market under the banner of the circular economy, but if there is no demand for them, it is by definition not circular.”
 
Investing in recycling takes time and money. “Only by working together is a circular economy feasible,” is Jasmien Wynants convinced. These are collaborations that did not just spontaneously arise, says Tom Duhoux of VITO. “Everyone seems to be waiting for each other. Is the demand big enough? Are the brands on board with this? I understand that an SME in, say, West Flanders, thinks: how can we contribute to this? But by bringing in all the know-how and supporting machine builders, we find solutions together.”
 
The bulk of the investments are for the machine builders, such as Valvan Baling Systems in Menen. That previously developed Fibersort, a machine that can check what composition a pair of pants or T-shirt has. Sorting clothing by fiber is an important stage before recycling takes place, SCIRT’s pilot project shows. An earlier 2020 report by Circle Economy, which conducted research based on data from the Fibersort technology, confirms this. “Machine builders like Valvan get direct contact with potential customers through our project. That’s interesting for them,” Duhoux points out. “The goal is to increase recycling. For that, SCIRT wants to be a lever.”
 
‘We are still at the stage where people are filling bags full of bargains every month or even every week every time they pass a Primark’ Jasmien Wynants, Flanders DC

Combination of techniques

Sorting is followed by recycling. In its report, the Dutch Circle Economy talks about mechanical and chemical recycling. The Belgian textile institute Centexbel also lists thermomechanical and thermochemical recycling. Together with the German Ecologic Institute, the research institutes from Belgium – Centexbel and VITO, two research partners of the European study DG Grow – looked into the advantages and disadvantages of each technique. Classic mechanical recycling weakens the quality, innovative chemical recycling weakens the quantity. Especially the latter technique requires a lot of money and energy. Thermomechanical recycling requires less input, both financially and ecologically, but you can only achieve it with dark fabrics of the same composition. The technique is very sensitive to fiber contamination, so discards are not a thankful input source.
 
“This study is not a final report,” warns Duhoux. It is not a classic ranking, he emphasizes. But what is the solution? “All technologies in combination, tailored to the desired end product,” the researcher concludes. “In large volumes, mechanical recycling continues to have its place, despite its drawbacks. In small volumes, as with SCIRT, we are more likely to look at other, less traditional forms of recycling.”
 
Before scaling up, therefore, a reduction stage is needed. This is precisely why the researchers are working with a limited number of brands to conduct research. “This is not just a production issue,” Dils adds. “It is not our intention here to just produce five garments once and be done with it. In addition to the technology, we are also focusing on measures that will make the transition financially feasible.”

No greenwashing

High-quality recycling requires investment, Dils knows. Policy plays a role in this. In Belgium, it is mandatory to collect textiles separately. From 2025, it will be mandatory throughout Europe. But designers, brands and consumers also have to be on board. Dils: “In terms of consumption, little has changed in recent years, despite all the communication. That’s why we make new garments from discarded goods, so-called post-consumer textiles.”
 
That too is an ambitious goal, Jasmien Wynants believes. “You can also manufacture preconsumer textiles, from unsold garments and production waste. But then you miss out on an enormous amount of textile.” Designers today are admittedly focusing more and more on recyclable design, notes Flanders DC’s sustainability expert. “But those are clothes that should only be recycled in five or ten years. Until then, we’re stuck with everything that’s already made. We’re still at the stage where people fill bags full of bargains every month or even every week every time they pass a Primark.”
 
There are companies with a lot of manufacturing waste. They can repurpose that and then claim that they are working with recycled raw materials. But that seems to me to be quite a perverse effect’ Tom Duhoux, VITO
 
“We are focusing on post-consumer textiles because that amount collected will only increase,” says Tom Duhoux. “It’s good to start thinking now about how we can recycle non-reusable textiles to the highest possible quality.” A useful side effect is that consumers and brands are also sensitized in this way.
 
An asset of a project like SCIRT is that it tries to avoid greenwashing companies. “There are companies with a lot of production waste. They can reuse that and then claim that they are working with recycled raw materials,” Duhoux believes. “But that seems to me to be quite a perverse effect.”
1 percent of collected clothing is actually recycled, figures from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation show.

More legislation is required in order to change the industry

Fashion United, Natasja Admiraal
 
Isn’t it a crying shame that an industry responsible for producing so many beautiful products, simultaneously has such an incredible impact on both people and the planet? Anyone who decides to take a somewhat more detailed look into the ‘ugly’ side of the fashion industry will not be able to help but lose sleep over this, according to Jasmien Wynants. She has spent the last seven years conducting research into sustainable entrepreneurship and the circular economy at Flanders DC (the umbrella organisation for creative individuals in Flanders), with one single goal in mind: to improve the fashion industry.
 
It was starting to become abundantly clear to her that changes in both the industry and consumer choices simply wouldn’t be enough. “Legislation and policies are essential for removing a number of barriers and accelerating the transition to a circular economy”, Wynants states. She recently completed her Master’s in Environmental Science at the University of Antwerp and wrote her master thesis on textiles and European policy. FashionUnited spoke to her about this research and about the recommendations which resulted from this.
Image: Fille Roelants

How did your interest in sustainable fashion first come about?

I was given the opportunity to inform and guide Flemish fashion companies towards a better way of working during my time at Flanders DC, via the Close The Loop programme. I spoke to numerous inspiring entrepreneurs and innovative start-ups and came to the conclusion that we were dealing with a sustainability revolution. Only a few players were involved with this in the past, now virtually everyone is losing sleep over this subject.
 
An increasing number of companies, from small to large, are now looking for ways to change their business model and work with respect for both people and the environment. However, I’ve also noticed that companies are all faced with the exact same hurdles. There is a growing interest in sustainable fashion among consumers too, but many people find making the right choices anything but easy. And that’s simply because the system behind it isn’t right.

Do explain...

The fast fashion model, which once stood for positive development, i.e. the democratisation of fashion, has been completely derailed over the last 15 years. An item of clothing’s life cycle has become shorter and shorter. The fashion industry is largely based on rapidly changing trends with overconsumption at the root of the issue. This has major consequences for both people and the planet.
 
Enormous volumes of non-renewable resources are used to produce clothing that is only worn for a very short period of time, only to then be dumped or incinerated. A huge amount of water is used during this process and a fair amount of pollution is involved too. The complex production chains are well known for their exploitation in the producing countries.

What is needed to change this system?

This is almost impossible for a company. Policies and legislation are needed for this. If a change to a system is required, a government can take on a guiding role in order to accelerate this process. This can be done both by imposing obligations and by providing positive incentives, for example, by rewarding companies with tax benefits if they introduce sustainable measures.

Are you more in favour of negative or positive incentives?

I tend to choose the latter from a consumer perspective. You can compare it to the food industry. You’re not going to make anyone happy by telling them they can’t eat meat anymore. People will feel attacked and this can lead to defensive behaviour. You would be much better off trying to convince people with inspiring vegetarian recipes. So a positive incentive will certainly prove useful if you’re trying to convince companies to opt for sustainable materials.
 
You can make it economically interesting for them to make responsible choices by making sure they can maintain their margins and that their product remains profitable. Whilst at the same time, it’s certainly also a good idea to impose a number of obligations on the industry. This could include, for example, a ban on harmful chemicals or a minimum quality for textiles. It will therefore always be about a combination of those two methods. The art and the difficulty is in finding the right mix in policymaking.

You have certainly timed your master thesis very well: the research perfectly fits within the European Commission’s Green Deal context.

That’s right, the European Commission launched a new action plan for the circular economy in March 2020. It will become one of the most important building blocks of the new European Green Deal, the plan with which the EU wants to make the economy sustainable, with the main objective being to realise a climate-neutral union by 2050. Extra attention will be devoted to certain sectors as a result of their impact on the environment or the circular opportunities and one of these sectors is… textiles!

What is going to be addressed in this action plan?

It contains measures aimed at the entire life cycle of products. Specific actions are being worked out for textiles and a comprehensive European strategy with measures will be drawn up. The focus will be on creating a framework for sustainable products, but also on improving the business and regulatory climate for sustainable textiles.

Even though your master thesis is based on a Flemish perspective, your recommendations definitely look at things from within a broader Belgian and European context. Why is that important?

Demarcation is crucial, you’ve got to start somewhere. Eventually, everything is connected. For example, we are currently looking into how a reduction in VAT on certain products or services could play a role in convincing and stimulating consumers and companies to buy sustainably. A measure that is anchored in national legislation, but for which the European VAT Directive will first need to be revised. Flanders, therefore, formed the starting point for my research, but you can naturally repeat this exercise for other countries or parts of other countries too.

What was the biggest challenge you came across during your research?

The complexity of policies and legislation. As I said, it’s a huge tangle of connected little radars in a big hole. Laws, regulations, guidelines… it’s so important for these matters to be effectively established and written up, with input provided by the sector. But not every company is going to have time to provide input, let alone actually get immersed in the complexity of the material.

You managed to bring those two worlds of policy and industry together through round table discussions.

Yes and I’m very pleased with the excellent industry stakeholders’ attendance during these round table discussions. Once again proof that the sector itself wants to move forward. One of the aspects which came to the surface during the discussions with policymakers is that it’s quite exceptional for a sector to ask for more legislation.

What are the most important recommendations in your master thesis?

Firstly, there’s a need for clarity and demarcations. One of the things which emerged from the round table discussions is that there is no clear definition for circular textiles. And this is absolutely crucial to be able to prepare an effective policy. It starts with all of us measuring with the exact same measurements. After all, everyone uses different criteria where sustainability is concerned and there’s a proliferation of quality marks and certificates.
 
Another recommendation is the importance of quality. There are always plenty of discussions about animal welfare, lower CO² emissions and less water consumption, but the products’ lifespan is definitely essential too. We must encourage companies to produce products that will last a long time and are recyclable, in order to do something about the growing mountain of waste, full of non-recyclable textiles. And to avoid low-grade qualities.
 
Uniformity is once again important here, in order for us to realise a minimum quality standard: you can’t draw up a policy and subsequently enforce it too until everyone is speaking the exact same language.

And finally, you state that subsidies are important, providing there’s a sales market for them too.

It’s obviously fantastic that governments are investing in innovation, but in practice there often isn’t enough insight into where that money goes. Four comparable projects were recently approved instead of centralising these and stimulating collaborations. More coherence, that’s what it should start with. Not just turning on the money tap, but instead streamlining and coordinating the subsidies more effectively. And then specifically focusing on creating a sales market for the innovations which will arise from this.

The course awarded your master thesis with a mark of ‘great distinction’. Does this encourage you to continue with academic research?

There’s certainly plenty of potential for further research. Even though I have now actually headed off in a different direction. I now work as a Sustainability Coordinator at Xandres two days a week, a Belgian fashion house with a long history and where quality has always been a central focus point. The company was looking for someone who could turn the sustainability objectives, a long-term strategy, into concrete short-term actions.
 
And I work at Flanders DC three days a week too. A fantastic combination, as any issues we’re faced with at Xandres, and undoubtedly other fashion companies too, can subsequently be tackled at Flanders DC. This can definitely work the other way round too, as I certainly come across organisations at Flanders DC which could potentially be of interest to Xandres. I truly believe working together is the only way for us to realise real progress.
 
This article was previously published in Dutch.

How sustainable are second-hand clothing platforms like Vinted really?

Knack Weekend, Merel Thiers
 
Online second-hand clothing platforms such as Vinted, Vestiaire Collective and Depop have seen explosive growth in the last year. The benefits are many: you make room in your overflowing closet while giving items a second life and earning money on the side. But are the platforms as sustainable as they like to make out?
Vintage has long since shed its dusty image, but the second-hand clothing market seems to be booming like never before. According to large-scale research by online secondhand store thredUP, the secondhand market will double in size by 2025, meaning that it is growing eleven times faster than the regular clothing market. Online resale platforms, where you can buy or sell second-hand clothing, are meanwhile mushrooming. The online second-hand platform Vinted is the unsurpassed front runner in our country. The Lithuanian company settled in Belgium in 2018 and can now count on more than a million Belgian users.
 
Larger chains are not letting the second-hand trend pass them by and are jumping on the bandwagon by setting up their own second-hand platforms. Zalando, for example, expanded its offer with a “pre-owned collection” and H&M launched its second-hand fashion platform “Sellpy” at the beginning of June. In both cases, the platforms largely take care of the sales, while the users simply send the clothes. At Zalando you can exchange your credit for a Zalando gift card or donate it to charity, while from Sellpy you get a percentage of the proceeds.

Two sides of the coin

The benefits of second-hand clothing platforms seem to be self-evident: you make room in your overflowing closet and give items a second life while still earning something yourself. In other words, you bring clothes back into circulation instead of throwing them away or letting them gather dust in your closet. On the other hand, buying a second-hand garment is also good for your wallet. According to sustainable fashion platform COSH, in addition to saving money, you also save an average of 1 kilogram of waste, 3040 liters of water and 22 kilograms of CO2. The second-hand platforms are happy to play their part in the evolution towards a more sustainable, circular clothing industry.
 
Yet critics question this sustainable role. Business of Fashion writes that resale platforms may just be fueling “binge shopping,” by providing a market for quickly discarded items. Melissa Watt – ethical fashion journalist and author of “Not What It Seams,” a newsletter on fashion and sustainability – also believes that resale platforms mimic the fast fashion cycle. After all, the model is equally dependent on a constant influx of new items, most of which are barely worn. This is also evident on Vinted, where most items are sold under the label “unused without a price tag” or “little used. According to Watt, users wear a garment once or twice and resell it, after which other members buy the trendy pieces for a fraction of the original price. ‘This way it is easy to get caught up in an endless treadmill of trends. In other words, online reselling can unintentionally feed our disposable relationship with clothing,’ she writes.
 
Hilde van Duijn, an expert in the field of sustainable textiles, fears that the second-hand platforms will be used by chains as an excuse to ‘consume even more cheap clothes with a clear conscience’, she told de Volkskrant. Fast fashion chains like H&M and Zalando seem to offer their customers a ‘guilt free’ alternative: a golden mean between fast fashion and real awareness, which still binds the consumer to them.
 
According to Jasmien Wynants, sustainable fashion expert at Flanders DC, the issue is twofold: ‘If you can give something a second or third life – whether through second-hand sales, swapping, swishing or swapping – then you extend the life of that garment, of the energy and of the raw materials that were needed to produce it. So you are always reducing your impact on the environment when you resell a garment instead of throwing it away. But if it is an excuse to just buy something, wear it once, and resell it, then you can question its sustainability as a whole. However, it is not that simple to find out those motivations’.

Consumer also responsible

Marie-Julie De Bruyne is a PhD researcher at Ghent University and studies customer engagement in the circular economy. She agrees that the question requires even more research, but emphasizes the role of the consumer, in addition to that of the companies themselves: ‘We need much more than just the value chain to be as sustainable as possible. In the case of resale platforms, where users are not only consumers but also sellers, the user plays a crucial role to effectively achieve the sustainability objective’.
 
De Bruyne states that according to research, the economic benefits in clothing alternatives are still the main motivator for most consumers. ‘If they then buy second-hand at a slightly lower price, consumers naturally have more money available to possibly buy more. Then you see that the intention of giving a second life to one garment, might be giving life to several new garments, which negates the positive effect. Also, if you buy a lot of second-hand clothes but quickly throw them away and don’t bring them back into the circle, there is a limit to sustainability’.
 
According to research by Vestiaire Collective, second-hand platform for luxury goods, buying new items was found to be the main driver for thirty percent of sellers. Similarly, The RealReal, also a luxury second-hand platform, indicates that the majority of their sellers use their commission to store in the regular clothing market. With models like Zalando’s, where you get a Zalando gift card in exchange for your discarded garments, one can wonder to what extent that will lead to the purchase of a new item on the webshop, rather than a second-hand one. Jacintha De Graaf, head of Zalando Benelux, says of their pre-loved collection, “We know that our customers like to make sustainable choices and exchange items they no longer wear to make way for something new.

Alternatives

So what should we look for in resale platforms? After all, according to a recent Finnish study, reselling clothes is still the most sustainable option, compared to other alternative options like recycling or renting clothes. It seems that, as consumers, we should be especially aware of our own motives and where we (re)invest our money. ‘Of course it is still best to buy less but more qualitative and take care of your clothes,’ says Jasmien Wynants. After that it is best to give your clothes a second life in your own environment, through acquaintances or Swishing exchange events for example. That way you keep the chain short and you don’t need a middle man or extra transport.
 
Niki de Schryver, founder of sustainable fashion platform COSH! agrees: ‘Vinted is actually a spin-off from a transport company. That transport of course has CO2 emissions, and a big disadvantage is that before the sale you don’t know how far the garment will eventually go’. COSH! developed a step-by-step plan that helps you make choices when donating or selling clothing. Via their overview of recognized clothing and textile collection points, you know where your donated clothes will end up or at which local second-hand sales points you can resell your clothes.

Concrete tips for sustainable second-hand shopping:

Go through your closet again and ask yourself how you can wear or combine certain items in a new way. Can you still repair, adjust or upcycle the item? If you really want to get rid of it, first ask yourself if someone in your environment would like to take it over.
Do not buy an item just because it is second hand or cheap, but think carefully about what you buy. Most platforms allow you to save items, giving you another night to think about them.
 
Pay attention to the location of the seller and buy as locally as possible. You can specifically track sellers in your area and even meet in person to eliminate transportation.
 
Ask for measurements of the garment to avoid unnecessary returns. One brand’s M is not another brand’s M. As a seller, you can take on-the-fly photos and list your measurements so buyers can better judge how a garment will look on them.
 
Read a seller’s reviews to avoid scams and other woes. Beware, for example, of drop-shippers: sellers who resell new products, often from Asian webshops such as Shein and AlieExpress. The products are often fake and anything but durable.
 
On many platforms you can already enter filters such as sizes and brands for the items that appear in your overview. If you are looking for a specific item, you can enter search filters. The result: less aimless scrolling and a lower risk of impulse purchases.
 
At Vinted you can indicate Homerr as a shipping option. Homerr uses collection points and existing routes of logistics service providers. It sometimes takes a little longer for your package to arrive, but it is much more sustainable.

The job of…Jasmien Wynants – Expert Sustainable Fashion at Flanders DC

Fashion United, Christin Ho
 
In the section ‘The job of …’, FashionUnited wants to inspire you with testimonials from professionals in the sector. What does their day look like on average? What skills do they need for their job? What challenges do they face? Jasmien Wynants, Project Manager – Expert Sustainable Fashion at Flanders DC, is the first to answer.
Image: Karlijne Geudens

How did you end up in this job?

“After my studies in communication sciences and management, I gained experience in the marketing and advertising sector. I was initially involved in developing digital campaigns, and later in creating internal tools and templates and optimizing work processes at the large Antwerp creative agency These Days (now Wunderman Thompson).”
 
“Because of my work experience at These Days, I was the perfect candidate for a new position at the Flanders Fashion Institute (nvdr. in early 2016, Design Flanders, Flanders Fashion Institute and Flanders DC merged into one organization: Flanders DC), where they were looking for an expert knowledge and tools. It soon became clear that in addition to that domain, there was also work to be done regarding the theme of ‘sustainability’. At the time of my recruitment, the City of Antwerp knocked on their door to collaborate on circular fashion for ‘stadslab 2050’, a project that I helped launch. Since then, I have continued to be committed to a sustainable(er) fashion industry.”
Jasmien Wynants in brief:
– Age: 32 years
– Education: Master in Communication Sciences and Master in Environmental Sciences
– Job title: Project Manager Expert Sustainable Fashion at Flanders DC
– Job: Works 5 years at Flanders DC in Antwerp

Since 2017, you have been guiding fashion entrepreneurs in sustainable entrepreneurship with the Close The Loop tool. How do you guide them?

“Close The Loop’ is a very practical online platform on which we motivate companies to get started themselves. When the tool was first introduced, it was mainly start-ups that wanted to get the sustainability movement going, but in recent years we’ve been getting more and more requests from larger companies. Because we can certainly create an impact in the industry with those Flemish SMEs as well, we started ‘Close The Loop’ trajectories in 2017. In a tailor-made annual program, we look together with these companies from Flanders DC for which processes we can improve and how they can achieve this. To this end, we work together with a broad network of experts and consultants. Collaboration is extremely important; after all, you don’t make sustainability happen on your own.”
Image: Fille Roelants

What does your day look like at Flanders DC?

“My job is very varied and every day is different. That makes it super fascinating. The past two weeks, for example, I have been sitting down with companies that we support in their sustainability process. I also receive e-mails every week from entrepreneurs who want to get in touch with sustainable platforms and experts or who have some specific questions. In addition, I do content creation. For example, I give lectures and presentations, I feed the Close The Loop website and I try to share as much knowledge and inspiration as possible with the Close The Loop community on Facebook.
 

What would you like to delve into (further)?

“Sustainable fashion remains my passion, I want to gain every piece of knowledge about that. I hope that with Close The Loop we can contribute to a sustainable fashion industry. From Flanders DC we also want to focus even more strongly on ‘fashion and technology’ within what we call ‘future-oriented entrepreneurship’. In that context, for example, we are currently rolling out a whole FashionTech community with events.”

Do you have any tips for people who want to follow in your footsteps?

“A certain basic knowledge of sustainable fashion is a requirement, though. I started an additional course in Environmental Sciences to specialize further, but of course you don’t have to go that far. You get far by reading a lot and educating yourself with online courses. The online course from Sustainable Fashion Academy, for example, is highly recommended.”
 
“In addition, building a network is also very important. The fashion world is changing rapidly and there is so much going on around sustainable fashion. In order to stay on top of all the updates and to make the whole movement go a little faster, it is necessary to share information and work together.

What would people not immediately expect in this job?

“Difficult question. I think people might expect it, but at Flanders DC everyone who works there is ‘bricklayer and architect at the same time’, as my boss puts it so nicely. That means that you have to be able to think strategically and come up with projects and ideas yourself, but you also have to be prepared to do executive work. In the ‘Close The Loop’ projects, for example, you see this very clearly: first you work out the global idea, make a plan of action, a budget estimate and a timing, but then you actually put everything into motion. You organize the kick-off event, follow up the meetings and reports, make sure a website is developed and communicate about it. So you have to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and not be afraid to roll up your sleeves.”

What is the hardest and most enjoyable thing about this job?

“The most fun and the toughest thing at the same time about this job is that you are trying to create change, to move a stone. I hope that with Close The Loop we contribute to a ‘better’ fashion industry and that is very challenging and fun. For this I work with so many inspiring people and hear new fascinating stories every day. As is the case with any change process, it is of course quite challenging. You often come up against difficulties that prevent you from achieving the desired result, such as sustainable materials that have yet to be invented. In short, there are a number of barriers to overcome. That is why I often repeat the following message to myself and the many companies with which Flanders DC cooperates in order to stay motivated: it sometimes seems like an impossible mountain to climb, but step by step we get there. Every little bit helps!”

‘Transparency remains one of the most difficult topics for the fashion industry’

Knack Weekend, Anke Wauters
 
Jasmien Wynants is the project manager of Close The Loop, a platform of Flanders DC where you can consult all details of a garment, such as the materials used, production techniques, suppliers and the price calculation and carbon footprint.
Jasmien Wynants works for Flanders DC, the point of contact for entrepreneurship in the creative sector. Wynants is the project manager of Close The Loop, a platform where you can consult all the details of a garment, such as the materials used, production techniques, suppliers and the price calculation and carbon footprint. Since the launch, we’ve noticed that the intention to communicate transparently and to become more sustainable is really there for a lot of Belgian fashion brands,” says Wynants. Which of course immediately makes us wonder:

How transparently do Belgian fashion brands communicate?

We have a few pioneers in the field of transparent communication. Bruno Pieters in particular is internationally known for this. With his HonestBy platform, he owns ‘the world’s first 100% transparent company’. Other fun initiatives in this area include Made & More in Liège, which uses QR codes in your clothing to show videos about where and how something was made. Transparency remains one of the most difficult subjects. Not only for the end consumer; also for the fashion industry itself it often remains difficult to find out where and how something is actually made. The Dutch documentary ‘De slag om de klerewereld’, in which Teun van de Keuken goes undercover as a textile trader, demonstrates this well.’
Transparency remains one of the most difficult subjects. Not only for the end consumer; also for the fashion industry itself it often remains difficult to find out where and how a garment is actually made.

Are there any sustainable initiatives that you find inspiring?

‘So many! Every day I keep discovering new people and brands that put their heart and soul into their own sustainable projects. From home, I immediately think of W.r. Yuma, which makes sunglasses out of car dashboards and other recycled materials, and Murielle Scherre, who with La Fille d’O keeps making everything as local as possible and paving her own way.

And across the border?

‘I’m looking wide-eyed at the winners of this and last year’s H&M Global Change Award. People who make textiles from oranges or cow dung, are fully committed to high-quality cotton recycling, or work around RFID wires to track a fabric’s path. These are people who are betting on innovations that can change the future.’

Do you have the impression that consumers are aware of the issues in fashion and are shopping consciously?

‘Not enough yet, but more and more. You can also feel that in the sustainable brands that are joining or opening pop-up shops. We still have a long way to go, but I am getting a lot more questions about the topic today, both from professionals and consumers. I definitely believe we are moving in the right direction.’
Sustainable fashion is no longer a niche. You can find almost anything today quite easily and more sustainably made.

How can we convince people to choose sustainable alternatives?

‘By showing them that there are a lot of brands that provide sustainable fashion in very different styles and at very different prices. Just think of JBC (who launched a transparency tool on their website this week), Bel & Bo and CKS – all members of the Fair Wear Foundation. Sustainable fashion is no longer a niche and by now you can find almost anything quite easily and more sustainably made. In addition, of course, fashion companies have a role to play. Don’t forget that people still buy clothes in the first place for other reasons: it’s beautiful, it feels good, it fits like a glove… With that, you still convince the majority of your audience to choose your brand. So it’s important to deliver a good product for your target audience. Sustainability is usually not ‘the first reason’ why the consumer buys something, but you can choose as a company to make and offer it that way.’

Should sustainability be a part of (fashion) education?

‘Yes. I believe sustainability should be part of education. As early as secondary education. There are often lessons on north-south issues or food waste – sustainability can already be framed more broadly there. In this way the awareness of the theme is present much earlier. In addition, I do indeed think that it is important that also in higher education students are made aware of the issues so that they can make their own choices.’

5 questions for the sustainability expert

Knack Weekend, Annelien Boens
 
In April we pay extra attention to sustainability at Weekend.be. We let some experts talk about their commitment to sustainability. Today we talk to Jasmien Wynants, project manager at Flanders Fashion Institute, who focuses on circular fashion and guides start-ups in the fashion sector.
Jasmien Wynants - Fashion Talks - image: Fille Roelants
As Project Manager at Flanders Fashion Institute, Jasmien Wynants developed ‘Close The Loop’ together with Plan C last year, an online tool that guides fashion entrepreneurs through the principles of circular economy and provides them with concrete strategies and tips to apply in their own business. In addition, she is also responsible for the guide that FFI makes for start-ups in fashion.

Do consumers see that sustainable fashion is the future?

I believe there is a growing interest in sustainable fashion and more and more consumers are becoming more conscious about their clothing choices. Whether therefore enough consumers already see that the future is sustainable fashion? In my opinion, we are not there yet. But perhaps the question is also: how can we ensure that the fashion industry generally evolves more towards a more sustainable sector? Imagine, as a consumer, walking into a store and having to struggle to find something that is not sustainably made instead of the other way around.
 
Of course, I don’t mean by this that the responsibility lies solely with the designers, retailers or producers, but a positive evolution is needed in the mindset and actions of all parties involved.’

How important are fair trade labels?

‘Labels are important, as long as we can still see the forest through the trees. Websites like labelinfo.be therefore are very important in my opinion, because they give an overview of the different labels in the world of sustainability and what they stand for. There are many different criteria and yardsticks to measure the ecological footprint or to assess whether clothing is made in fair conditions.
 
Even if you, as a consumer, want to buy sustainably, it is unfortunately not so easy at the moment to know how to do it. A little tip here: the GOTS label is an international label for organic textiles and takes into account both social and environmental factors.’

How do you plan to convince people to choose sustainable alternatives?

‘By showing that sustainable doesn’t always have to be expensive and certainly not ‘unfashionable’. Look at JUTTU for example, the concept store of A.S. Adventure shows a wide audience that sustainable fashion is not a niche. In the online tool we provide a lot of inspiring cases in different segments and styles to show that it does exist.
Although we mainly want to reach the fashion entrepreneurs with our initiatives, we also give the consumers information on how they can contribute. For example, we shared some very concrete tips as ‘good intentions’ at the beginning of the year. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like to hear that it’s best to iron as little as possible?’

Is there still a lot of greenwashing going on?

I think it is getting harder and harder to greenwash. Initiatives like the Clean Clothes Campaign and Rank a Brand play an important role here. In that context, I am also convinced that more transparency over the entire chain will be a necessity to work towards a more sustainable fashion industry.’

What sustainable projects do you find very inspiring?

‘In the summer Bruno Pieters organizes the expo ‘(Behind) the Clothes’ in the context of ‘Born in Antwerp’ where, by analogy with the honest by platform, he unravels the Antwerp creative fashion network, investigates it and presents it to the general public. I am also excited about the Fashion Flows trajectory, the Post Couture Collective of Dutch designer Martijn Van Strien who is now collaborating with some alumni of the Modeacademie, the clothing library of Les Rebelles d’Anvers that opens in Antwerp in April and the young designers who are holding on to a more sustainable fashion industry like ROMBAUT and Katrien Van Hecke.’
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