Can brands effectively address climate change without also tackling other social impact issues in their sustainability strategy? WARC speaks to Felicity Pascoe – senior gender equality, disability and social inclusion advisor and founder of Thread to Fabric – about this interplay and how to onboard more conscious consumers in Indonesia.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on conscious consumerism in Southeast Asia. Read more

Key insights

  • The sustainability movement is aligning with a broader movement in Indonesia towards fitness, health and wellness.
  • Brands need to understand the social impact of climate change and how it worsens social inequality.
  • For a brand’s sustainability strategy to be environmentally friendly and ethical, it must ensure fair pay and fair work.
What does “being sustainable” mean in the context of Indonesia?

The market in Indonesia is very diverse. What is happening in Jakarta is very different compared to what is happening in Bali and other parts of Indonesia. There are so many subcultures, so most of my comments draw from what I see happening within Jakarta, which is a bit behind the market in Bali in terms of sustainability awareness and commitment.

Sustainability is still seen as a nice to have when it comes to consumer purchasing. Products are produced quickly and cheaply, so sustainable brands are competing with the mass market. As sustainable and ethical fashion uses fabrics and processes that are often more expensive (such as quality fabrics, paying fair wages and so on), it usually costs more. Some people are prepared to pay more but many are still attracted by a good and cheaper deal.

What are the entry points for brands to encourage more sustainable behaviours among Indonesian consumers?

I see the sustainability movement aligning with a broader movement in major Indonesian cities towards fitness, health and wellness. This developing culture of becoming more conscious of what people put into their bodies and how they interact with their environment is starting to reflect more broadly in their consumer choices.

A second entry point is culture. Indonesia is a very nationalistic country. Indonesians love their country, they love their culture, and this is reflected in their love of batik. Batik is seeing a revival, especially with younger consumers. An entry point related to culture and naturally available resources and products is through the use of natural dyes and locally available materials. While many upper-income Indonesians are attracted to foreign brands and labels, there is a growing culture of supporting and using locally available materials and dyes.

A third entry point is smaller but I think it’s a growing market. This relates to being an ethical brand and supporting local women. I am finding that ensuring (and evidencing!) fair work and fair pay to support Indonesian women is starting to resonate, particularly with young mothers and women in their 30s and 40s. That connection to culture and a place of local connection are key. Supporting local women who are producing ethically and sustainably is one potentially growing area to tap into.

Can brands effectively address climate change without also tackling other social impact issues in their sustainability strategy?

The issues of social impact and environmental impact are different but they're interlinked and mutually supportive. Brands need to look more holistically at their sustainability strategy. Climate change is more than an environmental crisis – it’s a social crisis.

Brands (and other companies) need to understand the social impact of climate change and how it worsens social inequality. For example, as we know, changes in our climate are causing droughts and floods in different parts of the world, leading to water and food insecurity.

Communities that are most impacted by this are poor women, children and vulnerable populations. Although these populations suffer the most, they contribute the least to the crisis. By addressing climate change – through brands using more responsible materials (that use less water), or responsible processes (that use less chemicals), or by buying locally to reduce a brand’s carbon footprint – it can help to reduce the negative social impact felt by vulnerable communities.

In the fashion industry, factories producing garments are often located outside major cities and in lower-income communities (where rates of pay are often lower, so production is cheaper). When factories are using processes that are detrimental to the environment, such as dumping toxic chemicals from their production into waterways, this has a direct impact on the community that is living around those factories. Contaminated water obviously affects their health and their ability to work and earn money, contributing to economic impact for their families as well.

Brands that are making clear efforts to reduce their waste, clean up their production and use non-toxic chemicals can also link their environmental efforts to social benefits for the communities surrounding where they work. It is important to do this in a sustainability strategy as you can link environmental processes to better social outcomes.

What are some principles you can give to brands to ensure that their sustainability strategy is not just environmentally friendly but ethical?

I think there are two principles that are important here. The first is ensuring fair pay. The second is ensuring fair work. Brands can look to the World Fair Trade Principles to understand how to apply this to their business.

To be able to ensure both fair pay and fair work, brands need to be able to identify their supply chains. The farther away the brand gets from production along the supply chain, the harder it can be to ensure these principles are upheld. This is particularly the case for large brands that may have multiple suppliers in multiple countries. For example, knowing whether those who produce the threads in your clothes are being paid fairly can be quite hard to determine. Or knowing if the workers who created the fabric from the fibres are paid fairly can also be hard to determine.

However, it is probably easy enough for a brand to ensure that the garment workers in their factory are paid fairly. This is where transparency in a brand’s supply chain is important. It helps the brand (and its customers) to determine whether there is fair work and fair pay along the supply chain.

You worked with the United Nations in the past. Should brands be working closer with government agencies/NGOs/non-profits as part of their sustainability strategy? How do we close the gap between policy and business?

I definitely think it’s an opportunity to work more on the policy side here but it’s not developed here in Indonesia yet for the fashion industry, as far as I am aware.

On one side, there are government policies and regulations that hold these brands and companies to account. For example, corporations registered as operating internationally need to complete certain reporting requirements and this includes reporting on their sustainability.

On the corporate side, there is a lot more that companies can do to educate themselves. Large companies are increasingly contracting environmental, social and governance (ESG) experts to develop and help implement their sustainability strategies and plans to operate in a more socially and environmentally responsible way. This is a growing market and I think we will see this continue to grow, including in Indonesia.

What kind of resources or partnerships can brands tap into?

For brands that want to educate themselves, there are a few options – this may be a local NGO or for bigger brands, they can learn from partnerships, such as the ILO.

There is the Fashion Revolution movement that is growing in Indonesia and run by the Closed Loop Fashion (Instagram: @closedloopfashion) – they are sustainability experts in Indonesia. There are also development programs that aim to support fair work in Indonesia, such as the ILO Better Work Programme that aims to improve work conditions of workers particularly related to the World Fair Trade principles.

On a smaller scale, companies can work together with advocacy groups.

For my brand, I engaged with TURC, which is the Trade Union Rights Centre in Indonesia, to educate myself about working with informal workers and how to ensure my processes and pay were fair.

One reason why sustainability is such a complex issue is because it blurs the line between profit and purpose. What are some mindsets, behaviours or frameworks that corporations can adopt from the non-profit sector?

Firstly, I think brands can be both profitable and on purpose. In fact, authentic sustainable brands that are profitable are a clear indication there is a conscious consumer market we need to be catering for and that’s amazing. We should be working towards growing sustainable brands that are profitable because they educate consumers and they also influence the industry at large on how a sustainable brand can also be a profitable one.

In terms of mindsets and behaviours that corporations can adopt, I have four concepts that are important to me from my work in the aid industry where I have worked on poverty reduction and women’s empowerment programs.

  • Transparency.

It’s key to provide transparency to the buyer and the broader society about your supply chain. Where are your trims and fabrics coming from? What are the practices and policies that you are putting in place to make sure you reduce your carbon footprint and ensure fair work and conditions? It’s important to clearly state to your consumers – this can be on your website or social media – how you implement your policies and practices. Consumers these days are better-educated and want to see what’s behind the kitchen door (how you work), not just what you are selling.

  • Accountability.

It’s important for brands to be accountable to the people who are producing their products or clothes, and the people in their supply chain. At best, this is about upholding the principles of fair trade. But beyond this, brands should also be accountable to their consumers who are better-educated than they were five years ago.

  • Empowerment.

Brands can choose who to work with and how. They can also ensure that those who are producing their products benefit from their work – this means fair pay and fair work. In this way, brands have a lot of control over their supply chains and can play an important role contribution to empowering those who produce their clothes or products. In this way, brands can contribute to the economic and social empowerment of those who work for them.

  • Authenticity.

It’s important for brands to be “real”. To help educate myself when I first started my brand, I completed a sustainable fashion short course. I wanted to find out what was being done by brands around the world that I should be aspiring to. I admit that I can be a perfectionist, so I was initially paralysed with this sense that in order to be “authentically” sustainable, my brand needed to be perfect. I thought every trim, every piece of fabric, every process had to be fully sustainable. However, the sustainable fashion course taught me that this is not the case. What I've learned along the way is that it's a journey. It’s important to communicate where you are at, what you are currently doing to be a cleaner and more sustainable brand. It's also important to outline what you’re working towards in the future as a brand. This might be working towards becoming plastic-free – or as a clothing brand, the “end of life" for your garments. Will the fabric allow for decomposing or do you expect it would be recycled? In this context, what is the brand’s role in this end-of-life process?