Practical Tips for Talking to Manufacturers About Decarbonization

Practical Tips for Talking to Manufacturers About Decarbonization

by Kim van der Weerd created 2022-09-21T07:54:02+07:00
It’s not a good sign if the entities tasked with transforming the industry’s climate impact struggle to think of a conversation about decarbonization during which they felt their challenges were recognized and understood.

The Asia Garment Hub hosts monthly Supplier Meet-Ups – unrecorded, off-the-record conversations open only to suppliers. We’ve spent the last few months talking about decarbonization (check out a summary of our chats in May, June, and July).  Many of the manufacturers attending the sessions were troubled with the way decarbonization is approached in the fashion industry. Several also expressed an interest in moving the conversation into a setting that includes other stakeholders. This article is a very small attempt to start to shift the dialogue.  So, if you’re an advocate of decarbonizing the fashion industry but you’re not a manufacturer, this piece summarizes some of what we’ve been thinking about. We’d also love to know what’s been on your mind – let us know 

What’s wrong with decarbonization conversations? 

Initially, the small but dedicated group of participating manufacturers rattled off very specific grievances. For example (I’m paraphrasing): 

“We need a way to set decarbonization goals that are sensitive to what’s possible in a given place, for a given factory – science-based targets are not that.” 

“What am I supposed to do, go into energy politics? That’s not my area of expertise.” 

“Access to finance would be nice. But even more important is the business model. Will my business even exist in 15 years? We need to be talking about prices.” 

“The reality is that the incentive for the manufacturer is to get more business. Doing something about our carbon impact isn’t what lands an order.” 

But over time, participants began expressing a more fundamental problem: a lack of recognition for what was being asked of them. Repeatedly, people expressed that non-manufacturers did not seem to understand what decarbonization really means for a manufacturer. For example (again, I’m paraphrasing): 

"There’s the perception that factories can solve whatever is thrown at them and that they can do it alone. It’s easy to have an idea and throw it at a factory. But that factory isn’t always in a position to do something about it." 

“Achieving decarbonization targets will take a lot more than swapping out lightbulbs, it’s about transforming our whole operating environment, our community.” 

"People with no understanding of place and context nonetheless permit themselves to have an opinion about what factories should do to decarbonize." 

"We (manufacturers) feel like we're being asked to move mountains alone, and, worse still, doing it for free while the rest of the world seems indifferent as to whether our businesses survive or not." 
"Maybe the only thing manufacturers need from the international community (brands, retailers, and beyond) to decarbonize is for them to stand behind the idea that solutions are local. " 

What does a better conversation look like? 

During the August meet-up, I asked participants whether they could describe a conversation about decarbonization during which they did feel recognition. During which they did feel that their challenges were genuinely understood.  


Then, a few chuckles. One manufacturer, seemingly in an effort to underscore how rarely he feels understood, remarked: “that’s a very good question!”  

It’s not a good sign if the entities tasked with transforming the industry’s impact struggle to think of a conversation about decarbonization during which they felt their challenges were recognized and understood. 

After a few moments, another manufacturer tentatively put forward an example. He started by describing the context: the person did not work directly for a brand nor were they a direct client. A decarbonization target also wasn’t the starting point for the conversation. Both these things helped make this a different kind of conversation. This person was also willing to look beyond the standard decarbonization toolbox; there was recognition that business as usual was not going to get us where we want to be.  

I followed up by asking other participants to describe a hypothetical conversation about decarbonization that would feel positive. Here are some of the responses (I’m still paraphrasing): 

“The other person has to be willing to look at the whole picture, not only their own position. How do we get people to see beyond their own interests? Is it even possible? We struggle even within our own company – between HQ and the factory floor – to get people to do this.” 

“The person doesn’t shy away from the gap between where we are and where we want to be.” 

“The person embraces complexity, is willing to invest in understanding the detail.” 

“The person understands that it’s very difficult for a single supplier to take on the issue of decarbonization alone. There is understanding that solutions will require local and maybe also regional collaboration.” 

“It’s impossible for non-manufacturers, or sometimes even for other manufacturers making different products or operating in different geographies than us, to understand our specific challenges. People on the other side of the conversation must have the humility to stop prescribing solutions.” 

“The other person is willing to implicate themselves, acknowledge that they too have to change the way they work. It’s recognized that we all have a role to play.” 

Practical tips for having a better, different, decarbonization conversation 

If you’re not a manufacturer and want to ensure that your next decarbonization chat with a manufacturer is constructive, here’s a preliminary, non-exhaustive, list of dos and don’ts… 


  • Define self-interest broadly. Decarbonization goals must be about more than market differentiation – there is no such thing as a single sustainable business. It doesn’t matter if one company achieves its decarbonization targets if the rest of the industry (and beyond) isn’t able to follow. This means acknowledging our co-dependence. As one manufacturer so poignantly remarked: “Competition loses its meaning in a situation where we all win or we all lose.”
  • Be vulnerable. Acknowledge the ways in which you contribute to the problem. We cannot define self-interest broadly if we aren’t willing to admit the ways in which we contribute to collective outcomes that none of us want. Our point of departure must be that we all have a role to play, we are all implicated, we are all part of the problem, we all need to change. 
  • Listen. We cannot define self-interest broadly if we do not understand how our own business practices impact others. This means setting aside your day job, your own point of view, and spending time in someone else’s shoes. It means hearing what’s being said without making judgments about whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong. It means approaching someone whose lived experience does not fit within your own framework for understanding the world with curiosity. 
  • Let go of the impulse to control.  We all do things that lead to outcomes that, collectively, none of us want. Most of the time, it’s not because we are bad people in need of more oversight and control. And yet, so many of the tools in our sustainability toolbox are implicitly premised on leverage, on better controlling or policing how someone else behaves.


  • Prescribe solutions.  A conversation that starts with trying to get a manufacturer to do something pre-defined is not likely to create the conditions for open and honest conversation.  This includes starting the conversation with a target.
  • Trivialize the gap between where the industry collectively is versus where it needs to be. This includes but is not limited to referring to climate change as a data problem and focusing on targets. 
  • Assume manufacturers are always in a position to do something about climate change.

These tips are endorsed by the following individuals working in apparel manufacturing: 

Matthew Guenther 

Martin Su 

Samantha Taylor

James Cunningham

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