“I think Detroit is where muscle meets brains.” -Dan Gilbert
What happens when brands across multiple industries converge in Detroit to talk about sustainability? Good things happen. For me, it’s all about sustainability in fashion. So I have a different perspective from most of the attendees. The majority of the people here are corporate sustainability officers (or something similar) who are looking to hear about the latest advances and best practices in this ever-changing movement. Add the focus on circularity and now you’re stirring a pot that was lukewarm at best. I’m here because I want to discover if this focus on global problem-solving can support the sustainable fashion movement. We’re all connected. We just don’t know it.
It is certainly a meeting of the minds. There is electricity in the room. Sitting in the Grand Riverview Ballroom is exhilarating. You know like scoring a coveted pair of Louboutin pumps from last season at an unbelievable price. People are pumped up. Speaker after speaker rouses the crowd. These morning sessions in the ballroom are about looking at what we’ve done and less about what do we need to do. There’s progress being made. It feels different from the sustainable fashion forums I’ve attended where people talk incessantly about what’s wrong. My masculine energy gets pretty bored with that approach. So I love that people are presenting progress. There is still a long road ahead. But it feels good to know that we are inching along with measured success and not standing still.
In the late morning and afternoon break-out sessions, the subject matter is more narrow, more focused. There are discussions about Detroit and its community, sustainable data collection for analysis, technologies for supply chain transparency, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 (SDG2030), using Blockchain effectively, building circularity, regenerative agriculture and food supply, authentic branding, sustainable engagement and sustainable influencers, just to name a few. I enjoy these intimate sessions. People in the room have like agendas. Your burning question is always rolling around in the mind of at least one other person in the room. It feels tribal and connective.
There is one moment of despair—the screening of “The Forever Chemicals.” It is a documentary about the proliferation of PFAS (per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances used to make common household products and waterproof clothing) and how these dangerous chemicals are negatively impacting communities in Michigan. The documentary stems from the investigative findings by the Great Lakes Now news team, Detroit Public TV. Great journalism is still alive. Remember Hush Puppies? Michigan residents have a permanent reminder of the shoe brand—PFAS. Wolverine abandoned the Hush Puppies site when they closed down the brand. Guess what they left behind? You know the answer. Wolverine left a toxic waste site behind where the runoff seeped into the drinking water. While the numbers for city water were moderate, the levels of contamination in well water was astronomical. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory number is 70 parts per trillion. Anything above that number in a lifetime of exposure will harm health. In Michigan, there are 47 sites where PFAS levels exceed this number. It is called “forever chemicals” because these chemicals cannot be broken down. While affected residents are suing Wolverine, they are shifting the blame to 3M, the manufacturer of the Gore-tex used the waterproof Hush Puppies. From the mouth of Mercurio, “All are punished.” You can watch the documentary at: Great Lakes Now . You can also read more about the PFAS in the Detroit Free Press.
Detroit is the perfect backdrop for Sustainable Brands 2019. It represents the state of our world—beautiful yet deeply flawed. With that said, there’s always hope. Hope springs eternal.
Check the blog for more stories about my time at the Sustainable Brands Conference Detroit 2019.