Gap Inc. Sees Economic Value in Water Savings: Q&A with Melissa Fifield

by | Aug 19, 2019

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Melissa Fifield“There’s no business where there’s no water,” says Melissa Fifield, senior director of sustainable innovation at Gap Inc. She and her team in the global sustainability department work to reduce environmental effects throughout the company’s retail operations.

Conserving water has become a major manufacturing goal for the global retailer, whose brands include Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic, and Athleta. Last year the San Francisco-based company’s net sales were $16.6 billion.

“Water use in manufacturing is not just an environmental issue,” Fifield added. “We see water as a human rights issue, and try to connect the dots every chance that we can.”

Recently we caught up with Fifield to find out how Gap Inc. is reducing water usage in manufacturing, and the advantages this creates for the company.

What are Gap Inc.’s water-related sustainability goals?

In 2018 we set a goal to reduce the amount of water used in manufacturing by 10 billion liters by 2020. I’m proud to say that in partnership with our suppliers, we’ve saved 5.7 billion liters to date.

Where does the most water get used?

When we looked at the lifecycle of a pair of jeans — an iconic product across all of our brands — most of the water used in that lifecycle comes from the raw materials, the cultivation of cotton. We are part of the Better Cotton Initiative and were recently recognized as the third biggest user of their cotton. But that’s much farther back in our supply chain.

The areas where we have a bit more influence, for denim in particular, are dyeing and finishing the fabric at the mill stage. This is after it’s been cut and sewn into jeans.

How is Gap Inc. saving water in the manufacturing process?

In the finishing stage, which is largely laundering the product, we developed a program called Washwell focused on saving at least 20% of the water used compared to conventional wash techniques. For example, if it took five cycles to get a particular wash effect for a pair of jeans, this program looks to lower that to four.

For fabric mills, there’s an NRDC program we joined several years ago called Clean by Design focused on 10 basic best practices that, at scale, can have significant impact. It’s water, energy, and chemical use in fabric dyeing — things like capturing steam and reusing that condensate, identifying leaks, implementing better management processes. That contributed to the 5.7 billion liters in savings.

What else are you working on?

We recently announced a partnership with one of our suppliers in India, Arvind, to co-invest in infrastructure projects that eliminate the use of freshwater for manufacturing. It will take municipal wastewater and treat that for use in manufacturing processes, preserving freshwater for the community.

Preserving freshwater is also the driving force behind a public-private partnership with USAID for improving and sustaining the health and wellbeing of women in communities touched by the apparel industry in India. All of those things are important for our business continuity.

How does conserving water help your business?

The USAID partnership grew out of our longstanding Personal Advancement Career Enhancement program, which has had a clear return on investment, not only in productivity on the factory floor but also for women’s wellbeing in general. We’ve seen several knock-on effects from that program.

If you can’t go to work because you don’t have access to clean water for yourself or your family, that’s an important impact for us in terms of having people to make the clothes, and also for the livelihood of the community. There’s no business where there’s no water.

Is water currently undervalued?

I think we’re seeing a shift in the value of water, but I still don’t know that it’s being properly accounted for, even here in California where we deal with drought on a regular basis. It’s hard to measure groundwater. You have issues with access and rights.

Certainly we look at the risks to our business. We report to CDP, both on climate and water risk, and incorporate water risk calculations into our assessments. We use things like the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct tool. We partner with our suppliers. Arvind is an example of a partnership born out of necessity. That business faces critical water shortages if they don’t identify alternative ways to get the water they need for production.

Do you have advice for fellow sustainability leaders in the apparel industry?

Setting goals is important, and so is having good mechanisms to track impact. We are advocates for partnership — with peers, suppliers, customers.

The water savings we’ve achieved in our supply chain are the result of collaboration with experts, other apparel brands, NGOs, and suppliers who know their facilities better than anyone. When we set our 10 billion liter water goal, our suppliers helped identify solutions. These huge challenges are systemic in nature and we can’t solve them by ourselves.

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