LONDON, United Kingdom — Sustainability starts with transparency. It comes from being willing to ask questions and dig — to start to understand what your impacts are in your supply chain.
Getting into this almost two years ago, I didn’t really know what sustainability meant. I just started reading and asking questions. All the things that I’m interested in socially and politically — the foods that I eat, the way I shop organically — sustainability falls into line with that.
I thought why not just set a company up sustainably from the beginning — do all those things the right way, then start to worry about brand and design. So when I had the opportunity to create Outerknown — that was the way I wanted to do it. It’s my reputation on the line.
One of the most important things about sustainability is social compliance — wages and working conditions. There was a clothing production facility [Rana Plaza factory] that caved in and over 1000 people died — how responsible would you feel if that was where you produced and you didn’t have anything to do with the safety issues? You didn’t do your homework, and so you had blood on your hands. When you own a business that uses those facilities, you have an obligation and a responsibility. Shelly Gottschamer, our chief sustainability officer, vets all of our factories. She talks to them to know that they are complying within the parameters agreed with us.
Building a sustainable brand also means sourcing materials responsibly. We make products from mostly organic or recycled sources and are doing our best to stay away from GMO products and conventional farming pesticides. We have tags that dissolve in water — so it’s not just a throwaway tag. Our packaging is 100 percent recyclable and has a lot less impact on the environment. It’s not a big thing, it’s not changing the world, but it’s a symbol of what we’re aiming for. We also use a non-petroleum based polybags made from sugarcane to ship our clothes to retailers. But it’s hard to enforce sustainability in terms of shipping. You have to use the same logistics and network that everyone uses.
For example, we wanted to completely ship without using any conventional plastic polybags, but retailers are wary of products that aren’t individually wrapped because they can get damaged during shipping. This is why we chose the sugar-cane polybags to partly tackle that issue.
We looked into recyclable materials too, but although recycled sounds really good, oftentimes it can be much more expensive. It’s economies of scale - conventional materials are produced in such bulk that the industry benefits from that, but non-conventional products don’t have the economies of scale you need to bring costs down yet. There’s a natural premium to it, because not everyone is doing it.
Sustainability impacts your bottom line at every stage and consumers don’t always understand why. They don’t equate those costs with why the product costs more. That’s why it’s important to educate people about the process, because when they know about something, they can make an informed choice.
Eventually as sustainability gets more of a footfall, cost will come down. But you need to reach that tipping point, and it will probably need some significant investment and steps forward from the organizations that are the biggest impactors.
We need willingness from people [in the industry], but there are huge brands that don’t care much about this. It’s easier for Outerknown to be sustainable, because we started with it at our core. It’s very different for bigger businesses to retrofit and start questioning what is going on all the way down the line, from a raw materials level to in-store. A big part of where it needs to start is raising awareness so businesses can understand that it is possible to do it, there are people doing it and it’s not quite as daunting as people might think.
The more people talk about it, the more something will be done about it.
As told to Helena Pike.
Kelly Slater is an 11-time world champion surfer and the founder of Outerknown, a sustainable lifestyle and menswear brand.