Elizabeth Raman Grubbs from MIT

In July, a team of graduate students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) won a competition hosted by outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia. The competition's prompt was "Waste Not, Want Not: Eliminating Patagonia's Pre and Post-Consumer Textile Waste," and the winning team is collaborating with Patagonia to implement their solution. One of the students on the MIT team was Elizabeth Raman Grubbs, who just graduated with her Master's in Supply Chain Management. While Elizabeth was unable to discuss the details regarding her team's solution, she did share her views on sustainability in fashion based on her experience participating in the Patagonia competition.

GBJ: Fashion's supply chains have become more visible recently, but there is still a lot that consumers don't know. Do you think supply chain transparency is the future for companies looking to be sustainable?

ERG: Not necessarily, companies do not have to achieve supply chain transparency to achieve sustainability goals. My MIT Sloan School of Management Sustainability Certificate project focused on developing a business case for transparency for a large retail apparel company. From this project, I learned that transparency is not always the answer. Obtaining transparency requires extensive effort within the business, especially in the IT systems to allow thorough data collection and analysis. It also involves setting up detailed supplier management teams and processes. Companies should thoughtfully set transparency goals that align with their current sustainability goals or core business operations. Otherwise, organizations run the risk of wasting efforts on becoming transparent rather than becoming sustainable.

GBJ: The supply chain includes many different steps and complexities, and often the waste created by textiles is forgotten or simply ignored. Why is it important for brands to invest in new ideas to eliminate or dramatically reduce textile waste?

ERG: Brands are beginning to emphasize the importance of creating a closed-loop supply chain. Companies' effect on the environment begins at production and continues until garments complete their life cycles. Fashion brands can make a huge impact by taking the full garment cycle into consideration and adjusting processes to reduce textile waste. At the end of the cycle, all garments end up in the landfill. Taking responsibility and ownership for this result of doing business will set an admirable example for other industries to follow. It is also important for brands to invest in sustainability to stay relevant and aligned with consumer preferences. Customer demand for sustainable fashion is rapidly increasing. Competition among brands to win business will increase companies' motivation to increase sustainability measures and reduce textile waste.

GBJ: Other than textile waste, what do you think is an area of the supply chain that fashion brands should focus on making more sustainable?

ERG: Transportation emissions are not the most interesting sustainability topic from a marketing perspective; however, emissions weigh heavily on brands' sustainability impact. From my capstone research for my Master's degree at MIT, I learned that companies must accurately measure and track transportation emissions first. Then, organizations can implement reduction tools. Moving materials through the production facilities and delivering to customers creates a massive amount of emissions. Brands can focus on freight consolidation to reduce truck trips within their supply chain. Offering free next day delivery to customers quickly multiplies transportation emissions. Companies can partner with their customers to discourage demand for next-day shipping and reduce emissions. By focusing on transportation, fashion brands can quickly reduce their negative impact on the environment.

GBJ: In your experience, how did the competition create an environment for more innovative ideas?

ERG: The Patagonia case competition encouraged teams to select students from different backgrounds. This really helped us create an innovative solution for the case competition. Having members from diverse majors at MIT helped us think beyond our normal brainstorming paths. Our team completed a rigorous ideation process. We took an entire day and called out all possible solutions for our initial proposal. After generating a long whiteboard list, each member would present an idea from the list and the team would debate the pros and cons. Hearing the different perspectives and feedback from team members with varied backgrounds pushed us to create a competitive proposal.

GBJ: Based on the solutions presented during the competition, are you optimistic that fashion's supply chains can become environmentally-friendly in the near future?

ERG: I am very optimistic for the future of sustainable fashion supply chains after competing in the Patagonia case competition. Teams from all over the country created compelling, innovative solutions. I was impressed by the display of creativity presented at the finals. Patagonia leads the industry by rooting their business in sustainability and sets a great example for fashion brands to follow. I am also excited to see schools create sustainability programs, like the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech. Entire classes of students will emerge from these programs with a fresh perspective on sustainability. Students will bring new information on sustainability to the operations of their companies after graduation.