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Brands Striving to be Circular Need to Balance Sustainability and Aesthetics

For companies on a mission to be true participants in the circular economy, the challenges of getting and staying on that path are many.

Foremost is communicating that brand identity to consumers, but sourcing the right materials while maintaining quality and performance, follow right behind. At a Smart Talks panels at Premiere Vision New York last week, executives said commitment is key—and research and development are vital.

Sari Schwarz, production manager and technical designer at ski and performance wear brand Erin Snow, said, “As a brand we strive to raise the bar for ethical production and sustainability,” with a focus on making sure its products have durability through quality materials and production.

“Skiwear presents its own challenges because the skiwear industry as a whole is one of the biggest offenders of polluting the earth,” Schwarz said. “Every single material used, from hard goods to soft goods, is toxic. So this has been a very big challenge to us and I have to say we’ve done a really good job of addressing this issue. We started using recycled polyester in our skiwear about 10 years ago and one of the biggest issues was that it has to perform. We have always focused on sustainability and in the last five years, we have found that customers are passionate about it, as well.”

The brand is now putting wool into the majority of its garments owed to its biodegradable, odor absorbing, durable and warm properties, and by using it in conjunction with PFC-free lining and recycled polyester fiberfill instead of down, it offers a truly sustainable garment, Schwarz said. Erin Snow has worked with Australian Wool Innovation to help market the materials and communicate the benefits of wool to its customers.

Shirley Chien, head of operations at Araks, a luxury lingerie and swimwear brand that has been selected to participate in the 2019 CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative to further its commitment to sustainable innovation, said, “What’s important to us is delivering a beautiful product that’s sustainable. We continue a journey to use more sustainable fabrics and incorporate more sustainable practices to allow the customer to have the confidence to buy something” that has those qualities.

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For Araks, Chien said the challenge is finding materials—whether it’s organic or has recycled content—that are sustainable and match a level of quality and luxury.

“We do struggle with finding the right balance,” she said. “We also don’t have the leverage to find mills to work with us to meet these standards.”

Much time is also spent in research to find that right materials, Chien said, adding that the company just came across a biodegradable nylon that it’s beginning to use. Moderator of the Smart Talks session, Guisy Bettoni, CEO and founder of C.L.A.S.S., a platform that showcases fashion, textiles and materials created using smarter sustainable technology, noted that companies are beginning to produce recycled nylon made from discarded fishing nets—they are tapping new technologies to meet sustainability goals.

“Technology in textile has come a long way and will help companies achieve new levels of sustainability,” Bettoni said.

Adding to that, Laura Gambarini, marketing and communications manager at M.I.T.I., an Italian knit fabric mill, said, “What we care most about is high performance. That’s behind our philosophy of what we call ‘green performance.’ It involves sharing values and commitment with our brand partners and brining that to the consumer.”

At M.I.T.I., this concept centers the materials it sources, such as using 100 percent recycled polyester yarns, pre-industrial waste recycled nylon and Roica recycled elastane.

It’s important to balance education and research with brand aesthetic, Chien said, and the more Araks can share what it’s doing and communicate the value of it to the consumer, the more it will advance the brand’s identity and purpose.

Schwarz’s advice to companies striving to be a real sustainable brand: patience.

“We were told by everyone that no one cares–no one cares that your product is recycled–they just want it to look good and that it performs for them,” Schwarz said. “And in the last five years we have found that that’s not true. The customers call us and ask us questions and we get hundreds of emails a day from customers asking us really pointed questions. People are starting to care.”