By Camille Mori

Walking into the UN on a snowy January day, I was eager to hear what the diverse panel of educators, designers, activists, and leaders had to say about building a more sustainable textile industry. Raw material sourcing and fabric production are a main cause for the environmental problems and social injustices within the apparel supply chain. Solving problems at this level has the potential to make massive change in the industry, from creating a closed-loop cycle for materials or eliminating child labor and human trafficking.

People packed into the small conference room as the panelists filed in. The panel was organized by the non-profit Hecho por Nosotros, and speakers included Lucia Cuba (Professor at Parsons), Cara Hagan (Business Development Manager at GoodWeave), Lilian Liu (Program Manager at the UN Global Compact), Rebecca Van Bergen (Founder of Nest), and Natalia Martinez (Activist at Fashion Revolution). The panel was moderated by Patrick Duffy (Founder of the Global Fashion Exchange).

The discussion covered a diverse range of topics: monitoring the 300 million homeworkers in the informal sector with Nest; explaining how technology is helping to eradicate child labor in rug weaving in India with GoodWeave; stressing the importance of activism with Fashion Revolution and disruptive design with Lucia Cuba. I could go on. The panel brought a breadth of knowledge to the table, yet unfortunately only touched the surface of the problems facing the sustainable textile industry. The UN Global Compact offered some particularly useful framing for the conversation, thanks to their work with private sector organizations struggling to embrace sustainable values and make lasting change.

I spoke with Lilian Liu from the UN Global Compact after the panel to learn more about how businesses are partnering with the UN and other stakeholders to use the framework of 10 principles supporting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to address environmental and social issues in the supply chain.

Liu graduated from NYU Wagner in 2015, where she took advantage of the diverse perspective of her peers and NYU’s access to impactful guest speakers from the UN. She ultimately combined the change-making and public policy skills she learned at Wagner with her Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) background, and leveraged them both into her current role as Manager of Partnerships at the Global Compact.

In that role, Liu works with the private sector to push adoption of the SDGs. In this position she communicates with CSR teams within large organizations. CSR departments have evolved dramatically from corporate philanthropy and charity work, tackling more diverse responsibilities like mitigating risk and maintaining regulatory compliance. Now, companies are moving into an era where they see their CSR work adding value to their core businesses. In this new phase, the lines are blurring between CSR and business strategy, leading business to turn to organizations like the UN Global Compact to help align their environmental and social responsibility goals with the SDGs.

Liu stressed the importance of multi-stakeholder initiatives for driving this shift in the industry. There is increasingly more collaboration in the industry and, oddly enough, companies coming together with the UN Global Compact are working with their competitors. Their interaction with the Global Compat allows them to take a step back from their day-to-day profit-driven business and collaborate on larger sustainability issues.

The key element to this transition is measuring impact. That is where the push for traceability and accountability comes in. Among the panelists, Nest and GoodWeave are actively creating systems for tracking the working conditions of artisans in the informal textile and apparel sectors. These workers are mainly women and children, and are largely unseen by corporations and often operating in hazardous and forced working conditions, since the work they do is largely subcontracted from accredited factories. In addition, the UN Global Compact is working with the CDP to create science-based projects to measure environmental impacts.

Coming away from this event, it is clear that the future of the sustainable textile industry involves many moving parts. It is driven by transparency and larger third-party organizations like the UN Global Compact that help lead the way for brands and organizations to collaborate and solve our biggest social responsibility and environmental problems. NGOs are providing more detail and better tools to help brands manage this process, and more informed consumers are demanding a better product that meets their value systems. The future of sustainable textiles is fast approaching, even if it’s hard to measure across the many stakeholders involved in the process.