School Uniform

A guide to the 3Ps that should inform your decisions as school leaders

The 3Ps of people, planet, and profit have informed our decision-making process since we launched Kapes during the pandemic in 2020 and is one of the values that we look for in our school partners. This article explains the methodology of the 3Ps framework, and how to use it in your decision-making process and how it can help your school to effectively help transition to sustainable school uniforms. Keeping the three elements in mind when making any decision pertaining to procurement will help your school to take climate action in the right way and to be more sustainable in all areas of your school. Before working with any school, we seek to gauge their level of commitment to sustainability, so this is essential reading for any school considering working with Kapes. 

The traditional ‘Triple Bottom Line’ of People, Planet and Profit (PPP, 3Ps, TBL or 3BL) should not be a completely new term to most school leaders. It means that rather than making business decisions purely based on expected monetary returns (i.e., only based on the ‘profit’ element of PPP), business decisions should be made while considering the environmental and social impacts and returns. However, this was coined in the 90s by John Elkington and requires some adaption to meet the challenges that we face today.  

Our 3Ps recommends that schools focus on social and environmental concerns first, before taking profit into account when choosing a school uniform supplier and we encourage school leaders to adopt this principle throughout their procurement decisions. The traditional 3Ps, like ours, suggests that instead of profit being the only bottom line, there should be three: people, the planet, and profit. However, our 3Ps intentionally has people and the planet sitting above profit, which we believe should also be made up of societal and environmental profit, not just monetary profit. 

Up until now, it cannot be said that the TBL in its traditional form or in any form for that matter, has been applied when schools have chosen their uniform supplier. Although this is in partly due to the lack of sustainable suppliers, i.e., there have been no suppliers providing a full range of sustainable products. This can be attributed to the fact that innovation and sustainability have been stifled because uniform suppliers typically exist in oligopolies in each region, characterised by long term and exclusive contracts with schools. The call that all organisations including suppliers and schools, face to do their part to fight climate change means that the same old way of doing things; revenue shares, virgin synthetics fibres, use of toxic chemicals, opaque supply chains, mistreatment and underpayment of garment workers, and the new phenomenon of greenwashing, can no longer be accepted.  

The Ps in 3Ps

People: the positive and negative impact a school has on the people on the planet. This goes beyond the stakeholders within the school community, such as the students, parents, and teachers. While all stakeholders are important, our focus extends to the people that make school uniforms and how they are paid and treated. It includes the people in developing countries that tend to be disproportionally impacted by the climate change caused by unsustainable uniforms. As well as how we can use business to have a positive impact on these people.

Planet: the positive and negative impact that school uniforms have on the environment. This includes reducing their carbon footprint, using natural and sustainable materials, resources, toxic chemicals and so on, but also the active removal of waste, reforestation and restoration of natural harm done.

Profit: the positive and negative impact that school uniforms have not just on your school’s bottom line but how they can profit communities across the world, particularly developing ones. on the local, national and international economy. This includes creating employment, generating innovation, wealth creation and any other economic impact an organization has. We understand that profit is an essential component of long-term impact.

The widespread traditional interpretation of the TBL suggests that schools and uniform suppliers are doing well if they generate large profits and reduce their harm to people and the planet. Instead, we suggest that the harm to people and the planet should be prioritised, and that this can be done while still making a healthy profit, even if this means sacrificing some profit, as well as contributing to the profit outside of the school community. As mentioned, the traditional TBL theory was originally coined by John Elkington in the early 90s, before climate change was such an urgent matter. It suggested that the most important impact of an organization is its economic impact – that organizations, for example, add much value to society by creating employment, by generating innovation — and by paying taxes. While there is some truth in this, it places too much emphasis on an organisation and its economic impact. In today’s reality, where we have just over 7 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, this traditional approach will not cut it. If people and the planet are not prioritised moving forward, then the ‘value to society’ derived from job creation and paying taxes, will be meaningless.

3Ps and Greenwashing 

Using their best marketing efforts, many uniform suppliers are hoping that school leaders fall into the education gap when it comes sustainability. But simply saying you are sustainable or that sustainability is one of your values, does not mean you are or that it is. For example, a supplier is clearly not sustainable when most of their products are made from unsustainable virgin synthetic fibres that have a huge impact on the planet. It doesn’t matter how many plastic bottles a supplier diverts from landfill, if their carbon footprint is more (significantly more in most cases) that what they divert. Some claim to offset their impact but share no information on what that impact is or where it has been offset. Or they offset rather than reducing their impact as much as possible first, which only kicks the can further down the road and is one of the reasons why offsetting was called a failed project during Cop 26. In some cases, I have seen suppliers claiming to reduce the amount of microplastics that their predominantly plastic products shed, which is ridiculous. It is akin to saying gun reform is one of your values, while selling as many automatic weapons as possible, and then boasting that your weapons release less bullets per minute than other automatic weapons. Products made from plastic, virgin or recycled, shed microplastics when worn and washed, and microplastics have a negative impact on the planet – simple. While suppliers should have a responsibility to not muddy the waters, and long-awaited greenwashing laws may help to counter this, it is up to school leaders to see through this nonsense and the 3Ps is a simple tool that can be used to help to do this.

It’s a journey, not a destination.

Desmond Tuto once wisely said, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” I am not suggesting that we should eat elephants, we are very much in the corner of protecting wildlife, which we do through our offset fund. But the challenge of being sustainable can be the elephant in the room, it can seem huge, it can appear insurmountable, and it is difficult for schools to know where to start. I feel that sometimes there is apprehension to start for fear of criticism. There is always more to do or a better way to do it, but the important thing is to just start and the 3Ps framework exists to help do just that. 

If you can’t transition to sustainable uniforms at this moment in time, then why not benchmark the sustainability of your uniforms with our Sustainability Scorecard, or calculate the impact of your uniforms with our Footprint Calculator, and then offset this impact until you can reduce your impact? How about educating your students about the impacts that fashion and their uniforms have on the planet and the people on it. Or empowering them to be global citizens by supporting their learning with a trip to a carbon offset project in Africa. There is always more to do, but there is no excuse not to start.