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H&M, Cotopaxi and Eileen Fisher Debate Fashion’s Eco Imperative in the Covid Era

While brands aim to chart a course forward through a retail landscape plagued by challenges, environmental goals aren’t falling by the wayside.

At least not according to sustainability experts from leading apparel brands who shared their experiences at Thursday’s Fashiondex webinar.

While H&M has always sought to “democratize” fashion for the masses by creating trend-forward designs at affordable price points, the company is doing more than ever to curb its environmental impact, according to Abigail Kammerzell, the Swedish fast-fashion giant’s U.S. sustainability manager.

“Given what the world is like now—the environmental and social pressures that face our planet—we really have to look at our business and change how we make fashion accessible,” she said.

The Swedish company is looking to move to using only sustainable materials over the course of the next decade, eschewing resource-heavy virgin materials from cotton to synthetics.

The company is committed to working with its long-term suppliers across the globe, Kammerzell said, and bring them up to speed on sustainable processes and inputs. She hopes this leadership will enable H&M’s supply-chain partners to take those learnings to the work they do for other brands, too.

The company has set its sights on helping educate shoppers, too. “It’s about using our influence to support positive transformation in the fashion industry at large,” she said. More information about the brand’s sustainable materials is available to shoppers than in the past, and that’s a trend that stands to continue.

With its much briefer history on the market, outdoor brand Cotopaxi has been able to implement sustainable practices from the beginning, said Annie Agle, the company’s director of brand impact. Founded in 2014, Cotopaxi was legally set up as a B corporation, she said.

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Publicly traded companies can face conflicting interests when it comes to promoting sustainability alongside shareholder gains, she said. “Our legal designation really allows us to prioritize people and planet first,” she added. “It helps us bring sustainability and human rights into every aspect of our decision-making.”

The brand’s product and merchandising teams understand the cost of fair labor, she said, and the company “reverse engineers” its sourcing based on its obligations to human rights. “We really adhere to the ethical trading initiatives,” she said, “much more out of a holistic sense of due diligence, rather than a mere cosmetic compliance.”

The company also works to mitigate waste across the outdoor space by buying discarded fabrics from brands like Patagonia and Camelback, she said. “That’s what we use to make our primary backpack line.”

Fellow certified B Corporation Eileen Fisher also believes sustainable products begin at the product level, according to Amy Hall, the brand’s vice president of social consciousness. “Our approach to sustainability really starts with design,” she said, adding that the label tries to pack “good stuff” into each product.

“We think about fibers, chemistry, water use, land management, animal welfare,” she said. But Eileen Fisher also takes into account the wear, tear and care that will go into their their premium products after they make their way into the hands of consumers. These considerations impact the types of fabrics the brand chooses to use.

Hall recalled Eileen Fisher’s first foray into organic materials as a costly experience for the brand. Switching to organic fibers across some of the line’s styles required some finagling with margins on others. “We looked across our whole array of products for the season and said, ‘Where do we have the biggest margin between what we’re paying, and what we’re selling it for?’” she said. “We borrowed from that margin to pay for the difference in price of our organic fiber.”

Since those early days, Eileen Fisher has moved on to use sustainable and organic fibers across much of its line. “If you look at our 10 highest-selling products, usually six to seven of them are made out of eco materials.”

When it comes to lessons she wishes she’d learned early on in Eileen Fisher’s sustainability journey, Hall cited the importance of systems mapping across the company and its supply chain. Brands need to “engage everyone in an organization” rather than keep objectives siloed to different teams, she said.

While companies’ livelihoods depend on selling more clothes, shoes and accessories, brands across the industry are also looking to educate their consumer about quality, and how to keep their garments in rotation longer.

Cotopaxi attempts to keep its line narrow and focused, Agle said. “When we add a product, it’s done with a lot of deliberation and team weigh in,” she said. “It has to serve a functional purpose.”

The brand’s colorful designs are made with a hodgepodge of repurposed materials, she added, and that bright aesthetic may not be enticing to every shopper. “There’s a sense of wanting to stick to our values, not just when it’s easy or on trend, but when it’s not,” she said.

Cotopaxi also provides generous product warranties, she added. “We want people to return and repair our offerings, and really work with those programs.”

“The world doesn’t need us to be big,” echoed Hall. “The world needs us to create product that is thoughtfully designed, and that our customers actually need.”

In addition to upcycling garments through its Waste No More program and promoting resale through its online platform, Renew, Eileen Fisher is prioritizing the longevity of its products above all else. “We’ve always said to our customers, ‘Only buy what you love,’” Hall said. “Take good care of it, and treat it like an investment rather than something you’re going to wear for a couple of months and discard.”

While fashion is meant to be enjoyable and expressive, “Ultimately, the most sustainable clothes are the ones that you love and take care of, and keep in your wardrobe season after season,” said H&M’s Kammerzell.

The company has also heavily invested in new business models like rentals and re-commerce, underscoring its belief that “we’re fully responsible for the entire life cycle of a garment, and making sure that it never ends up in a landfill,” she said. While H&M has made progress in revamping its supply chain and prizes innovation through its Global Change Awards, Kammerzell stressed that the company is working to hold itself accountable for finding solutions at scale.