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Are Buyers Asking Brands the Right Sustainability Questions?

“No one’s asked me for my cotton certificates before,” said Adam Taubenfligel, co-founder and creative director of Triarchy, a Los Angeles-based denim company that sells so-called “sustainable” jeans. “Usually I’m the one kind of harassing people with information.”

But it was as if a switch flipped over the past year, he said. These days, Taubenfligel isn’t just sending the label’s Global Recycled Standard and Oeko-Tex bonafides to wholesale customers like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. He’s also describing the type of machinery it’s using and the water-consumption needs of its wash processes. They want to know where the recycled metals in Triarchy’s hardware come from and what makes its natural dyes so natural. “Basically all the information that I’m providing to a third-party auditor I’m now sending to the buyer and their head of ESG.”

Multi-brand retailers have plenty of reasons to be cautious, particularly now that both brick-and-mortar and pure-play operations alike are increasingly flagging their better-for-the-planet offerings in highly curated collections. With climate concerns and corporate scrutiny at all-time highs, companies can no longer afford to relegate their eco-messaging just to Earth Day.

Triarchy appears in Bergdorf Goodman’s Conscious Curation, Neiman Marcus’s Fashioned for Change and Nordstrom’s Sustainable Style, to name a few. Whereas Taubenfligel used to check off a few boxes for the brand’s buyers, he can now spend entire days mired in spreadsheets about fibers, materials and manufacturing.

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“A couple of years ago people would be like ‘Oh, great, you’re sustainable. Cool. Let’s throw you in there,’ but now I give them the same information and then someone’s usually reaching back out and saying, ‘Hey, I actually need you to back up these things that you are saying, so can you please send me the certificates? Can you please elaborate on this point?’” Taubenfligel said. “So they’re obviously hiring people who know that world now.”

But experts say that the landscape remains a confusing one. What, for instance, makes something sustainable? Absent regulatory rigor, many of the terms fashion purveyors bandy about are open to the broadest of interpretations. In their scramble to appeal to consumers’ growing ethical consciousness, brands are sometimes less than scrupulous about their eco-assertions, leading to accusations of greenwashing that can erode consumer trust and stymie systemic change.

Unsubstantiated and misleading green claims are ubiquitous in the fashion industry, even though some attempt at legislation by the European Commission is coming down the pike, said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF). Until formal policing happens, however, it’s pretty much anything goes. A study that the corporate watchdog conducted last summer, for instance, found that 59 percent of such declarations by British and European firms, including Asos, H&M and Marks & Spencer, lacked a credible basis. In the case of H&M, the number of “false” claims exceeded 95 percent. (H&M said it doesn’t recognize itself in the way it’s being depicted and bases all product sustainability claims on third-party certification schemes to “ensure sustainable sourcing and integrity.”)

“I think it’s a particular issue for the fashion industry because it’s such a marketing-led thing,” Harding-Rolls said. “It’s rightly tapped into the fact that people who buy fashion are concerned with the environment and want to be able to do something about it. And brands have realized that they can make shallow green claims with the hope of getting people to buy their clothes. I’m sure in some cases it is accidental, but I think if you look at it in the round, it’s quite intentional.”

When Farfetch launched its Conscious edit in 2019, it veered away from using the word “sustainable.” Not only is the term overused, confusing and “kind of empty,” according to Federica Licini, the luxury platform’s senior sustainable business manager, but it also doesn’t capture its myriad nuances. “Conscious” ultimately made the cut because it offered a better framework for setting out “legitimate and trustworthy” criteria, she said.

Farfetch doesn’t take claims at face value. For inclusion in Conscious, an item must contain a “significant proportion” of a material that is independently recognized as being better from an environmental, social or animal welfare perspective; holds independent certification related to better environmental, social or animal welfare practices; or brandishes a positive score on the ethical-rating platform Good on You. Neither do its standards remain static, Licini said.

“Every year we really look at our list of criteria with the support of external advisors to make sure that what we consider sustainable is really legitimate given the progress of the industry,” she said. A brand that crafted bags from vegetable-tanned leather, for instance, used to be a shoo-in. Now that more companies are embracing the material, however, the bar needs to be higher to push for the “industry that we need.”

Nordstrom began highlighting its sustainable offerings after a 2018 poll found that most of its customers wanted to be able to home in responsibly made products more easily. The retailer currently offers more than 11,000 products that fall under the Sustainable Style aegis. It aims to have 15 percent of its product assortment qualify as such by 2025.

“We hope that by supporting customers to find more sustainable and responsible products, we’re also supporting the brands that are developing innovative products like this, which will ultimately drive positive change across our industry—but we’re not stopping there,” said Gigi Ganatra Duff, its vice president of corporate affairs. “We believe that Nordstrom and the rest of the fashion industry play an important role and share responsibility in addressing these complex challenges.”

Many common terms in the industry are challenging to verify, she admitted. To sort sustainability truth from fiction, Nordstrom employs “clear, measurable and externally validated” criteria. Clothing and shoes that fall under Sustainable Style must comprise at least 50 percent sustainably sourced materials, are responsibly manufactured or have a charitable component.

“We encourage our customers and our merchants to evaluate sustainable claims using clear, measurable and externally validated sustainability criteria,” Duff said. “For example, when you’re looking for items made with sustainably sourced materials, you might look for Fair Trade certified cotton, Tencel lyocell and Forest Stewardship Council certified, among others.”

Not all firms who apply for inclusion in these edits get in. Macy’s said it has rejected brands that do not meet the sustainable materials, responsible production and animal welfare criteria of its Sustainable “sitelet,” though it tries to work with companies to give them an extra push if they need it.

Like other retailers, Macy’s relies on third-party certifications such as Recycled Standard, the Global Organic Textile Standard, Fair Trade, Oeko-Tex and the Responsible Wool Standard to help it make its decisions. Figuring out if a brand is being honest takes time and analysis, said Laurie Rando, the retailer’s director of sustainable products and human rights. Trusted initiatives help move that process along.

“Macy’s vets the products within our sustainable assortment through third-party certifications which meet our standards of validity,” Rando said. “Prior to determining which certifications to accept, we review each to ensure that it’s credible and rigorous.”

Such diligence isn’t universal, said Palle Stenberg, co-founder of Sweden’s Nudie Jeans, which can be found in eco-curations by Farfetch, Nordstrom and Selfridges. Some retailers have a very “low” knowledge of what “real sustainability” is, he said. The label tries to organize product knowledge sessions to educate buyers and their customer service staff about its social and environmental initiatives, including its climate, wage and transparency commitments.

“The truth is that 50 percent of the buyers don’t ask about [our sustainability credentials] at all, but thinks [they are] interesting,” Stenberg said. “The other 50 percent is putting requirements, but the question is if they have the capacity to follow up on what brands report and very few have hard requirements of what is needed in terms of sustainability.”

Sandya Lang, Nudie Jeans’ sustainability manager, said that the questions multi-brand retailers need to ask should go even deeper. Do the brands they feature in their green edits have carbon reduction plans in all three scopes, for instance? In terms of working conditions, do they have a transparent supply chain? What percentage of their suppliers pay a minimum wage versus a living wage? Otherwise, it’s too easy to qualify a brand as “sustainable” based on a single attribute, rather than a more holistic approach, she said.

Brands need to “talk more about what needs to be done: circular products, changing business models, offering services to prolong the lifetime of products, climate justice, regenerative practices in raw material sourcing,” Lang added. “They need to talk about their impact and for whom is the impact made—for the brand reputation or the people or ecosystems involved in the production.”

Multi-brand retailers lean on certifications because the alternative is taking brands at their word. But not all certifications are equal, Harding-Rolls said. A CMF analysis of nearly a dozen certification and voluntary schemes frequently used by brands to assess their sustainability efforts, published in April, criticized many of them as “unambitious, unaccountable, compromised talking shops that result in an industry-wide decoy for unsustainable practices, enabling sophisticated greenwashing on a vast scale.”

Among them is the Higg Index, a widely adopted suite of tools, spearheaded by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), that is piloting consumer-facing scorecards with products’ social and environmental impacts. The CMF said the profiles, which are being trialed by brands such as H&M and C&A, could be “interpreted to create confusion and a distraction for customers surrounding the sustainability claims made.” (The SAC said that its members are able to access “trusted, credible and scientifically rigorous tools,” which evolve to align with the latest science and data, to measure the impact of their product production.)

“Certifications are great but certifications do not equal measurement per garment,” Taubenfligel said. “Having a third-party auditor assess and calculate the impact of every garment you’re making—where the fibers were grown, where the material was made, how it was dyed, how you shipped it to your factory, cut, sewed, washed—that’s tangible and transparent.”

Certifications, he added, can also become stale. “Let’s say you got a certification in 2019,” Taubenfligel said. “In 2022, you’re probably doing a lot of things very differently. And so maybe you’re updating the certification, but at the same time, why aren’t you just in real-time analyzing everything you make? It’s not that hard.”

Some retailers have found that highlighting feel-good products can be profitable. While this can arouse cynicism on the one hand, it also signals genuine consumer appetite for value-added merchandise on the other. According to Farfetch’s 2021 conscious luxury trends report, sales of Conscious-tagged products quadrupled in 2020. (Its main line didn’t receive the same uplift, it said.) Since 2019, Nordstrom customers have nearly doubled their online searches for Sustainable Style. Macy’s was unable to disclose any information surrounding sales.

Harding-Rolls said that multi-brand retailers who offer green edits need to be clear-eyed and transparent about their selection benchmarks because they are “almost acting like a certification body themselves.” That means moving beyond buzzwords to detailed substantiation. It also means acknowledging blind spots such as polyester derived from downcycled plastic bottles, which he said is “not a particularly good thing” because the material cannot currently be re-recycled at scale and is, therefore, a circularity dead end.

“Because you can say this is an eco-friendly jacket, but you also have to have a lot of small print explaining why it is eco-friendly,” he said. “Are you just talking about a part of it that’s made from recycled materials? Or are you talking about the whole thing? And if you’re not talking about the whole thing, then you need to qualify that so you’re giving the customer a true picture of the extent to which you deem that product to be sustainable. It’s not sexy and it’s not marketing, but that’s what we’re dealing with.”

This article appears in Rivet’s Summer 2022 issue. Click here to download the digital issue.