Updated: Mar 27, 2020
These days, it seems like everyone is talking about sustainability in their brands, in their products, and in their lives. I know I’ve noticed the shift. I’ve been lucky enough to have had “responsibility” or “sustainability” in my business title for the last ten years, and I can say, without a doubt, 2019 was the year that it really felt like we hit a tipping point.
That said, as a consumer, or a student of the topic, it’s important that we push our favorite brands to be in it for the right reasons, and to pressure them to make it a core part of their brand/operational DNA. It’s no easy feat, I can attest to that. It takes commitment from the top, and the bottom. In fact, I call this the Grilled Cheese effect because if you don’t have support and fire from the executive leadership team (heat from the top) AND heat and fire from the employee/supplier/customer base (heat from the bottom up), you’ll never have a perfectly grilled sandwich. But, I digress...
So, what should you be looking for in corporate sustainability messaging? What can give you confidence that a fashion brand isn’t greenwashing their messages, or dangling mediocre marketing claims of “eco- this”, or “eco-that” in front of you to win your loyalty? Well as a consultant and a teacher of sustainability in the apparel industry, here are the things I’d urge you to press them for:
People - Environmental, Social, Economic; The triple bottom line; People, planet, profit; or simply the idea that if natural resources are respected, and humans aren’t, then what’s the point? Here are some things to ask for:
Fair Trade Certified
Posted Code of Conduct
Wage transparency - Living wage vs. a minimum wage (know the difference)
Supply Chain Aware (ie Traceability) - It’s no longer OK to just lob responsibility to tier two manufacturers and hope they take care of everything. Can your favorite brand trace the supply chain all the way to the start? The further back they can go, the more mature and robust their program is. Brands should have a grasp of every stage of their supply chain from fibers (cradle) to distribution (gate). That leads us to:
Better Fibers - If they’ve got a grip on their supply chain, the brand can begin to nominate better fibers, and even better, 3rd party-specific fibers. Most of the goods we wear are made of cotton, polyester, nylon, and/or wool. Ask for:
Organic or recycled cotton (better yet, regenerative organic cotton)
Recycled wool, or wool that meets the RWS (Responsible Wool Standard)
Chemicals Management - And if they’ve got a real grip on their supply chain, then a brand will be talking about, and tackling chemicals. There are substances of concern and nearly every stage of the value chain, but some come with more problems than others. Ask if your brand has committed to the Roadmap to ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals), or if they are an outdoor brand if they have committed to eliminating PFC chemistry from their water repellency.
Industry Engagement - Are they engaged in the movement? Are the continuosly learning, and giving back energy to the collective movement? Look for these memberships
Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group
Impact Assessment - Can’t improve what you don’t measure, right!? How is your favorite brand assessing their environmental and social impacts? Look for these best in class approaches:
Transparency - If a brand has traceability in their supply chain (see above), then why not share it with you? Who’s making the goods you’re buying? Where are they being made? What’s in them? How are they being made, etc?
Fashion Revolution urges you to ask, “Who Made My Clothes?” and urges brands to share answer that question without being prompted. Want to know who’s offering up the most info? Check out their Fashion Transparency Index. You might be surprised at who's listed.
Consumer Use (the role you play) - That’s right, a big part of a product’s impact is associated with how many times you wear it, and how often (or little) you wash and dry it. Are they talking to you about that? Have they clearly messaged in their sell in materials and on-garment tags, how to best care for the goods to make them last the longest, and to reduce your enviornmental footprint? Maybe they’re using the Clevercare guidelines.
Circularity - Are they addressing it? PS Circularity isn’t using our plastic bottle waste to make fibers for our swimwear. Circularity is taking out old swimwear, breaking it down to the elemental fibers/polymers/monomers and then making new fibers which can be used in yarns that can be spun into fabrics that can be made back into new swimwear. Thus, eliminating the need to extract virgin materials again. There are embedded resources in the goods we wear - let’s not let them go to waste. The recycling technology is coming and is kind of almost, here...
Climate - This is the big one, and the hardest one for brands to get their heads around, and perhaps the toughest one to quantify and message. But if your brand is committing to carbon reduction/neutrality at Tier 0 (sites they own and operate), amazing. If they’re commiting to carbon reduction/neutrality in their entire supply chain, wow. Give them high, high fives. Ideally, they’re committing to Science Based Targets - High Five, VF Corp.
Of course, there’s more to consider (come take my courses at Orange Coast College!), but for now we can all learn from and be inspired by a few examples of what I would consider as Best-in-Class brands, and campaigns:
Patagonia - Fair Trade
Volcom - Farm to Yarn
Adidas - Futurecraft for circularity
Kozm - Open Book Business Model
Stella McCartney - Deforestation Free
REI - Higg Index expectation for their customers
Picture Organic - PFC Free Commitment
There’s no easy or quick fix when it comes to environmental and social sustainability in fashion - it’s a complex industry that moves at a fast pace. But if these brands can do it, so can your other favorite brand. And if they’re not on this list, or if they’re not doing any of the things I’ve mentioned, give them a nudge, tell them you expect it of them. It’s likely they’re already thinking about it, just not sure where to start. But if they know their customers are asking for it, that’s even more incentive for them to take the first step. Let’s keep them honest, though - stay informed, and know what it is that we’re talking about when we use the S-word around fashion.