[Interview] Ann Claes, CEO of the Claes Retail Group, is convinced that you can only do business in a positive way if you respect people and the environment. The JBC and Mayerline clothing chains that are part of this group score high on ethics and sustainability. Glo.be spoke with Ann Claes about her commitment and the value of corporate social responsibility.
The Claes Retail Group has been a member of the multi-stakeholder organisation 'Fair Wear Foundation' (FWF) since 2015. What exactly does this mean and what conditions do clothing brands have to meet in order to be awarded the FWF label?
Members of the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) work together to improve their production chains. To become a member, companies have to prove that they intend to make the necessary efforts for a fairer fashion industry. Being a member does not mean that your company is already perfectly ethical. It is a constant process, you can never really stop working on it and improving yourself.
Moreover, it is not an easy process. That is why we get guidance from the FWF. For example, they inspect the factories we cooperate with by focusing on a number of specific working points, such as the prohibition of child labour, safe and healthy working conditions, no discrimination and correct working hours and remuneration. They check everything thoroughly and then let us know where there is room for improvement. On this basis, we develop improvement plans in consultation with the manufacturer. In addition, the FWF ensures transparency by drawing up a report after each audit that gives the participating chains a score. These reports can be found on our website.
Being a member of the Fair Wear Foundation does not mean that your company is already perfectly ethical. It is a constant process.
In 2018, JBC achieved a score of 59 in this report and a monitoring percentage of 89. Are you satisfied with this result? What will you do to improve?
It was not an easy year, as the report shows. We did not have a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) manager for a while due to a job change. This made it difficult to achieve progress, but we were able to maintain the existing achievements. Given the circumstances, I am certainly proud of that, but I want to go further in 2019.
This year, we want all our factories to be audited and be given a report by the end of the year. Besides, we want to give our customers even more transparency on our supply chain. Our I AM collection is definitely a step in the right direction in that regard. All factories that produce I AM clothes can be found on our website. Consumers can scan the code on the clothes and find out exactly where the piece they want to buy was produced. Transparency at its best. We want to continue taking these kinds of steps all along the line.
These audits do require a certain level of commitment and probably also come with a price. How does JBC deal with these extra costs?
In my opinion, you can never produce ethically if you calculate everything to the last cent. This commitment is simply based on what we think we should do as a large chain, what each chain should do to produce ethically.
Moreover, the cooperation with the FWF also pays off financially. Being a member allows us to work on partnerships with our manufacturers and on adequate production planning in order to ensure good quality. Everything is carefully finished and manufacturers know they can rely on us and calculate their price differently. This partnership helps us get a better price setting from the manufacturer. We have been working with 80 percent of our manufacturers for more than five years. A loyal and transparent cooperation is therefore also sustainable.
Consumers can scan the code on the clothes of our I AM collection and find out exactly where the piece they want to buy was produced. Transparency at its best.
Like FWF, JBC has signed the Bangladesh safety accord . What exactly does it include? Do you think it makes a big difference?
The Bangladesh safety accord was established after the disaster in Rana Plaza in which 1,134 factory workers lost their lives due to poor infrastructure. This is an international collaboration with various retailers to control and improve fire safety and the overall safety of the buildings in Bangladesh. We were the first Belgian company to sign this agreement.
Thanks to the agreement, the factories in which we produce are inspected by professional engineers who tell us what needs to be changed for everything to be 100 percent safe and ensure the follow-up. All 24 factories we work with in Bangladesh are checked in this way. I believe that this type of agreement is of utmost importance and that as many chains as possible should join. In 2017, H&M also signed the agreement, which puts enormous pressure on other companies. In my opinion, the government should also play a role in this and call on companies to join. It may be sad to say, but only depending on good will, will not get you far.
Do you think that Rana Plaza has set something in motion in the fashion industry? Do producers and consumers really want change or was the indignation only temporary?
I feel that something has been set in motion among producers and chains. The very fact that the FWF and the safety agreement exist is significant. For consumers, on the other hand, it remains difficult. We talk more and more about ethically responsible fashion, but when I look at the queues in large chains that produce at very low prices, I still have my doubts.
I once saw a report in which an interviewer asked a lady standing in one of the queues whether she knew where the garments she wanted to buy had been produced. Her answer: ‘Well yes, undoubtedly in one of those countries working with children’. And yet the same lady was seen coming out of the shop with a bag. That makes me think this issue is important to citizens, but not to consumers. It may be discouraging at times, but we can only continue to try and hope that our example will be followed.
For consumers it remains difficult. We talk more and more about ethically responsible fashion, but when I look at the queues in large chains that produce at very low prices, I still have my doubts.
Respect for human rights is vital when it comes to ethical fashion, but the impact of the fashion industry on climate should not be underestimated either. JBC is therefore also committed to more sustainable fashion. What specifically do you pay attention to?
First and foremost, we try to use alternative, more environmentally friendly materials. Our I AM clothes are mainly made of lyocell, organic cotton, recycled polyester and bamboo. The crops from which these fabrics are made are grown without the use of chemicals, such as pesticides. Such ecological substances limit our ecological footprint.
But if we really want to reduce the amount of waste, I think we should direct our attention to the circular economy. So much clothing that we could perfectly reuse is thrown away. In our I AM collection, we experiment with reusable materials. For example, we are designing a nylon jacket made of recycled PET bottles and our jeans made of worn, recycled denim are already very successful.
After all, denim production puts a huge burden on the environment. Cotton harvesting already requires a lot of water and the washes are also polluting. That is why we recycle the usable pieces of jeans, while the parts that are not usable are ground into fibres and then woven into new denim. We are very satisfied with this project. We succeeded in offering the consumer a high quality and environmentally friendly alternative for the affordable price of 50 euros. However, there are still a few areas for improvement. For example, the collection of usable denim must be done on a more consistent basis. The aim is to find a system in which people first deliver usable denim to our company that we then process and resell.
If we really want to reduce the amount of waste, we should direct our attention to the circular economy. So much clothing that we could perfectly reuse is thrown away.
You mainly talk about sustainable materials, but are there other aspects that producers and consumers can take into account to make fashion more environmentally friendly?
Of course, we try to make every link in the production process more sustainable. Not only the materials are important, but also the paint and transport processes, water consumption and water purification. This also happens during our audits. We are guided to be more economical in this respect.
For the consumer, sustainability also goes beyond buying more sustainable clothes, in my opinion. It is about wearing clothes for more than one season or passing on children's clothing to other family members. That is why we have included name labels in all our children's clothing where you can enter two names. When you say ‘I wear something for one season and then I throw it away’, it is anything but sustainable, even if the clothes have been produced in a sustainable way.
Yet, fast fashion, buying a lot of low quality ‘disposable’ clothes, is still in. Do you think people will ever abandon this trend and invest more in sustainable fashion? What do you think will convince them to do so?
I certainly hope that this awareness will come and that fast fashion will soon disappear. And frankly, I also have faith in it. If you look at the climate protests and how many young people are committed to them, you can only have confidence in the next generation. Here we see young people fighting for the future of our planet. The textile industry is an important part of this. The younger generation will buy clothes more consciously. Having said that, the road to more sustainable fashion remains long and arduous.
What we need to do is inform consumers. We need to explain what it means to buy a T-shirt made of organic cotton and why it costs a little more. This is how we give them all the information consumers need to make an informed choice.
Always look for information! For example, check the website of the chain you want to buy something from. Chains that deal more ethically with clothes will always mention this on their website. In this way, you can make more conscious choices.
In general, which difficulties do you encounter in staying true to your sustainable and ethical mission?
We are not the largest chain. If we want to start something, if there are new initiatives, we do not always have the means to do it. If you are a big international company that sells garments all over the world, it is of course easier to get people behind your ideas. We have to work a little harder to get everyone behind us. We try to make producers, chains and consumers aware of the influence they can have and thus convince them. It is not an easy task, but it is very important.
To conclude, is there one specific tip you would give consumers to shop more ethically and sustainably?
Always look for information! For example, check the website of the chain you want to buy something from. Chains that deal more ethically with clothes will always mention this on their website. In this way, you can make more conscious choices. We do not have to do everything all the way at once. We do not have to completely stop driving our car or stop shopping. The most important thing is that you think before you make a choice and inform yourself. We may not solve everything in one go, but every step counts, no matter how small it may be.
Find out more about how JBC contributes to sustainable fashion (in French)
Who is Ann Claes?
Ann Claes, together with her brother Bart Claes, has headed the Claes Retail Group, known for JBC and Mayerline, since 2004. This family chain is committed to more ethical and sustainable fashion. Claes sees transparency as the key to sustainable business and is committed to it. In 2018, she won the prize for best CSR Professional of the Year awarded by the non-profit organisation Time4Society.