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February 22, 2024

Board Interview: Delman Lee on Why Fashion Needs a New ‘Mindset’

Board Interview: Delman Lee, Vice Chair Tal Apparel Limited

  • Decarbonization
Photo of Delman Lee
Cascale
February 16, 2024

As part of a recurring series, SAC details the involvement and vision of its Board members. Here, Delman Lee, vice chair of Tal Apparel Limited.

Few have been involved from the start but SAC founding member TAL Apparel Limited has seen the organization through a trajectory of changes, including the recent CEO transition and upcoming rebrand. For Delman Lee, vice chair of TAL Apparel Limited, the apparel industry is family matters. He’s a third-generation apparel manufacturer, though despite his notoriety in the industry he also boasts a doctorate from the University of Oxford and a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.

His reflections are summarized in an interview with the SAC.

SAC: How long have you been involved with the SAC? 

Delman Lee: Since the beginning; TAL is one of the founding members. We were invited to join by Levi’s. At that time, the annual meeting had three tables. I’ve been involved since the outset, well past a decade now.

SAC: What about the Board?

D.L.: This is my second term. So, it will be three and a half years.

SAC: It seems you really understand the technical nature of supply chains, but have you always considered yourself a sustainability advocate?

D.L.:  No, I have not. I was and am an electrical engineer. I spent many years doing research before coming back to the family business. And once I got involved in the business, very early on, I took up the responsibility of looking after [corporate social responsibility] CSR.

I got into sustainability while trying to build a responsible company. That word ‘responsibility’ has transpired into different names. It was CSR at that time, and sustainability now. Because it’s a labor intensive business, there are a lot of social issues. But soon, the environmental challenge came up. At that time I was looking for a framework or language to talk about environmental sustainability and then SAC popped up.

It’s interesting, before Levi’s called me, we heard there was a group formed by some big brands. Patagonia was working on something, and we were wondering who [else] they were. I was very happy that I actually got a call because we were looking for something to unify the way we talk about sustainability, and in particular, environmental [aspects] at that time.

SAC: It’s nice to hear there was a pre-competitive need and collaboration to do something about it. Do you feel like your sustainability aims for Tal have changed over time, and what are they now? 

D.L.:  TAL has also evolved in the time I’ve been there. We’ve always been a company who cares about the workers and the environment. Sustainability was already what we call ‘value drivers’ of the company. When we did the three-year plan [a decade ago], there were eight value drivers: profit, sales, innovation, employee engagement, the usual stuff, but sustainability was one of the eight, in all three year plans.

More recently it has evolved in our latest strategy review. We changed the purpose of the company to be: “To lead change in how the world sustainably clothes itself.” Sustainability has changed from one of the eight company value drivers to be the long-standing purpose of the company, three years ago.

SAC: And similarly, what about for the SAC, and maybe the broader industry?

D.L.: I think the aims are the same but the tasks are still enormous. To change an industry by collaborating amongst the peers in the supply chain is a difficult one.

SAC: Because the SAC represents over half the textile and apparel industry, it really reflects the kind of progress and pain points of sustainability progress. Where do you see more room for growth and improvement? 

D.L.: It has made a lot of progress over the past decade. They built the [Higg Index] tools through the many collaborations with all of the members – whether you are a supplier or a brand or retailer. There are a lot of passionate folks working on all the details of the tools.

The tools and measurements are there, and we are more or less unified in the way we talk about environmental sustainability. On the social side, we are halfway there with Higg Facility Social & Labor Module (FSLM) or Social and Labour Convergence Program (SLCP).

People begin to ask, “Where’s the impact?” Collective action is one of our strategic pillars and approaches on how we use the tools to reflect how things are being done. But really, people need to get onto actions, in particular, for decarbonization because the deadline is coming very quickly for 2030.

TAL Apparel

 

SAC: Why are manufacturers interested in the SAC? 

D.L.: As a manufacturer, we don’t participate in many multi-stakeholder initiatives because we’re a small team, and there are a lot of multi-stakeholder initiatives.

There are two reasons. Even right at the outset, the SAC’s approach to driving change was impressive. On the technical side, even 12 or 14 years ago, they introduced the idea of facility, environmental performance, product performance, and brand performance. There are multi-dimensions of sustainability, and this is a technical aspect that was pretty comprehensive at the time. And then the second reason is they involve partners across the supply chain. Manufacturers are actually at those tables. There are manufacturers talking about how to make the change.

A lot of multi-stakeholder initiatives are usually initiated by brands and retailers. Manufacturers are told to do something, or rarely consulted. A lot of the social and environmental issues are in the plant, so it’s always good to involve the people doing the change in the discussion about change.

We call this an equal partnership principle which has been instilled in SAC from the beginning, and that’s why you see a third of the board comprises brands and retailers, a third is manufacturers, and a third is affiliates. It’s in the governance model. That’s why it’s made so much progress and why it appeals to manufacturers to be part of this coalition.

SAC: How can the SAC, governments, NGOs, etc., support manufacturers more? 

D.L.: For climate change, or even for social change, we do need a lot of players. NGOs, pressure groups, and coalitions like the SAC, to help bring people together and bring awareness to the issues.

For me, regulation, in particular on the environmental side, is one of the last levers for change in an industry or in a society, not just our industry but for many industries.

With regulation coming in, governments are beginning to put a price on decarbonization or forced labor. I think it’s a bit unfortunate that the private sector can’t do it by themselves but the private sector and pressure groups can get things going. That’s how big the change is, and not just for our industry. COP29, the United Nations, everyone has to get involved in this particular change.

SAC: What is essential in driving lasting change? 

D.L.: A lot of work. The crux of one of the major problems, or the elephant in the room, is who is paying for it? The economic question has to be addressed somehow by someone. And progressive manufacturers may know this will just be the entry ticket to continue to play in this area.

But unfortunately, not everyone in the industry thinks like that. Some people think, “Maybe I can still be a little bit slower on this journey and still get away with it.”This doesn’t just apply to manufacturing, brands and retailers have the same issue, and in the end it ties to the consumer, as well.

If consumers aren’t paying with their pocket, buying or preferring brands that are sustainable, then it drives the behaviors of the brands. If a consumer doesn’t demand it or only certain section demands it, then it’s really not enough.

SAC: Who is involved in this?

D.L.: Now, to get something done. If you map out decarbonization, most of the footprint is actually in the fabric mill. So the fabric mill can make all the changes and can phase out coal if they want, but all that comes with a cost. It’s very simple. They may have just installed some machine that is coal based, how do they transition out of it?

At the end of the day, it is a cost-related issue. It requires some time commitment from the garment manufacturer, and the brands collectively agreeing to a long-term agreement because we’re still in a market economy. Some commitment of orders or long-term commercial agreement would help them to make that capital investment for change. If there is government or foundation funding that helps drive that – great. The industry is big, so you can’t only rely on philanthropic funding for that change. It’s really a combination of everything.

The financial market is also going through a sea change where they have to support the transition, as well. That’s just the commercial side, the other side is linked to the country, or the government of a particular country. So progressive brands, retailers or manufacturers can only progress so far. In Vietnam, for example, where we are based, even if we put solar panels on top of all my roofs, I will not hit my science-based target. It has to rely on off-site solar. And for off-site solar, the regulations are not clear. It depends on the Vietnamese government to allow a commercial entity to come in to set up off-site solar to basically decarbonize the grid. The decarbonization of the grid that we rely on is also part of the journey and that shows the country-level politics.

SAC: What is the single most important issue dividing the industry? 

D.L.: It’s really, collectively, to have a mindset that we can do it. You just heard my story, it is multi-dimensional. It’s not just the brand committing to a manufacturer and the fabric mill; it’s the consumer, it’s the country you’re operating in, and it’s the wider energy transition. The whole thing is quite complex. We can work on the apparel-specific stuff: sustainable fibers, recycling, circular fashion, circular economy, but 2030 is only six years away, right? Six years can go by very fast.

An Interview with Tamar Hoek, SAC Board Chair, on Where the SAC is Going Next

Tamar Hoek, board chair of the SAC, wearing a taupe blazer and black tie-neck blouse. Hoek detailed milestones.
Black and white headshot of Kaley Roshitsh
Kaley Roshitsh
December 13, 2023

In light of the transition news for outgoing CEO Amina Razvi, Board Chair Tamar Hoek details what’s worth celebrating and the potential ahead for the SAC.

 

SAC: Who are you? What’s your role at the SAC?

Tamar Hoek: Hi there! My name is Tamar Hoek, I am senior policy director at Solidaridad. We are an international civil society organization with 1,200 people in more than 40 countries on 13 different commodities. I am responsible for the advocacy work we do for cotton and textiles, and I am heading Solidaridad’s global linking and learning program for these two commodities.

Solidaridad has been a SAC member for years, and we have contributed to many working groups and the development of the Higg Index suite of tools. I joined the SAC Board two-and-a-half years ago, have been the Secretary for the last two years and took over the role as chair in the September board meeting in Boston during the annual member meeting.

SAC: There’s a lot of change recently at the SAC. Why a new CEO? Why now? 

T.H.: As announced in September during New York Climate Week and highlighted at the SAC’s Annual Meeting in Boston, the SAC has updated its strategy. With the changing world, and the increased challenges like climate change, social injustice and economic volatility, it was important to sharpen the focus of SAC on three foundational pillars.

In the last few years, Amina [Razvi] has worked with the Board to lead the SAC through significant growth, the development of key strategic partnerships, and the updated strategic vision. As the organization enters into this new phase of growth and works towards impact expansion, we have mutually agreed that the time is right for her to step away and for the Board to identify a successor.

SAC: Who is leading the charge on a new CEO – and day-to-day operations? 

T.H.: We have a number of moves in place to support the CEO transition period.

Amina will remain in the CEO role through the end of December to ensure the start of a smooth transition. The Executive Team will continue to oversee day-to-day operations and key strategic initiatives, while providing ongoing support and guidance. In addition, the Board of Directors has established a dedicated Transition Taskforce, which includes members with specific expertise in managing transitions and change management, Sean Cady from VF Corporation, Delman Lee from TAL Apparel (both past chairs) and myself. The Taskforce, which I am overseeing, will provide strategic direction and governance during the transition period and we are in regular contact with the Executive Team.

It is crucial that our day-to-day operations will continue smoothly. And while a transition comes with changes, the SAC wants to ensure that the operations maintain the smooth operation of essential functions. We will keep employees, members, and stakeholders informed of relevant updates through our regular communication channels. This includes the search for Amina’s successor – currently underway by a global recruitment agency – and any significant milestones as the search progresses. If members have specific questions or concerns about how the transition may affect their organization, we encourage them to reach out to their membership engagement manager.

SAC: Where is the organization now compared to when it started? 

T.H.: We’ve achieved remarkable milestones together during Amina’s tenure, like a new strategic plan in 2021, that was refocused in 2023 to prioritize sustainable impact at scale, the doubling of SAC’s membership since 2019 (over 300 organizations),  and the evolution of the suite of Higg Index tools with over 24,000 organizations adopting the tools, facilitating standardized sustainability reporting worldwide. This also includes successfully managing the Worldly spin-off in 2019 and overseeing plans for the Social & Labor Convergence Program spin-off in January 2024, creating a more robust ecosystem of partners.

SAC: Where is it going next? 

T.H.: We are actively listening during this time. The SAC’s mission remains unchanged. There is a lot of positive momentum, recently the Board of directors approved the strategic plan and 2025 goals. As I said before, Solidaridad works in 13 different industries, and we clearly see that the apparel and footwear industry is a frontrunner when it comes to a lot of sustainability topics and definitely has a lot of momentum.

The update of the strategic plan offers opportunities to take the Higg Index suite of tools to the next level, using the power of data to create impact by collaborating and taking collective action, and at the same time looking into how we can share this mission.

SAC: How will this transition affect current partners, members and staff? 

T.H.: This transition will not impact our ongoing partnerships, which have been identified as critical to us achieving our shared goals and broader mission. We remain fully committed to maintaining and strengthening our relationships with our valued members and partners. Our focus is on ensuring continuity, collaboration, and open communication to continue delivering value together.

SAC: Why is this an exciting time to be part of the SAC? 

T.H.: At the presentation of the revision of the strategic plan, Amina very well said, and I am quoting a couple of her words: “We can either remain passive participants or become catalysts for profound, industry-wide change.”

While the focus in the last few years has been on building the Higg Index suite of tools, the sharpened focus aims to create a meaningful, measurable impact on the industry’s most urgent issues.

With that the SAC is deeply committed to create a more sustainable and fair world for all, which very much aligns with Solidaridad mission. The SAC has all actors around the table: brands, manufacturers and affiliates – now 50 percent of the apparel industry – which is not easy for multi-stakeholder initiatives. What inspires me here is that we can solve the industry’s most urgent and systemic challenges by working closely together, by creating collective impact amongst the members and partners.

Over the last few weeks, while working on the transition, I have been inspired as well by the enormous dedication of the SAC’s Executive Team and the staff. So, as the chair of the Board, I am looking forward to working with the SAC, the Executive Team and staff, and the members and partners in this transition phase and in the next evolution towards impact.

SAC: Anything else to add? 

T.H.: Change always brings uncertainty, but I am confident with the current SAC staff and executive team, with our close partners like Worldly, and the contribution of all of our over 300 members, the transition will lead to bigger opportunities and greater impact at scale in the near future.

Thank you to our stakeholders, members, and staff, for being part of this collective evolution.

It All Starts at the Top: Why the Fashion Industry Needs to Embrace Equity in the Boardroom

  • Gender Equity
women-in-boardroom-amina-blog
Black and white headshot of Amina Razvi
Amina Razvi
April 13, 2023

Women dominate the world of fashion. They comprise the majority of workers from the design phase, to the facility floor and drive the majority of purchasing decisions as consumers. Despite this influence, they are significantly under-represented in the C-suite and in board rooms across the globe, with women occupying just 20% of boardroom seats globally. While 80% of garment workers are women, 75% of CEO roles within the textile and apparel sector are held by men. We need more women leaders because gender equity is critical to achieving our long term success as an industry, and will enable us to thrive as a global community.

Increasing diverse voices at every level, from the boardroom to the facility floor, gives us the best opportunity to solve the multiple crises we face and co-create solutions by involving all who have a role to play and are often most impacted by these decisions. Prioritizing equity at every level across an organization through investment, policy and a culture that actively supports women can result in transformative impact – for businesses and society. In doing so, companies and consumers can benefit from the broadest possible range of creative approaches and ideas, creating greater resiliency and opportunity for all, not just some. To transform our industry as radically as the latest IPCC report determines to avert the worst impacts of climate change – women need to not only have a seat at the table but they must be involved in the decision-making processes at every point in the continuum.

Unfortunately, throughout the corporate world, women leaders are currently leaving in droves. What’s been dubbed the ‘Great Breakup’ has seen women executives quitting their companies at the highest rate ever. According to management consultant McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report, businesses are struggling to hold onto the few women leaders they have, because many are expecting more equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplaces and are willing to leave to find it.

What part can we play to stop the mass exodus of current female executives, while simultaneously encouraging the next generation of women leaders? In practice, we need to acknowledge that women’s experiences are different. To support this difference, we need better policies, greater mentorship and to ensure equity for women at all levels of business. One of our manufacturer members, CIEL Textile, runs the GO Beyond Gender program. It has an ambitious target of 35% of Women at Management level by 2030, and a broad variety of initiatives designed to work towards that target. Eric Dorchies, CEO, from CIEL Textile said “In order to launch the program we underwent a process of real collaboration, uniting the top leaders and participants from our different business units across Mauritius, India, Madagascar and Bangladesh. We had to recognize change starts at the top, and we will see this filter down through our business”.

In addition, there needs to be clear pathways to promotion for women across the entire value chain. Mentorship is particularly important in this regard. I’ve been very lucky to have had a couple of women mentors, but most have been men, simply because they tend to have the time. Now as a leader myself, I understand this situation firsthand. When women ask me to mentor them, allocating time is often challenging. We need to help nurture the women in our teams and across our companies and dedicate time to empower them to grow and develop and organizations should support this.

As a woman in a leadership position, I firmly believe that to address the challenges ahead and create the best possible version of our industry, we need greater representation at all levels. Imagine the impact we could see if we placed an emphasis on ensuring greater diversity. How could supply chains change for the better? What new solutions could we see towards tackling climate change, improving human rights, increasing gender equity, and reversing biodiversity degradation? What could the ripple effect be from the boardroom to the factory floor? We are missing an opportunity to unleash the full spectrum of innovation, creativity and alternative styles of thinking and leadership to bear on the challenges we face. We are limiting our opportunities to truly thrive together. From a societal and equality perspective, it is essential that we find new ways to help women rise through its ranks. It is my belief that women leadership is critical to achieve the greener, cleaner and fairer future we all desire.