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How to Build a Sustainable Brand Like Patagonia on a Budget

For small and medium-sized fashion brands, implementing a sustainability programme that works can be a challenge. BoF boils down four tips to help get any business get started.
Everlane's Renew Collection | Source: Courtesy
  • Tamison O'Connor

LONDON, United Kingdom — Scandi-cool fashion brand Ganni is well-known for its on-trend wrap dresses, its sweet-spot pricing and its extensive fan-base of fashion editors and A-list influencers, dubbed #GanniGirls on Instagram. A lesser-known Ganni brand tenet is its commitment to sustainability.

Nicolaj Reffstrup, who has owned and run the brand alongside his wife Ditte Reffstrup since 2009, doesn’t intend to make sustainability the centrepiece of the brand’s marketing. Though far from perfect, Ganni is looking at the materials it sources, how its factories operate and its environmental impact.

“It’s a moral obligation that we all carry,” Reffstrup said. “Long term, I believe sustainability is an insurance policy. I hope within the near future sustainability will become a prerequisite for doing business in this industry.”

Sustainability is fashion's favourite buzzword. Brands tout reduced water usage and progress toward reducing emissions, and throwing their support behind environmental causes, from Patagonia's lawsuit to stop the Trump administration's shrinking of protected federal lands to Stella McCartney this week championing a Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change in collaboration with the United Nations.

But as major brands embrace sustainability, it's putting smaller competitors in a bind: developing sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices — let alone global lobbying campaigns — takes time and money, two resources that tend to be in short supply at younger labels. But brands risk losing out on environmentally-minded customers if they don’t follow their larger rivals’ leads.

Experts say there are ways small brands can follow in the footsteps of Patagonia and Stella McCartney, even if they won’t be taking on the Trump administration or setting global green house gas emission targets anytime soon. One key advantage: a small business is typically more agile, and can shake up its sourcing or manufacturing practices more easily than an established, global corporation. Companies can’t revolutionise business operations overnight. But as the industry at large becomes more aware of its impact on the environment, sustainability is an area that all brands will need to invest time and effort into.

"It's part of a long term strategy," said Julie Gilhart, industry veteran and founder of boutique fashion consultancy Julie Gilhart Consulting. "You should do this for no other reason than the fact that everything is going to be transparent, and you do not want to be put in the category of people that have not been addressing this."

What does it take for a small or mid-sized brand to embark on this journey? Here are four tips to help any fashion business get started.


Fashion brands have their pick of environmental sins to correct: there's water usage, petroleum-derived fabrics and packaging, pesticides in cotton fields and toxic chemicals in tanneries. Large companies often pursue strategies aimed at reducing their total impact. For example, Kering, the conglomerate that's home to luxury giants like Gucci and Saint Laurent, has a three-pronged strategy to sharply reduce the group's environmental footprint by 2025.

Smaller brands are better off starting out with more-limited goals. In October Everlane, the direct-to-consumer fashion brand founded in 2010, said it would eliminate virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021. The brand focused on plastic because it was achievable to find substitute materials within a three year span, said founder and chief executive Michael Preysman. By contrast, reducing water and energy usage would mean reshaping major aspects of the supply chain, and are therefore a long-term goal for the company.

“There’s a lot of impact to try to change and there’s a lot of changes around the product that take time. Each of those cannot be done at the same time,” Preysman said. “You’ve got to think in terms of what’s going to have the biggest impact and actually be achievable.”

Ganni’s primary focus is on global warming. The brand has mapped its carbon footprint since 2016 and offsets its CO2 emissions with carbon credits.

Brands should start by conducting an internal audit of their environmental impact to identify any quick changes that can be made, said Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, founder and CEO of Lincoln Sarnoff Consulting, which develops strategies for mission-driven brands.

“Just like you analyse your cash flow, you should be analysing your profile in terms of sustainability,” she said.

Hire the Right People

If resources allow, hiring somebody immersed in the world of sustainability can provide vital access to “knowledge of materials, what’s out there, what they can use, where they can get it, who to trust," Gilhart said.

That person can connect with outside groups and design a strategy to tackle the problem, saving time for designers and senior management, she said.

Not every business can afford a dedicated sustainability expert. Still, hiring people at all levels who care about sustainability will help foster a culture of purpose, attract top talent and motivate employees.

“If there’s anything that highly talented, cool people want, it’s a sense of purpose when they go to work every day,” said Ganni’s Reffstrup. “That, I’m hoping in the end, will prove to be extremely profitable, getting the best people to join you.”

Everlane’s Preysman said being based in San Francisco, California, means that for many of his employees a basic consideration for the environment is wired into the way they think about the world.

“[It’s] not just one person at the company,” he said. “It really runs through everybody.”

Be Smart About Garment Construction

Environmentally friendly fabrics, especially those made from recycled materials, can be expensive, especially for a small brand that doesn’t produce big volumes.

Getting smart about garment construction is one way to absorb extra costs.

Mother of Pearl creative director Amy Powney set out to design a line that was socially responsible with minimum impact on the planet when she was appointed to creatively head up the luxury womenswear brand in 2015. She decided to “flip the development process on its head,” and, rather than starting with garment designs, began by looking at the locations of where fabrics were produced so she could create a collection that was grown, spun and woven in the same geographical region. That reduced each garment’s carbon footprint as well as packaging waste.

The result was “No Frills,” a permanent line that won't go on sale. Powney is now incorporating her learnings from the No Frills into the Mother of Pearl main line.

Kim Smith, head of product at Everlane, says designers should think strategically about simple details, such as how puffy to make a puffer jacket — the puffier the jacket, the more fill required — or how many pockets a garment has — the more pockets, the more material needed.

Vetting suppliers and tracking the supply chain is critical. Some manufacturers that create materials from renewed plastic have virgin plastic bottles made specifically for them to recycle. Working with a Global Recycle Standard (GRS)-certified supplier is one way to ensure fabrics come from a reliable resource.

Collaboration is Key

Individual brands often struggle to meet sustainability goals. Some are banding together to meet their targets by sharing information and technology.

Footwear brand Allbirds spent three years developing a carbon-negative shoe sole made out of renewable sugarcane, a material the company has dubbed SweetFoam, which launched this summer. In addition to rolling out SweetFoam soles across its entire product line, the brand has made its methods available to the rest of the footwear industry.

"We decided to open source it — and we decided that really early on," said Allbirds co-founder Joey Zwillinger. "If everybody uses it the planet is going to be way better off." In addition, if more companies use SweetFoam, more of the material will be produced and therefore costs will come down. "That's going to help us, but also other people who use this product," said Zwillinger.

Indeed, when multiple smaller companies adopt a manufacturing method or start working with a sustainable supplier, they start to receive the benefits of scale, said Everlane’s Smith.

“It will push the suppliers to be more innovative, it will push the demand, it will push suppliers to think about their process and their standards — and that will also help with cost,” she said.

Startups are popping up to help small businesses become more sustainable. Lumi is software company and consultancy that helps e-commerce businesses manufacture packaging and manage supply chains. Because it represents thousands of e-commerce brands — from Allbirds to kidswear startup Rockets of Awesome — it is able to aggregate their needs as a group to get high-quality, sustainable packaging at a competitive price.

“At the moment we’re in a place where there are over a million boxes being manufactured through our supply chain every week,” said co-founder Stephan Ango. “That’s a lot of volume that you plug into that allows you to have the negotiation and the leverage of a much bigger brand than you are.”

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