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Editor’s Take: Can You Pass the Sustainable Information, Please?

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I am an outlier in the millennial cohort in that I favor in-store shopping over online shopping any day, even peak holiday season on Fifth Avenue. I enjoy seeing how clothing is presented alongside accessories, art, home décor, nature, typography, and music—elements that help bring the experience to life. It’s the same reasons why I believe fashion shows will never disappear, despite the hard push from fashion week organizers to make digital events the new normal last year.

Those reasons are also why I’ve always enjoyed going to apparel trade shows. I get a leg up on what to put on my personal shopping list for the next season, while having the opportunity to meet the team behind the brand and view designers’ full collections before buyers dilute their vision.

The editor in me, however, is increasingly growing skeptical about how fashion brands share their sustainability claims.

Case in point: This week at Project Las Vegas, several reps for denim brands named “sustainability” or “eco” as key themes in the collections they were promoting. When I asked for the specifics on what exactly made the denim sustainable, most offered vague responses about the fabric and finishing. Some pointed to 100 percent cotton jeans as their most sustainable option because it’s “natural” without considering the impact of the finishing and trims. Others said their jeans were made with less water or recycled fibers, but could not support their claim with numbers, fiber brand names or certifications.

To fill in the information gaps, I scanned the labels for more clues, sometimes picking up an Environmental Impact Measurement (EIM) score, a fiber content breakdown or a Tencel hangtag. But most of the time I came up empty-handed. It doesn’t mean the reps were being untruthful. They were likely regurgitating a brief provided by the brand, but the experience starkly revealed where knowledge about sustainability trails off in the line of communication.

No wonder why consumers are confused about what constitutes sustainable denim.

I can’t say the experience on the show floor was unusual. Trends, cost and foot traffic are the usual hot topics at any apparel show, however, after a trying 18-month period that reportedly drove designers and consumers to ask deeper questions about the environmental impact of their fashion and the cyclical nature of trends, I expected more.

Where were the transparency tools that are available in the supply chain? Why didn’t the brands load their latest sustainability report onto iPads instead of new campaign images? What are they doing to educate the consumer about home laundering? And how are buyers supposed to relay what lack of information brands offered at the show to their sales associates?

Do the buyers even care or know to care about sustainability?

This realization in Las Vegas recalled memories of disappointing shopping experiences. While I don’t regularly troll stores to test salespeople’s knowledge, an interaction stands out when I know more about product nuances than they do. Last summer, for instance, I found myself near Frame’s Upper East Side popup shop and decided to check out the 24-Hour Jean line made with Isko Vital fabric providing medical-grade compression. The jeans seemed like they could be a stylish alternative to the granny-chic compression socks I wear on long-haul flights to keep my feet from ballooning.

At the time, the name “24-Hour Jean” escaped me so I asked the salesperson which jeans had the Isko Vital fabric. Her eyes glazed over as if I was speaking a foreign language. While I admit that it is probably unusual for a customer to request a jean by the name of its fabric or the mill that makes it, from a performance standpoint, Isko Vital’s properties make the 24-Hour Jean one of the most unique offerings in the market. No other store up or down Madison Avenue could offer this to shoppers. Sales associates should know this.

A similar instance happened at Levi’s in Times Square shortly after the brand announced the launch of Project F.L.X., its game-changing digital finishing platform. A salesperson pointed out a line of New York City-themed jeans, including a style with a photo of the Statue of Liberty lasered onto the legs. When I asked if the jeans were part of the F.L.X. product range, he said he wasn’t familiar with it. Meanwhile, Levi’s announcement about the technology had been covered by every news outlet from Refinery29 to Bloomberg just weeks before. Surely the news came across an in-house email or bulletin.

To be fair, both experiences took place on the stores’ opening days, which makes me new employees’ worst nightmare. And I realize expecting a salesperson—be it a brand rep at a trade show or a sales associate at a mall—to be a fluent in sustainable terminology is a hard ask. Salespeople are increasingly up against big sales goals despite physical retail’s fragile state and new products are constantly rolling out. They have a lot on their plate.

But as someone who grew into her career during peak Great Recession time, I know all too well that no job description is black and white anymore. In fact, most require being a jack-of-all-trades and in some cases, a walking contradiction. You must be a wordsmith, publicist, salesperson, spokesperson, and social media ingénue. You must be creative yet strategic. A realist and optimistic. Organized but flexible. Whether these new job requirements are fair and just is whole other story, but the days of one-note gigs are long gone in many cases. And in the case of developing, selling, and reporting on sustainable fashion, there is the added responsibility of being educated, transparent and factual on the topic.

I often fear how the words I write might perpetuate the confusion about sustainability, that by reporting on brands’ eco claims without my own science-based means to verify them I’m somehow giving green washers a bigger stage to mislead and misinform. Ambiguous information directly from the brand doesn’t help in this matter, and that’s where trust and education come into play.

So here’s my request: Denim brands, I urge you to take a page from the denim mill playbook and use trade shows as a platform to communicate your sustainability efforts in clear and comprehensive ways. Focusing only on sales is not sustainable. While textile industry events like Bluezone, Kingpins and Denim PV can feel academic at times, there is no shortage of information for designers and sourcing managers to take home to their entire teams and ultimately to the end consumer. Use it and pass it on.

Enhance your B2B marketing collateral with third-party verified data. Bring your sustainability guru or R&D manager to the show. Let them geek out about the technology transforming the jeans wear industry.

It’s time for denim brands to invest in educating their entire staff on their sustainability efforts. Equip your team with everything they need to know. Make them feel confident talking about the topic.

Sustainability isn’t going away, and more difficult questions are on the horizon.

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