Words with (Fashion) Friends: Lewis Perkins
Original article: https://cfda.com/news/words-with-fashion-friends-lewis-perkins-2
Lewis Perkins is the inaugural President of Apparel Impact Institute (AII). Founded in 2018, the organization is working towards engaging the fashion industry to restore the planet’s health.
Prior to his role at AII, Perkins served as the president of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and has worked with organizations such as The Clean Air Campaign.
CFDA caught up with Perkins to talk about his new role, fashion and sustainability.
Sustainability is becoming a topic of global conversation in fashion. What obstacles and opportunities do you see for designers, such as those in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion * Initiative, in today’s climate?
While I am pleased at the growth of awareness and conversation around sustainability within the fashion industry, we need to think carefully about the word “sustainability.” We are not trying to sustain the industry but to sustain the environment, human and natural, impacted by the industry. That must be understood for conversation to transform into positive action.
Working on the operational side of sustainability in the industry means I have insight to a few obstacles. Brand size is one of those challenges. Many designers are small and boutique, not retailers themselves. For that reason, their volume of production is often also small. It can be hard for small producers to make sustainable choices when they do not have the weight of production volume to drive price reductions or bulk access to sustainable options. On the other hand, don’t assume that just because a brand is large, they always partner with their suppliers in a way that incentivizes collaborative change. Behind every large brand are hundreds, if not thousands, of suppliers from small to large businesses. The industry is made up of millions of individuals who contribute to the current mass machine we have created.
That being said, every brand has a voice, regardless of size, and can identify their passions around sustainability, then align them with their work to understand where they can make a difference, which will amplify global sustainability issues. Additionally, designers like those in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative have an opportunity to work collaboratively, combining their voices (and materials purchases) to help leverage the change desired.
Designers and brands have power, both independently and collectively. The opportunity is to look around at other designers in your world and see what choices they are making and how to band together to bring the strength of combined voice and production volume, and to rally for the change needed.
How do you encourage designers to find their voice in the conversation of sustainability?
Finding your voice in any conversation is a very personal decision. Much like their designs, designers’ choices around sustainability have to be their own truth. I would encourage designers to understand what matters to them most and consider their footprint both now and in the future. What bothers them about the lack of sustainable practices in fashion or the current state of the world? What excites and delights them about sustainable practices in fashion or the current state of the world? Is it about design, is it about materials and natural resources, is it about factory conditions, human rights or community impact?
There is a plethora of impact issues to address, and designers can choose to work towards all of them or they can pick the most material. Regardless, it has to come from the heart. Working from this place will ensure your voice is authentic and that action taken will align with yourself and your brand.
Being very open myself, I would also encourage designers to lean into being transparent about sustainability and their work. Transparency will enhance authenticity, which inherently aligns with any brand. It also inspires your designer peers to speak up. Of course, having a differentiating story to tell is always great, so I would also encourage designers to highlight the aspects of sustainability that align with their brand, or the specific stories they have about their positive choices, while still thinking holistically about their life-cycle impact.
However, in the realm of sustainability, brands and customers alike recognize that there are big issues that affect all designers, all consumers, and the world (to put it lightly) and should be open about how they consider responsible design and production.
What is one piece of advice that you would give designers starting off on their sustainability journey?
A designer’s sustainability journey is also personal. It’s building on that voice, deciding what they stand for and what they won’t put up with, and then taking action. Once they know these things, designers can start to ask the right questions, understand opportunities and find the movements, initiatives or programming that align. This is the time to join together in collaboration in order to solve for some of the biggest issues facing our world.
I also believe that sustainability is truly impactful when developed as a criteria one evaluates in every decision, from design to resources procurement, from production through end-of-use, even in building your brand’s value and message. With this in mind, I encourage designers to think about the designs themselves and how they will come to life, be used, and what happens after use. This is a big piece of advice, so to make it a bit more actionable, ask yourself ”how does my product impact people and the planet?“ and go from there.
Can you tell us a bit about your work with the Apparel Impact Institute? What benefits do you see Aii providing designers?
The Apparel Impact Institute (Aii) is a collaboration of brands, manufacturers and industry stakeholders that have come together to select, fund and scale high-impact projects that dramatically and measurably improve the sustainability outcomes of the apparel and footwear industry. We are essentially working to find promising projects that address key sustainability needs in factories that, with resources and investment, can scale to industry-wide programs that meet the critical environmental and social outcomes brand and consumers are seeking.
Our inaugural initiatives is called Mill/ impact and will focus on mill improvement as it is one of the most environmentally impactful segments of clothing production. Mill/ impact is committed to reducing energy, chemical and water use by bringing together best practices organizations to share, align and develop a singular framework for improvement that can be applied universally.
We launched in 2017 with support from a number of initiatives and large brands – not with the goal of specifically addressing their personal sustainability needs in manufacturing but with the goal of making such practices standard and required throughout the industry, even for designers and small brands.
Our vision is a world where when designers source their products, standard production criteria include positive impacts on humans and the planet. This will give designers the ability to make sourcing decisions which lead to the greatest positive impact, together.
How has the industry’s attitude toward sustainability evolved over the last five years?
I’ve seen acceleration and momentum and commitment to sustainability in the fashion industry increase. Collectively, we’ve done a nice job to raise awareness and drive strong and constant conversation around sustainability. However, we now need to translate that into action – action that drives impact at the highest volume. We have to move from talk and small scale action, from testing pilot programs to scalable global impact, and Aii is proud to be a leader toward that change.