12 questions to:

Agnieszka Oleksyn-Wajda

She has always been interested in the fashion industry. She started her career by advising clients in the retail industry on tax issues. After more than a decade, she turned towards environmental protection law and so as to connect all the pieces of her experience puzzle, a few years ago she became involved with sustainable development, primarily in the fashion and retail sectors. She is a legal counsel, a founder and head of, among others postgraduate studies in Environmental Protection Law and the Institute of Sustainable Development and Environment at the Łazarski University – Agnieszka Oleksyn-Wajda.

Agnieszka, thank you very much for accepting the invitation to 12on12. Finance, law and fashion are becoming greener and today this green colour will be the focus of our discussion.

You started your career at the prestigious KPMG – a big4 company. You advised, among others, companies from the retail sector. Tell us how your adventure with sustainable development started and how you define it?

I started working at KPMG as a student as part of my internships at the end of the third year of my law studies. I stayed for over a decade. Most of the time, I advised clients from the retail sector, who at that time invested intensively in the infrastructure of shopping malls and logistics parks. The global economic crisis in 2008 caused an economic slowdown and a hold-up of investments. The shopping mall market, which was developing up till that point in time, was one of the most severely affected by the crisis. It all made me reflect deeply. I began to see economic development, corporate social responsibility and environmental protection as part of the same puzzle.
At that time, the concept of sustainable development started catching attention, both on a wide international and EU forum. In response to the crisis, in 2009 the European Commission recognized that sustainable development constitutes a primary and long-term goal of the European Union. It happened many years after the concept was formed – originally it occurred at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s. At that time this new and revolutionary concept was a response to the growing human pressure on the environment. Over time, this concept evolved, gaining more attraction partially due to nearing climate crisis.
From international forums, the concept of sustainable development has also penetrated the domestic soil. The Environmental Protection Law in Poland (from 2001) defines sustainable development as a socio-economic development in which the process of integrating political, economic and social activities takes place, while maintaining the natural balance and durability of basic natural processes, in order to guarantee the possibility of satisfying the basic needs of individual communities or citizens – both the present generation and future generations. Such a definition does not satisfy everyone. According to some critics, sustainable development is a vision with no chance of being implemented, it is treated as a set of slogans that cannot stand up to reality. In my opinion, the concept of sustainable development deserves a positive assessment because it sets new, fairer directions for the functioning of the international community. The implementation of its ambitious goals is a target for generations, and this should by no means discredit it.

As you mentioned, the definition of sustainable growth speaks for future generations. What rights are related to the environment? Who is entitled to those rights? Does anyone protect them?

A great question, as it touches upon many aspects of this topic simultaneously. Pursuant to the Constitution, the Republic of Poland ensures environmental protection, guided by the principle of sustainable development, while public authorities are obliged to protect the environment and conduct a policy ensuring ecological safety for contemporary and future generations.
This topic is a vivid and important one as the relationship between humans and the environment is a constant interaction. As people, we affect the environment, but we also depend on it. This state of affairs makes one wonder to what extent environmental protection is related to human rights. In other words, does an individual have the right to demand protective measures from the state? The matter would be relatively simple if the regulations contained a principle that everyone has the right to a clean environment. Unfortunately, there is no such clear and obvious standard. Nevertheless, the doctrine of environmental protection law tries to prove that the right to a clean environment is a human right which is based on, inter alia, protection of human health and life.
It goes without saying that environmental degradation directly violates the fundamental human right to live. Thus, the right to live presupposes the right to a clean and healthy environment. Considering the seriousness of the situation in the field of progressive environmental degradation, on the one hand, and the weight of slogans regarding its protection, on the other, it seems that the right to live in a clean and healthy environment will soon be written as one of the fundamental human rights, both in international and national law. I sign with two hands under the words of Hanna Machińska, Deputy Ombudsman, that „we should fight for international treaties (and I would like to add – national law) to clearly state that the right to a clean environment is a human right”.
It is worth adding that in our country, from the legal point of view, interesting discussions are taking place regarding the inalienable right to live in a clean environment, which is soon to be resolved by the Supreme Court. According to the information from the press office of the Supreme Court, the resolution should be adopted on March 26.

It is very interesting. Are these rights related to the right to information about the state of the environment? Increasingly more is being said about its deteriorating condition. Where to get objective information?

The right to information on the state and protection of the environment has been enshrined in international, EU and national regulations and is one of the greatest achievements of „green” non-governmental organizations. It is thanks to their efforts that now „everyone has the right to information about the state and protection of the environment.” Without this fundamental right, the participation of society, including individuals, in environmental protection would be an illusion.
The right to information about the environment and its protection applies to everyone – a natural or legal person, as well as organizational units without legal personality. Access to information is granted regardless of citizenship, place of residence, age and legal capacity, regardless of whether the party requesting information has any legal or factual interest in the information or matter the information relates to.

We have already established that as individuals we have the right to a clean environment and information about it. From your perspective, a person who acts, inter alia, in the Sustainable Development Group at the Retail Institute, sits on the Board of the Lewiatan Confederation of Fashion and Innovative Textile Entrepreneurs, is a member of the CSR Committee at the French-Polish Chamber of Commerce – what activities are companies taking now and what should be taken so that we all have a common future?

Business is increasingly bolder involved in the implementation of principles of sustainable development. The largest market players already have departments and experts dealing with sustainability issues, both in value chains, in terms of regulation and in terms of communication. Entrepreneurs form industry groups, in order to transform their businesses, exchange experiences, share good practices, but also cooperate with public administration.
The rapidly growing environmental awareness of consumers means that a new “green” era is being born in front of our eyes, and the respect for the environment and taking into account the principles of sustainable development are becoming part of the DNA of a responsible market participant, including in SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises).
Companies increasingly often measure greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chain, prepare reports on these emissions and try to reduce such emissions using various methods. Set goals in sustainable development strategies facilitate incorporation of such strategies.
It is also important to recognise voluntary industry initiatives. For example, in the second half of 2020, the Retail Institute, a center for dialogue, research and analysis in the shopping mall industry, carried out the Challenger project. This project was aimed at revolutionizing the current model of functioning of shopping malls by creating and then implementing innovative concepts and methods of using commercial space. A group of 25 mentors (to which I had the pleasure to belong) and over 100 students, graduates and representatives of start-ups participated in the project. Eight working teams were established, and each of them developed over 100 ideas for improving the operations of shopping malls. Winning ideas are to be developed, prototyped and tested. As a result, in 2021, a project aimed at introducing the principles of sustainable development in shopping malls will be gradually implemented. For this purpose, guidelines in relation to buildings but also to managers and tenants will be developed. The solution results from a deep analysis of the existing system solutions in the field of sustainable development and respect for the environment. It emphases the need to search for solutions both on consumer and business side.

I am glad that business is doing increasingly more in terms of sustainable development. Should these activities be supported by sustainable development strategies and/or environmental policies? if so, what elements companies should include in them for those policies to be effective?

Environmental strategies will certainly help companies define their sustainable development goals. Such documents should comprehensively define actions in the field of sustainable product policy (including eco-design measures to ensure that textile products are fit for circularity), waste management (including actions aimed at reducing waste, textile waste collection, circular economy guidelines or extended producer responsibility), water and wastewater management, reducing the use of plastic, introducing green innovations and policies for subcontractors on low-carbon intensity, monitoring progress or even identifying new business models.
Strategies should be developed in such a way as to reduce the negative impact on the environment in a given enterprise on the one hand, and to make them realistic on the other.

You also cooperate with the media on a daily basis, how do you evaluate the way companies communicate not only their strategies, but also actions related to sustainable development? What should we pay attention to as consumers or investors?

The pandemic has sharpened „green” consumer expectations.
I will cite the results of two interesting studies.
As pointed out  in the Accenture report „Consumer in New Reality” dated May 2020, Polish consumers appreciated the brands’ involvement in social activities (CSR) supporting those in need in the first months of the pandemic.
Another report by this company, „Conscious consumer” from October 2020, shows that consumers read the composition of the products more carefully – 44% of consumers declare that they read the composition of the clothes. Customers trust the declarations of companies about ecological product characteristics. One third of them believe in declarations, i.e. they trust that products marked with the word „ECO” are eco-friendly.
For companies, this means that departments responsible for communication and CSR should provide verified and true data on sustainable development in a given company. Messages should be reliable, understandable and transparent, and above all, in line with reality. The so-called greenwashing can result in a loss of consumer confidence in the brand and thus – loss of the customer in general.
Interestingly, in the last month there was a high-profile case of three entities introducing men’s formalwear to the market. On the basis of the inspection, the President of the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK) accused them of misleading consumers. Each consumer has the right to reliable information about the quality of the product, but is often unable to verify whether the declarations are true. That is why UOKiK examines the composition of products, which allows consumers to have access to reliable information about raw materials used. For falsifying the composition of clothes on labels, there is a financial penalty of up to 10% of the turnover. However, it is really painful to publicize the case in the media and identify the entities that have committed the violations. This causes a loss of customer confidence.
As you can see, the credibility of companies’ declarations in communication, advertising or even declarations about the composition of clothes is still difficult to verify. However, in connection with the European Green Deal strategy, a significant strengthening of consumer law is expected, primarily by providing reliable and comparable information on the impact of a given product on the environment and climate and by eliminating the use of unfair green PR (greenwashing).

We have already touched on issues related to the fashion industry. The fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to environmental pollution in the world. Can this industry be green? Is its climate neutrality possible in your opinion?

I cannot answer this question except in the affirmative. The fashion industry has already started a green transition. If it were otherwise, I would have to consider the time spent on research, analysis and development of new solutions for this sector as wasted.
At the end of December 2020, information from the European Parliament Research Service was published on the environmental impact of textile production and textile waste. These data confirm previous research and reports on the impact of the fashion sector on the planet.
For example, McKinsey 2020 report Fashion on Climate shows that the fashion industry emits 2.1 billion tons of greenhouse gases (4% of total global emissions), which is equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted annually by the entire economies of France, Germany and Great Britain combined. As authors of the Global Fashion Agenda report and The Boston Consulting Group of 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report 2017 rightly emphasize, broadly understood fashion industry on a global scale significantly contributes to the negative impact on the planet.

The importance of the impact of the apparel sector on our planet is recognized by international organizations and NGOs. You are, among others member of the WG6 working group within the organization supporting Fashion Climate Charter under the aegis of the United Nations. Are the UN, OECD and EU starting to address issues related to this sector more strongly?

The signatories of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action issued in September 2020, under the auspices of the United Nations Climate Change, guidelines for the fashion sector – Climate Action Playbook. These principles provide a guide for the fashion industry to help achieve climate neutrality. Although the guidelines, as the name suggests, are not binding, they set the direction for environmentally friendly business, both for entrepreneurs and administration bodies. The guide describes initiatives, tools, certificates and programs to help implement measures to reduce the carbon footprint. According to the Playbook, the most optimal transition for the fashion industry would be to move to a circular economy.
It looks that 2021 will be a breakthrough year for the fashion sector. The European Commission will present the EU strategy for the textile sector this year. In 2020, the Civil Society European Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, Garments, Leather and Footwear was published by a coalition of social and environmental non-governmental organizations. The strategy aims to contribute to the upcoming comprehensive EU Strategy for Textiles and to promote and support the circular economy in the textile, clothing, leather and footwear industries. This document is somewhat of a call to action for transition in the EU to a circular economy model instead of a linear economy generating a large amount of waste.

It seems that the circular economy will be one of the most important topics, among other for the fashion sector. What actions do you think companies in this sector should take to be ready for the challenges of the future? What issues should investors or banks pay attention to?

The transition from linear to circular economy model, which is advocated both by the European Commission and recommended in the Playbook, means a change in the entire management system. Development of a circular economy can be supported by innovative forms of consumption, examples of which are indicated, for example, in the Climate Action Playbook – sharing economy: borrowing, exchanging, reusing, or recycling. Examples of good practices in this regard are Adidas (return of used products and exchange for points to buy new goods), North Face (renewal of used products) or H&M COS (resale platform, i.e. reusing products).
The importance of the circular economy in the fashion industry was highlighted in May 2019, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019, in the Manifesto by EURATEX, the Federation of the European Sports Industry, the Global Fashion Agenda, the International Apparel Federation and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The aim of the Manifesto is to address the most significant gaps in the effort to collaborate in the fashion industry, in order to reduce the negative impact on the environment.

There seems to be a lot of work to be done in this regard and building awareness of these actions is becoming more urgent. Did these motives lead you to establish the Institute for Sustainable Development and Environment, which I am now honoured to co-create with you?

The Institute is a research and development unit at the Łazarski University, which aims to promote good practices in the field of sustainable development, conduct market system research in the field of green financing, as well as create a platform connecting business, science and central administration.
The Institute cooperates with business, market research experts and organizations associating entrepreneurs. We are currently participating in several research and development projects aimed at supporting the transformation of the fashion and retail sector into a sustainable one.
The Institute is a specialized unit connecting renown specialists in the areas of sustainable development and creating climate policies for interested corporates.

The Institute is the next step on your academic career path. You have created as many as four postgraduate studies, including in the field of environment, fashion and new technologies at the Łazarski University. These studies are rewarded for their quality and attract a wide range of people who want to broaden their knowledge. What does sharing knowledge give you?

I created my first postgraduate studies over seven years ago. At that time, I treated this project as an additional weekend activity. Working with excellent specialists, whom I appreciate very much, but at the same time I like a lot, began to bring me satisfaction. Especially, that the audience groups are getting bigger every year. This means that people want to educate and professionalize with us.
We improve the study program after each academic year. We observe the market, draw conclusions from our professional work, exchange experiences with other experts, listen to what employers expect within the organizations in which we are associated. We aim to adjust the program in such a way that interested persons can demonstrate their knowledge and competences in their business after graduation.
I often listen to lectures given by invited lecturers. Their expertise is extremely extensive and varied. I treat listening to such lectures as a real intellectual feast.
I also like to share my knowledge, especially if the listeners come back after some time, because the advice was useful in their professional work, or they wish to further broaden their knowledge.
Annually, more than 100 people become graduates of our studies, we cooperate with over 60 lecturers, as well as the entire administrative and technical team. I also co-conduct law and management studies in the fashion sector and law in the technology business with my „other halves”. They are experts highly valued on the market. When working with such high profile human capital, the organization of work must certainly be perfect. One should also be open to the needs of others and treat achieving the goal as a team task.
This is also how I treat the pursuit of the goals of sustainable development – as a joint work of administration, business and the world of science, carefully listening to the voice of consumers.

What would you recommend to women who are considering postgraduate studies? How to choose their area? What to look for when choosing a university? What studies can translate into a further career?

Our observations at the University show that postgraduate female students in higher education is the majority. They represent enormous potential in business. They know very well what direction they are looking for and what they expect from us.
They want to expand their knowledge or acquire it in another specialization. Students also come to us for networking – both in student groups and with lecturers-practitioners. It happens that cooperation for years is born in postgraduate studies, sometimes our studies are a turning point in a career. We are committed to building a community around our project and helping. After all, you also need to help happiness in your professional work.

Agnieszka, thank you very much for these valuable statements.

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