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Nike, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher Discuss the Future of Sustainable Design

If the apparel industry is going to make meaningful progress toward sustainability, companies must start collaborating. That was the conclusion panelists reached Monday at “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Patagonia, Nike & Eileen Fisher Speak to Leading Change,” an event hosted by the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator and the collaborative platform NYCxDesign.

Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy at Patagonia; Ed Thomas, general manager of material science & innovation for sustainability at Nike, Inc.; and Candice Reffe, core concept leader at Eileen Fisher.

Dumain said that despite sustainability initiatives started by Patagonia and other companies, planetary metrics are still moving in the wrong direction. Resources are becoming increasingly constrained and GMO cotton is now more than 90 percent of the international supply, she explained.

To combat the environmental pressures, it will take many companies coming together. “No matter how small or insignificant you think your part is, it all adds up at the end of the day,” Dumain said.

One of the barriers to collaboration is competition. Eileen Fisher is looking for a solution for garment recycling as part of its giveback program, Green Eileen, and could use partners in the undertaking. The company lets customers return gently worn items to stores around the country for resale. However, roughly 37 percent of returned product that is not sellable. Reffe said recycling and innovation hasn’t proved to be a very collaborative area.

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“It’s a very competitive space. People feel very proprietary about their ideas, very much about ‘I want to be the first one to do this,’” Reffe said. “I can appreciate that. At the same time, all we want is to figure out how to turn these used clothes into a raw material.”

There are some pre-competitive spaces where brands and companies come together to find solutions. Nike, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher all belong to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of apparel, footwear and home textile companies that work toward eliminating environmental harm. In that space, companies might share organic cotton sources or work together with chemical companies on new technologies. The coalition is currently focusing on the Higg Index, a tool for measuring the environmental and social performance of apparel products.

Ultimately, companies don’t need to make sustainable materials proprietary in order to innovate—they could all be using the same fabric and still making different designs. When Nike designed its kits for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the designers used recycled polyester, a fabric any brand could have chosen.

“Everybody has access to recycled polyester, what I choose to do with it, that’s my differentiation,” Thomas said. “Competition can still happen, it just happens where it needs to happen. You’re not competing against the planet.”