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Guess CEO Carlos Alberini: Denim Is the Starting Point for Circular Design

The events that have unfolded during the first six months of 2020 has forced many denim brands to press pause and revisit their values. For Los Angeles-based Guess Inc., it was a time to reevaluate the size of its retail fleet, strengthen its e-commerce strategy and provide more than $1.3 million in COVID-19 relief.

The pandemic pause also presented the denim stalwart with an opportunity to shore up its sustainability strategy, including its commitment to produce 25 percent of its denim in accordance with own Guess Eco guideline by 2021, which essentially mandates that each piece be made with an environmental component as well as a sustainable wash process at the mill level. The brand also aims to have 20 percent of its overall materials portfolio certified sustainable within the same time frame.

Materials used in the S/S ’20 collection include organic cotton, recycled polyester and Lenzing’s Tencel and Modal fibers derived from sustainably managed forests. And with denim being a key area of focus for Guess, the brand also found an opportunity to use Tencel x Refibra, a fiber technology that helps reduce industry waste by upcycling cotton scraps in manufacturing.

Fiber selection is taking on a greater role in Guess’ sustainability strategy as the company works toward building a circular economy. In December, Guess signed onto the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign program, which provides guidelines that set minimum requirements on garment durability, material health, recyclability and traceability. The guidelines are based on the principles of the circular economy and will work to ensure jeans last longer, can easily be recycled and are made in a way that is better for the environment and the health of garment workers.

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Jeans made with Jeans Redesign guidelines will be commercially available next year.

Guess, Inc. CEO Carlos Alberini is optimistic that many of the lessons learned during the Jeans Redesign process can be applied to other product categories in the Guess family in the future.

Here, Alberini discusses Guess’ foray into circular design,  the steps the company has in place to keep its suppliers honest and how the events of 2020 will reshape the consumer mindset.

Rivet: How does Guess define sustainability?

Carlos Alberini: According to the dictionary, sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level, the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.

At Guess, we see the concept of sustainability as fully integrated with the future of our business and our company. It is an expectation from our customers, a passion of our employees, and a necessity for every stakeholder in our business that we change our practices and make products that maintain, and to even help restore, ecological balance. We strive to operate our business in a way that assures future generations are able to experience this beautiful world as we know it, or better yet, as we dream of it.

Specifically, this means investing in high-quality products that last, new ideas and practices that protect the environment and business models that ensure a diverse and inclusive workplace to inspire and support the transformation. We want to inspire our customers to feel confident and passionate about their style and their future, knowing that at Guess, we are working hard to make their world a better place.

Rivet: Better fibers and water-saving technology have been two areas of focus for Guess. Is there another element in the manufacturing process that you would like to see more sustainable?

CA: The next frontier for Guess is going deeper with circular fashion, starting with denim but following with every product we design and manufacture. Our goal is to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, including through reusing and recycling. We are focused on reimagining and redesigning denim apparel that is manufactured from a fully transparent supply chain and fully recyclable products.

This is a revolutionary concept in denim, and we’re thrilled to partner with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to work on their new Jeans Redesign initiative to accomplish our goals. We are very confident that key learnings from this project, such as new natural inks, reusable and removable buttons, stricter water and chemical requirements and traceability will then be applied more broadly to a larger part of our product assortment.

Rivet: What is currently the biggest challenge in the supply chain that is preventing denim from being more sustainable?

CA: Denim has been made in the exact same way for over 100 years and key developers have just started to modernize processes and make denim more sustainable in the last few years. This means that an entire new generation of designers and manufacturers needs to be trained and gain experience with the new, more innovative and sustainable technology.

It is sometimes difficult to recreate and achieve the same look with different, more sustainable manufacturing techniques, inspiring us to develop new styles and adapt new trends that resonate with our customers.

Also, after a decade of fast fashion, people are just now getting re-acquainted with the high value that clothing holds. Our industry has not done a good job of communicating the value of each garment that is touched by so many people and requires precious resources from around the world to reach the final product. This cultural obstacle is starting to change, and we intend to lead and adapt to this shift through marketing of high quality, versatile and yet sustainable clothing.

Approximately 15 percent of Guess denim is made using sustainable processes, and we intend to grow that number every year, as well as continue to raise the standard for what sustainability is to Guess with new initiatives such as Jeans Redesign.

Why Guess CEO Says Circular Design Is the Only Way Forward for Fashion
Smart Guess jeans Courtesy

Rivet: is What steps does Guess have in place to ensure that its supply chain partners are following its sustainable guidelines?

CA: Suppliers must sign our code of conduct and our List of Restricted Substances and Materials that require, at a minimum, compliance with local environmental regulation as well as minimum requirements for chemical use.

We also perform checks both at the facilities and in the labs to ensure compliance with our standards as well. Our key vendors and denim laundries are required to complete the Higg Index environmental survey, a facility self-assessment that helps us track the environmental progress achieved at all the facilities where our products are made. We have developed a vendor scorecard that includes environmental capabilities and compliance as significant criteria to emphasize and incentivize adoption of our sustainability requirements.

For our Smart Guess products specifically, our teams typically visit the factories and have a close relationship with those producing these garments so that we are assured that the final product aligns with our high standards and expectations.

For our materials, we use Global Recycled Standard, Organic Cotton Standard and others for our sustainable qualities. If a certification isn’t available, then we require mill certification to assure that the sustainable materials sourced are in fact what was used to make the garment.

Are there differences in the way Guess’ European and U.S. consumers view sustainability?

CA: In Europe, the acknowledgement of climate change and other critical environmental issues is broadly understood and naturally integrated with the customer sensibilities and lifestyle. The governments are also assuming a leadership role on environmental issues and non-financial corporate reporting, which is also encouraging all businesses to rapidly grow and compete on their environmental credentials. This is leading to a marketplace where customers are more rapidly adopting and expecting sustainability marketing.

While Europe might be pushing faster overall on sustainable change, the more measured, industry-led approach in the U.S. also influences our approach to sustainability communication.

Our sustainability claims are made so that we can have them third-party verified in our biannual sustainability reports, which have been internationally recognized for credibility through assurance. Ultimately, we want our customers to know that while we are rapidly transforming our practices to be more sustainable, we also value consistent and reliable reporting and marketing associated with our sustainability progress.

How are consumers and wholesale partners responding to Smart Guess collections?

CA: Our customers are loving our Smart Guess collections. They love that the products are made with exceptional quality and with the environment in mind.

Our soft organic cotton jogging pants, sweats and tees are quite popular, especially given that comfort is top of mind as customers spend more time at home right now.

Our Smart Guess denim, which uses less water during production and is made with materials that are better for the environment, is also a top seller. This is not just because of its eco appeal, but also because we have added performance qualities as well such as four-way stretch, and cool, antimicrobial fabrics that are lightweight and soft to the touch.

Customers also really love our recycled polyester dresses. They have a gorgeous look and the fabric feels completely high end. You would never know this was a more sustainable product if we didn’t tell you that each dress is made with an average of six recycled plastic bottles.

There is some additional education that must go into the marketing, but ultimately at the end of the day, the Smart Guess product stands on its own with sustainable materials, great quality and amazing design.

What effect do you think the pandemic will have on how consumers perceive sustainable fashion? And will it have any effect on how Guess approaches sustainability?

CA: The global pandemic is profoundly impacting customers’ lifestyles and their priorities. With the economic and health crisis we face, which would have been unimaginable just six months ago, our customers are becoming more mindful of every item they purchase.

And this mindfulness is primarily anchored in the brands that are most trusted by them, and which align best with their core values. These values have now been reshaped by the response that brands have had to the COVID-19 crisis, their response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to climate change and sustainability overall.

The companies that adapt their business models to actively embrace these changes and the new consumer preferences will be the winners in the new environment. Fortunately, this isn’t a departure from where Guess was heading before the crisis. Our priority has been to focus on our customers, and this includes inclusivity and celebrating customer diversity. This also includes sustainability and an obsessive focus on quality, versatility and durability.