“The Impact Index came out of conversations with brand and retail CEOs wanting a framework to highlight ESG (environmental, sustainability, and governance) standards,” said Frank Zambrelli, the executive director of the coalition, launched at the Gabelli School in March 2020 and includes a network of executives, researchers, nonprofits, and educators.
“Consumers have decided they want to know what they’re eating or putting on their body or investing in and the impact of those elements,” he said.
For this project, which launched in November 2021, the coalition worked in partnership with Accenture, a professional services company, 30 international brands and retailers, and Vogue magazine to develop a framework and label that brought together “what the consumers wanted, what the brands and retailers were able to provide, and what the science-based communities deemed to be important” in addressing environmental and sustainability issues, according to Zambrelli.
The Impact Index aims to serve as an industry-wide label that lets consumers know what “environmental or ethical criteria” the piece of clothing meets. If the item meets one of the categories on the index, which currently includes ratings for raw materials, animal welfare, chemical usage, and education and empowerment, the article of clothing will receive an Impact Index logo.
When shopping online, consumers can click on the logo if they want to learn more, such as whether the product was made from Fair Trade organic cotton or it it has been “certified as free from harmful substances and chemicals.”
The framework and logo are part of an initial “proof of concept,” or pilot program, with a “major international clothing brand and a large national retailer,” Zambrelli said, which will allow the coalition to test the label and how it works, both for consumers and for the companies. The index is expected to rollout across the industry after several partner pilots in 2022.
History of the Coalition
The roots of the coalition go back to 2013 and aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 people died, mostly garment workers, Zambrelli said.
“It was sort of a watershed moment,” he said. “That moment really marked a sea change in the industry. Out of the tragedy came the awakening and the recognition that the industry was not behaving, it was not operating responsibly.”
Zambrelli said that the tragedy sparked conversations between himself and other industry leaders, including Gabelli Fellow Cara Smyth, founder of the Responsible Business Coalition and chair of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors: Fashion Makes Change.
Together they began looking for an “intersection between profitability and sustainability” to bring the fashion executives to the table. It started with 16 leaders meeting for coffee, he said, and grew to include about 50 CEOs who control almost 300 brands today. The coalition also includes nonprofit leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and research partners who help advocate for social and environmental efforts.
Moving to the Gabelli School
In March 2020, the CEO group found a new home at the Gabelli School. Zambrelli said that when the opportunity presented itself to work “inside a business school, inside a prestigious university, connected to the Jesuit network—it was a bit of a no brainer.”
Lerzan Aksoy, associate dean of strategic initiatives, marketing professor, and managing director of the Responsible Business Coalition, said the mission of the CEO group really aligned with the mission of the Gabelli School.
“Our purpose is really to educate the future leaders who have a passion for using the power of business to move society forward, so this really made a lot of sense,” she said. “We’ve been really working hard to link it back to opportunities for our students and our faculty.”
Some of those opportunities include conferences; a sustainability internship pipeline; a competition through a partnership with Net Impact for students to show off their ideas for sustainability initiatives in fashion; and funding for faculty research, particularly ESG databases.
“We have a student competition launching [in the spring], called Wear it Wise, looking really at the consumer side—what are the trends and demands that consumers are making when it comes to sustainability from fashion and apparel brands and how can students come up with these creative ideas to to solve some of the issues and problems when it comes to sustainability?” Aksoy said.
As for internships, Zambrelli said that last year they partnered with beauty giant Esteé Lauder to place interns throughout the company.
“We were able to place interns at Esteé Lauder who work in sustainability—but in the accounting department, and then sustainability in the packaging team and in sustainability in product creation and marketing,” he said. “It really set the standard for how we could engage interns in a way that was highly pragmatic and useful to the industry, as well as [provide]a tremendous educational experience.”
The past two years the internship offerings expanded to include the clothing company PVH, a partner of the Gabelli School; there are plans to expand to other companies later this year.
Zambrelli said that some of the students have described participating in the program as a “life-changing experience” because they were able to work in the areas of business that they are interested in without having to compromise their “personal value set and mission.”
Growing Beyond Fashion
While a lot of their work has been done in fashion, both Zambrelli and Aksoy said that the coalition is expanding this year to include a focus on ESG reporting and disclosure and future ready business leaders.
One of the goals is to help teach both current and future executives and employees how to accurately report their environmental and social impacts using sustainable accounting practices.
“They’re receiving multiple requests to report ESG metrics—but the lack of knowledge, standardization and comparability creates challenges,” Aksoy said.
In addition to offering a sustainable accounting course for current students, the Gabelli School launched an executive education program this spring on ESG literacy for business executives.
“We really see [the coalition]as accelerating all the great area-led initiatives at the Gabelli School and a way to embody the mission of the Gabelli School in action,” Aksoy said.