Tommy Hilfiger commits to going “circular”. Will it work?

By guest author Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business

The new “Make It Possible” plan covers circular fashion, inclusive design and workers’ rights. Whether or not the brand can follow through on it depends on key partnerships.

Tommy Hilfiger is planning a reset, but not because of the pandemic.

In a comprehensive plan unveiled today, the American brand is committing to sweeping sustainability, inclusivity and human rights goals by 2030 that cover circularity, inclusivity in its product lines and economic opportunities afforded to workers within its supply chain.

Dubbed “Make it Possible”, Tommy Hilfiger unveils a sustainability strategy that aims to go beyond incremental changes like reducing waste or water use. It instead envisions new business models and more engaged supplier relationships to improve environmental sustainability and labour practices, both of which are non-negotiable elements of any serious effort to be more sustainable and ethical, say experts.

Many aspects of the plan, which recently appointed CEO Martijn Hagman says has been about two years in the making, are not unique to Tommy Hilfiger. Eco-lifestyle brand Outerknown announced a fully circular plan last spring, and the labour goals echo efforts already being made by some progressive brands. But the plan, ambitious in its scope and specific in laying out goals, is notable for a brand of Tommy Hilfiger’s scale and recognition. Public commitments also bring attention to current shortcomings and open the brand to accountability during the process.

“They’re going in the right direction,” says Francois Souchet, lead of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative. Tommy Hilfiger approached the organisation, a leading authority on circular fashion, to advise on the plan. “And it provides a good example for the industry of a large organisation really setting ambitious goals and setting up a circular economy.”

The importance of circular fashion

The plan is divided into four pillars — circularity, made for life, inclusivity and “opportunity for all” — as a way to achieve what Hagman says is an ambitious overarching vision for 2030. “We recognise that it’s quite a roadmap to get there, so we started to break it down into smaller commitments.”

The circularity goal is a particularly significant undertaking, requiring reducing or avoiding many areas of environmental impact that are often addressed in siloes. To achieve circularity, the brand will need to design products that can be easily repaired or recycled; eliminate waste, including pollution like toxic chemicals, from manufacturing as well as end-of-life; set up infrastructure to take garments back and then to repair and sell or recycle them; and get customers to actually participate. The concept has been gaining traction among environmentalists because of its potential to drastically reduce carbon emissions, waste and use of new resources. In execution, achieving circularity could shrink fashion’s environmental footprint, but there are red flags as the industry has adopted circularity as a buzzword faster than it has put its principles into practice.

Souchet says Tommy Hilfiger seems to be preparing to make the fundamental changes to its business model that will be necessary to see the circularity commitment through. By 2025, the brand plans to have ways for customers to access its products “in ways other than buying them new” in each of its regions, as well as dedicated channels for recycling old Tommy Hilfiger products. That programme, Tommy For Life, will pilot in the Netherlands this autumn and roll out to more European countries next spring. If it scales successfully, it could mark the shifts in both industry infrastructure and consumer behaviour that circularity requires.

“In the end, it clearly has the ambition to show our end consumers that there is more opportunity than just buying new products,” says Hagman. “This is an invitation to our end consumers to not only buy new, and through their shopping behaviour to also contribute to a more sustainable world.”

Still, the company hasn’t set projections for how much of its total production this will represent. Hagman refers to the 2030 commitment to have everything it makes be part of a circular loop — “and inherently in that, there is an underlying vision to sell less new garments”, he says — but experts say the lack of specific targets can mean it won’t ultimately reduce the larger problem of overproduction and overconsumption of new clothes; and that it offers loopholes.

The company says that “unpreventable” waste will be reused or recycled, for example, but Ayesha Barenblat, founder of the workers’ rights organisation Remake, questions what defines unpreventable. She says that take-back programmes may help to reduce waste, but unless they eliminate it entirely — which is virtually impossible today, given the lack of infrastructure and technology for reusing or recycling all the material blends, trims and types of construction currently used in garments — they are still likely putting a burden on the planet and on vulnerable communities in particular.

(Asked where non-recyclable products will end up, a spokesperson responded: “We’re continuing to explore different recycling channels, including collaborating with our Innovation team to turn the clothing into yarns.”)

While circularity sits at the centre of the brand’s new sustainability plan, it lays out other, less detailed goals like 50 % of its denim products using “low-impact manufacturing in finishes and fabrics” and all packaging in its operations and supply chain being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

It claims that it has increased its cotton sourced from more sustainable sources from 13 % to 80 % between 2015 and 2019 — but doesn’t specify what “more sustainable” means exactly. Hagman talked about sourcing through the Better Cotton Initiative, which has been found to be an improvement over conventional commodity cotton but still has negative environmental impacts. What’s more, the predominant sources of “sustainable” cotton have been tied recently to the use of forced labour in China. (PVH was among the companies linked with suppliers implicated for using coercive labour programmes, but has also said publicly it would cut ties with Xinjiang out of concern for the problem.)

An ambitious social agenda

Under the pillars of creating a more inclusive and equitable industry, Tommy Hilfiger says it’s expanding its product range to include more adaptive clothing and gender-neutral offerings. But most ambitious are the brand’s goals on labour practices, which include enabling everyone working in its supply chain by 2030 “to speak up for themselves and have opportunities to maximise their potential”, and for all workers at key suppliers to have their voices heard through democratically elected representatives.

To comply with labour regulations, the fashion industry relies on a social audit system to inspect conditions in factories. But Zoe Zheng, a PVH corporate responsibility advisor in Shanghai, raised concerns that the system is designed to ignore the voices most necessary for advocating change. “People who work in factories are closest to any problems there may be and, often, they’re the best people to suggest solutions,” she says in the report.

The company is building on a program it partnered with Better Work, an International Labour Organization initiative, to set up. “For a company to have an entire workplace cooperation programme stands out,” says Tara Rangarajan, Better Work’s head of communications, brand relationships and country programmes. “It means really prioritising communication between workers and managers — which is not an easy task, but it leads to longer-term change.”

Among the new goals: “proactively support” industry-wide collective bargaining to achieve living wages, meet or exceed all of its social and environmental standards by 2030, and “make professional and life skills development programmes available to 200,000 women across our supply chain”.

Supply chain experts say the goals are impressive, but are skeptical they’ll be achieved. Kate Larsen, a former Burberry executive and founder of social enterprise advisory SupplyEsChange, says the plan is notable in that it speaks openly about supply chain challenges that are often hidden or overlooked. It includes a goal to eliminate recruitment fees for migrant workers in the supply chain, something that customers likely don’t know is an issue. Setting firm and specific commitments like that is important, she says, because meeting them will require educating the brand internally on extra steps employees will need to take. Too often, she says, sourcing teams don’t look beyond whether a factory passed its audit — but as Zheng pointed out to PVH, that often doesn’t mean very much.

“The devil is absolutely in the details,” she says. “I trust if they say this, they probably can, but I still don’t believe it until you tell me how.”

The plan covers a range of other goals, including reducing supply chain emissions, discharging fewer hazardous chemicals and microfibres from facilities and adopting a more inclusive hiring policy. Hagman says that while the brand is working closely with suppliers to incentivise the changes it is promising to make — including making long-term commitments with them, a necessary step to help suppliers justify the investments — the brand is not paying for or cost-sharing in those supplier-side investments, and it’s unclear how exactly the more costly changes will be made.

He acknowledges that working conditions and wages are a complex challenge for the entire industry, and says that Tommy Hilfiger or even PVH alone “cannot move the needle”. That’s why they’re looking for industry collaborations, but he says it’s a reality that paying higher wages will mean lower margins “at a number of places in the value chain”, including brands. “If we say we want to be an inclusive brand, it also means we want to create opportunity for workers in the factory,” he says. “It will result in higher labour costs. That is a reality. But that’s an investment we should be ready to make.”

Industry observers and customers will be watching closely to see how Tommy Hilfiger enacts the plan. Barenblat says she has grown skeptical of large brands setting lofty goals because they tend to earn praise for the goals, she says, but face no follow-up to ensure they’ve met them or criticism if they do not. “What happens is companies make splashy commitments and when they can’t reach the goals, the goalposts move,” she says. “If there’s anything that Covid-19 has taught us, it’s that we have to scrutinise big splashy commitments.”

Hagman says the company is making these commitments public to hold itself accountable, and he admits that they don’t yet know how they’ll achieve some of the goals. That’s a reflection of the challenges they’re taking on and not a sign they haven’t done their homework, he says.

“We are ambitious in where we want to get. But we don’t know exactly how to get there. But we are committed to it, and we are optimistic we will get there.”

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