Rather act than react – how sustainability experts address due diligence

By Lisa Wagner

Rolf Heimann has been working in the field of sustainability for over three decades. After developing the world's first biodegradable textile printing inks in the late 1990s, he was responsible for materials, quality, and CSR at Hessnatur in Germany from 2002. For over a decade, he developed the international master's program Sustainability in Fashion for two German fashion universities, which he eventually led as dean of studies. Today he is Board CEO of the Hessnatur stiftung. The foundation's purposes are applied sustainability on b2b level as well as awareness and capacity development. In addition, the foundation works with the German government, such as the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and other ministries with a focus on development cooperation and expert reports. He has been in dialogue with OEKO-TEX® for a long time and we value his expertise and critical feedback, which we incorporate into the development of our certifications and labels. Given the upcoming due diligence laws, we asked him for an assessment and how to address this topic in a manageable and positive way. 

OEKO-TEX®: How would you explain due diligence to a layman? 

Rolf Heimann: Sustainability as we understand it today in the textile sector has its origins in ecology and human environmental toxicology. Only over time did the question arise about the working conditions in which textiles are produced and finally the third level of governance requirements was added. Today it is no longer enough for a company to have a code of conduct. You must embed it into the bigger picture and act according to the holistic principle. Our perspective on sustainability also differs depending on product/company and consumption/customer view. For me, due diligence is the framework that encloses everything – formally, but also at the conscious level. 

What advice would you give to companies dealing with the topic for the first time? 

Through our institute work, we repeatedly notice that companies tend to take a certain form of activism. They usually approach sustainability in a very overarching manner with lighthouse projects. To stay in this image, I always advise taking a step back together to first build a foundation on which you can place the lighthouse. It is primarily about an individual definition of sustainability. Only then can you create an individual concept, which includes company-specific aspects such as circularity. This is followed by the strategy in which you map the time, money, and human resources with which you want to implement the concept. Eventually you get to the structural level of action. Certificates and labels such as OEKO-TEX® STeP or MADE IN GREEN can be helpful here. They provide support in terms of implementation, credibility, conformity, and plausibility. If a company has gone through the previous steps – definition, concept, strategy – it will be easier to recognize which certificates promote their individual sustainability path. 

What is your opinion on the current legal situation, in the EU and internationally? 

We support what is happening in Brussels. At the same time, we share the concerns of many, mostly medium-sized, companies about how the European legislators' plans are to be implemented. Many others don't even notice the development because the industry is currently very busy with itself. One of my team members devotes almost half of her working time to this issue, because the legislative proposals are progressing at a faster pace and it looks like they will be stricter than the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, which is already in force. I advise all companies to urgently prepare themselves for these issues so that they do not fall into activism when the law is passed. Instead of just reacting later, I recommend acting now and preparing for stricter laws. There is still time to create the appropriate structures to save time, money, and nerves later. 

What is your forecast for the textile industry? 

Times are tough and I avoid terms like cleaning process. Behind every insolvent company there are people, fates, jobs, but also traditions and development. We have advised companies that have invested a lot in sustainability development and yet no longer exist. The world is changing and there are still highly successful brands today. We are all in a learning process. Consumption is also changing. You will have to adjust to that. In short: the process is hard, but it is happening and the best thing you can do is to go on the journey learning. Sustainability is a value driver, an absolute necessity and unstoppable. Everyone must face the issue and actively help shape sustainability. 

How can this complex issue be dealt with positively? 

By facing the issue and approaching sustainability in a way that you can manage. My favorite mantra helps with this: Everything begins with awareness. Build on knowledge and then implement all the steps as described above. By creating an individual sustainability concept, incorporating it into a strategy and providing it with a roadmap, you take a lot of stress off yourself and your company. Then you can set milestones. Some you may have to reach straight away, but others can be dealt with playfully depending on your resources. As long as you stick to the plan, you remain professional and can manage sustainability. From experience, this also makes onboarding processes easier. Instead of blindly appointing a sustainability manager, you can build up resources in a targeted manner. This ultimately also applies to working with textile certificates. Many people talk about a label jungle, but the variety of certifications today can in fact help a lot with quality management at b2b level and they are also a grateful tool for b2c communication.