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Cash-Strapped Apparel Sector Debates Sustainability’s High Costs

Sustainability is undoubtedly a major concern across the apparel industry, but at what cost can retailers get there? At the same time, with COVID-19 compounding issues of liquidity, many are asking: Does the industry have the capital to sufficiently spend on sustainability?

During a session at the Texworld USA Virtual Edition, Dana Davis, vice president of sustainability, product and business strategy at sustainable women’s fashion brand Mara Hoffman, believes it all comes down to brands reassessing what matters to them most and where financial priorities lie.

“In the short term, I think that brands can still make these changes,” Davis said. “It’s about scrutinizing those budgets and finding the cuts that they can make in order to afford making these shifts and reprioritizing those budgets.”

Megan Stoneburner, director of sustainability and sourcing at lifestyle surf brand Outerknown, noted the importance of collaboration, especially with outside businesses that have the capital to assist retailers with their sustainability investments.

“One of the strategies at Outerknown has been focusing in terms of accelerating circularity, and innovation is pulling in the market so investment firms and VCs can help realize the potential of not only new innovation, but some of these potential concepts or theories around circularity,” Stoneburner said.

Outerknown specifically focuses on circularity, according to Stoneburner, because the company recognized it as an area that could force major change within the business not just through design and development but in how products are manufactured, sold and then repurposed. In ranking a No. 1 area of focus, the company can alleviate a lot of the pressure to “go from zero to 100,” Stoneburner said.

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Unlike Outerknown, Mara Hoffman wasn’t built on the premise sustainability, but made the transition as the company started identifying its largest impact areas, according to Davis. Conducting a simple raw materials reevaluation is a low-cost option that can get a company started on the right sustainability path, she added.

Of course, sustainability measures often still go back to knowing how, where and when your goods are coming in, especially in the COVID era when so many apparel brands have excess inventory lying around.

“I think a shift in the calendar is key,” Davis said. “I think the retailers need to align with the brands so that we’re actually dropping product at a time that a customer wants a product. Who wants to see a wool coat in a store in July? Moving away from a projected model is key, whether it’s shrinking your supply chain. If brands can focus on actually knowing who they work with and who manufactures their products, there’s so many ways to just shift that approach.”

Stoneburner indicated that while many apparel brands have made efforts to do this, even so much as putting together their own “chain of custody” to record the sequence of sourcing the material all the way to product development, these processes get costly and complicated for suppliers and their brands to actually execute on effectively.

“We have to evaluate the purpose of this to determine what’s a better way of tracing back,” said Stoneburner. “Traceability for smaller brands is a no-brainer in the sense that it’s easier because we are smaller and nimbler and we have a smaller supply chain to start with. But it’s very complicated for large brands, because we’re talking about thousands of different supply networks that they have to identify.”

There’s also the element of developing a product and marketing strategy designed specifically to mitigate wasteful behavior on the consumers’ end. One of Outerknown’s major value propositions is that it looks to create durable, investment products that can last shoppers a long time.

“It’s really important to train the customer,” Stoneburner said. “And it’s the responsibility of the brands to say, ‘You’re buying one of something versus having to buy 10 to 20 of something over the next 20 to 30 years. I think we have a huge responsibility to create these products that are long-lasting. There’s a lot of work in terms of really revisiting the value of our garments.”

Davis pointed out the growing apparel resale market as an example of brands finally being able to capitalize on their commitment to sustainability. Mara Hoffman has even implemented a garment take-back program where shoppers can send back garments they feel are at the end of their lifespan for responsible repair or recycling.

“We partner with The Renewal Workshop, they’ll repair the garment and then we can resell that,” Davis said. “So now we’re actually capturing that second sale. It’s outside-the-box thinking, it’s not just about pushing more and more products.”