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Building a Sustainable Brand: How to Get Started

Finding a way to make clothes without harming workers or damaging the environment is one of the industry’s most daunting challenges. That doesn’t mean brands shouldn’t give it a try.
Models pose in clothes made from recycled polyester at Designers Remix in January | Source: Sarah Kent
By
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom — When news broke last year that Burberry had burned nearly £30 million ($39 million) worth of clothes, accessories and other products, the brand found itself caught in a maelstrom of public outrage.

Burberry has had an environmental strategy in place since 2012, but the scandal forced it to make some swift adjustments. Within a matter of months, the luxury giant announced it would stop burning unsold merchandise and threw in a ban on animal fur for good measure.

“We recognised we needed to step up our efforts,” said Pam Batty, vice president of corporate responsibility. Efforts to reduce and better manage waste are still a work in progress, but updates are expected in the coming months.

“This is in the consciousness of consumers in a way that it wasn’t a few years ago,” Batty said at a recent event to highlight Burberry’s long-standing partnership with the UK women’s charity Smart Works, which dresses and coaches unemployed women. The company is looking to increase donations as part of its push to manage waste.

Burberry isn't the only one feeling the pressure to do more — and faster. How to make clothes ethically and sustainably is a debate raging across the industry as evidence of fashion's poor track record on workers' rights and the environment piles up. Brands face mounting pressure from consumers, regulators and investors to clean up their act.

Historically, companies have been reluctant to talk about sustainability, fearful they could become a target for activists by revealing their supply chains’ inner workings, or face a backlash if they talk a bold climate game but fail to meet their goals.

That's starting to change as brands increasingly see benefits in communicating their efforts to consumers. According to the Copenhagen-based Global Fashion Agenda, industry engagement is on the rise, with around half of executives surveyed for its annual Pulse of the Fashion Industry report in 2018 stating they consider sustainability when making strategic decisions.

“The time for a company to be silent on sustainability is long over,” said Elisa Niemtzow managing director for consumer sectors at non-profit consultancy BSR. “What stakeholders are expecting now is for a company to be transparent about understanding its impact and having a plan in place.”

Some of that old angst is still there; sustainability can seem like a distant, and constantly moving target. Here’s how to get over it and get started.

Just Do It

The environmental and social challenges facing the fashion industry are diverse and complex, but brands don’t have to solve all of them all at once. In fact, so long as companies don’t over-state what they’re doing, it’s ok to start small and build from there over time.

Sportswear company Volcom has been working on building up its sustainability programme for more than a decade, but it has become increasingly ambitious and vocal about its efforts. With the help of current parent company Kering, it's started tracking a small portion of its organic cotton production right back to the farm. It also set targets to reduce its environmental footprint by 2020. Kering has a group-level strategy with targets to improve impact by 2025.

“In many instances, brands don’t want to put themselves out there because they’re afraid of repercussions,” said Volcom’s global vice president for compliance and supply chain, Big Tony Alvarez. “We were one of those brands at one point, but then we thought, we’re doing great stuff, and we don’t say that we’re the best, but we want to put out what we’re doing.”

Even for those just getting started, consumers understand that change doesn’t happen overnight, said Damien Pellé, head of sustainability at Galeries Lafayette.

The French upmarket department store chain launched its own sustainability initiative last year to spotlight products that meet specific environmental or social criteria. Over time, it expects to tighten those requirements. Part of the aim, Pellé said, is to encourage brands to do more in this space and get rid of the stigma around talking about sustainability.

Brands “fear to communicate what they are doing to [customers] because they are not 100 percent sustainable,” he said. “Clients are not stupid, they can understand you cannot convert the business in one year’s time.”

Find a Focus

Since no one brand is going to single-handedly fix the industry’s sustainability problems, companies shouldn’t worry about the effort required to tackle everything at once. Instead, they should start by analysing their operations to pinpoint one or two areas that can make the biggest difference.

When Danish streetwear brand Soulland decided it wanted to shift towards a more sustainable business model, the company simply began with the area where it had the most volume: the jersey used in its T-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts.

“We didn’t know where to start,” said chief executive Jacob Kampp Berliner. “We thought, let’s just go for the low-hanging fruit.”

Starting with a capsule collection late last year, the company began converting its jersey products to organic cotton — a crop that is grown without the use of harmful pesticides. It wasn’t exactly easy. The change brought added complexity and cost, but it has provided tangible and fast results.

“We went from nothing recycled or organic in October last year, and now 60 to 62 percent that is somehow sustainable,” said Kampp Berliner. The company expects to hit 65 to 70 percent in July when its Autumn/Winter 2019 collection drops.

For those with the bandwidth, taking the time to conduct a deeper supply chain analysis can provide useful data on where an individual brand can have the most impact. That work can help avoid missteps and accusations of greenwashing when launching a high-profile sustainability drive. For instance, luxury e-tailer Net-a-Porter is preparing to launch a range of sustainability initiatives this summer after spending years analysing its environmental impact.

The efforts of larger brands can also prove a helpful template. Luxury group Kering has been producing an environmental profit and loss account that puts a financial value on its environmental impact since 2012. The conglomerate has used the outcome to set its sustainability priorities and shared its methodology so anyone can go out and replicate the exercise. Elsewhere, tools like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index allow brands to benchmark their sustainability performance.

The Truth Is out There

Companies looking to operate more sustainably don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A host of brands have already paved the way, and there are plenty of resources available for those who’d like help getting started — even if the challenge seems overwhelming at first.

“Sometimes people are so afraid because they don’t know what questions to ask,” said Maggie Hewitt, who built her New Zealand-based brand Maggie Marilyn around sustainability. “I think we just have to rip the Band-Aid off; just having the conversation is so important.”

For those willing to put in some legwork, there's a wealth of information available. For instance, non-profit Textile Exchange provides information on the best practises for sourcing sustainable fibres, while The Sustainable Angle's Future Fabrics Expo is a showcase of sustainable materials and sourcing information. Earlier this year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. published a guide to sustainable strategies, and Copenhagen's Global Fashion Agenda was established as a forum for industry collaboration on sustainability.

That doesn't mean it's always easy, particularly for companies looking to change existing ways of doing business. When the team at Danish label Stine Goya decided to remake its showpiece collection out of sustainable fabrics on a short deadline, they started out by hitting up traditional sources like trade show Première Vision and came up short.

“We were so disappointed,” said chief executive Thomas Goya Hertz. “There was a period we were thinking, ‘Will this happen?’”

It required a little more digging to find what the team were looking for, but by leveraging contacts and trawling the internet, they were able to source organic fabrics, manufacturers of peace silk, and recycled sequins.

"Google has been a good channel," said Adolf Modin, the head of studio at Stine Goya.

It helps that production of sustainable fabrics has also come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Activist designer Katharine Hamnett re-launched her brand in 2017 after realising that the industry had finally caught up with her desire to produce clothes in an ethical and environmental manner. "It's much easier now than it was thirty years ago," Hamnett said.

Be Prepared to Spend Money

There’s no magic bullet to transform the fashion industry that’s both green and free. Taking on additional costs to operate more sustainably isn’t always an easy equation in an industry known for tight margins, but companies should be thinking about the value of investing now to offset future reputational or regulatory costs.

Charlotte and Niels Eskildsen spent months wrestling with the practicalities and costs associated with overhauling their label, Designers Remix, before committing to a target to only use sustainable fabrics by the end of the decade.

To hit its goal, the company expects it will have to change around 80 percent of its suppliers, while the cost of sustainable fabric can be anything from 20 percent higher to double the price of more generic versions — additional costs the company is currently absorbing rather than passing onto the consumer. For chief executive, Niels Eskildsen, it's a strategic gamble.

“Not all corporations will accept that cost,” said Eskildsen. “This is an investment because, in the short term, it will be more expensive, but I’m convinced it will pay off.”

According to a report published by the Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group last year, potential savings and efficiencies gained through operating more sustainably could boost companies’ profitability by between 1 and 2 percentage points by 2030, as businesses benefit from reduced spending on resources like energy, water and chemicals, and the cost of conventional materials rise.

Make It Look Good

Ultimately, the most heroic efforts to make clothes in a sustainable manner won't matter if consumers don't like the finished product. It's something the industry has suffered from historically, with sustainable fashion developing a reputation as "a little bit more brown and scratchy," says Global Fashion Agenda chief executive Eva Kruse.

While looks still matter, a new wave of highly popular brands are proving sustainability doesn't have to mean sacrificing style. For instance, shoe brands Veja and Allbirds have gained cult followings while focusing on vegan and natural materials for their products, while LA-based Reformation's sustainable womenswear has built a dedicated celebrity and social fan base.

“You can go into a supermarket and people will buy a dirty, ugly carrot,” said Designers Remix chief executive, Eskildsen. “But it’s not the same in the fashion industry. If the product doesn’t have an appealing design, people will not buy it.”

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