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The Next Economy
To Ensure Our Future in Business, We Must Make Sustainability Accessible to All

As consumer-product companies, we have a unique ability to make meaningful change in the broadest sense — and a shared responsibility to our consumers to help make doing the right thing an easy, affordable choice.

It might surprise some to learn that I started my career in the legal field. I often think about the legal landscape as a microcosm for society — the challenges that rise to the surface and the answers we ultimately define help to shape the direction of our world. That’s one of the core reasons I went into the profession — I wanted to make a difference in how businesses operate and help them do the right thing. Since 2005, for me, doing the right thing has meant helping to solve the complex tests we face in corporate responsibility and sustainability.

Battling climate change and caring for the environment are no longer “science” challenges to be solved by governments and NGOs, but societal concerns affecting all of us. The same applies to the myriad complex social issues we face. And while these concerns impact everyone, it can feel impossible for individuals to take meaningful action.

This dynamic makes business a key player in the fight. When businesses make socially responsible decisions, the decisions — and the results — are passed on to the consumer. And this is something that consumers are taking note of. Recent research found 71 percent of consumers want companies to help them take more sustainable actions in their everyday lives — a message that I hear from our customers and consumers all the time.

Many in the fashion and retail industries have risen to the challenge in this space. Some newcomers have literally built their brands on sustainability, while other heritage companies continue to raise the bar. That said, sustainable fashion often comes with a significant price tag and can have mark-ups over conventional products between 150 percent and 210 percent, according to research from Kearney.

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This has generated a false perception that making sustainable choices has to be expensive. In reality, dozens of companies — from Unilever to IKEA — are balancing sustainability with cost and value, and giving everyday consumers the opportunity to make a difference. Unilever was one of the first companies to launch a comprehensive sustainability framework in 2010. Although they’ve made significant changes to reach their goals, it hasn’t drastically impacted what we pay when picking up a bar of soap in the grocery store.

At HanesBrands Inc., this balance is core to our company. With products appearing in 9 of 10 homes in the United States, we have both a responsibility and unique ability to make meaningful change in the broadest sense — from our impact on employees and communities, to our products and the environment. From our earliest days as a company, we’ve met this responsibility by delivering quality products and value for our consumers.

In the 1930s, for example, we began innovating our Reverse Weave sweatshirts to address issues around shrinkage, fit, durability and cost. This iconic product is still around today; and these core attributes, especially durability, have made it a leader in sustainability. I’m always amazed at people who tell me they still have their first Reverse Weave sweatshirt, often bought in their college bookstore.

One of the ways we balance quality with cost is through the ownership of 70 percent of our supply chain. This gives us a significant advantage when it comes to implementing sustainable business practices. We have over 60,000 associates around the world who are our own employees — people we can directly impact with programs such as education assistance and health and wellness clinics, as well as numerous communities that we touch through volunteerism, product donations and partnerships.

Our supply chain also uniquely positions us to drive out costs through our sustainability efforts. For example, since 2007, our work to reduce greenhouse gases and energy use in our facilities has yielded approximately $265M in savings for our operations. We also recently signed a power purchase agreement for our Dos Rios facility in the Dominican Republic, one of the largest textile mills in the world; so, it will be powered entirely by renewable energy, further reducing costs and environmental impact at scale.

When it comes to packaging, we are committed to making a real difference. But we know that we can’t do that alone — we must look beyond our own brands for the solution. It will take engagements with retailers, distributors and others in the industry to meaningfully reduce single-use plastics and packaging weight across the retail landscape.

Despite the wins that we have individually, nothing will be as powerful as the movement we can drive when we partner together. This is especially true with consumers — and it’s larger than what they purchase. In fact, one of the biggest ways to cut down on emissions in the lifecycle of a t-shirt is simple: wash in cold water. One of our long-term goals is to educate consumers everywhere to do just that.

The only way we are going to save the planet and chart a new course for society is by empowering people to do the right thing. We have a shared responsibility as businesses to our consumers to help make doing the right thing an easy, affordable choice. Together, we must make sustainability accessible to all.