Achieving sustainability has become one of the fashion community’s most talked about missions in recent years, but when it comes to explaining efforts to consumers, many brands find themselves at a loss. Without an industry-wide standard for communicating progress, the sector has struggled to give shoppers clear and concise indicators about where its products stand on the spectrum of environmental and ethical consciousness.
Nashville-based footwear and accessories brand Nisolo is attempting to change that. Shopper choices have a collective impact on both people and the planet, according to CEO and co-founder, Patrick Woodyard, and they deserve to have all available insights at their fingertips. The company has created what it believes is a clear, concise label that can steer consumers toward more informed purchases.
Third-party certifications, usually displayed on product hang tags and packaging with labels or badges, can “help build confidence” at the point of purchase, Woodyard said. “But when we talk to our consumers in focus groups and in open forums, there’s still a major lack of understanding of what sustainability actually means.”
That’s not to say that shoppers haven’t been doing their homework, he added. Modern consumers are more attuned than ever to the discussions around environmental stewardship and worker rights, especially amid the pandemic. But with so many NGOs and nonprofits weighing in on sustainability, it’s tough for consumers to keep track of the auditors and the criteria brands are measured against.
Nisolo began brainstorming a new type of product label four years ago, Woodyard said. Looking to the food and beverage industry, and the introduction of the nutrition facts label in 1994, provided a lightbulb moment for the company. “Starting in the 1990s, consumers started to understand conceptually so much more about what goes in their bodies,” he said. “We think that that was in large part due to the introduction of this comprehensive, yet digestible tool.” The label is now an indispensable part of the experience of purchasing consumables, he added.
Since its inception, Nisolo, a certified B Corp, has championed factory safety, gender equality and empowerment and healthcare benefits across its supply chain, and has committed to a strategy for net-zero emissions with third-party environmental group Climate Neutral. The 10-year-old company also works with Leather Working Group certified tanneries, employing mostly vegetable tanning processes to avoid the use of harsh chemicals that can leach into the surrounding ecology. But while Nisolo details these efforts on its site, the message often gets lost in translation in the in-person brand experience, Woodyard said.
“When we looked across the industry and started to really dig in on who was making headway related to labels and comprehensive assessments, we were very underwhelmed,” he said. “We decided, ‘Let’s build a label of our own.’”
Aggregating more than 200 insights from 28 different assessment and certification programs, Nisolo pulled data from B Corporation, the Higg Index, Oeko-Tex, the Savory Institute, Leather Working Group, Cradle to Cradle, ReMake, Better Work, the International Labour Organization, Bluesign, Fair Trade USA and more. The resulting label organizes insights under “people” and “planet,” scoring five key criteria under each heading and earning products a letter grade.
Product sustainability is assessed based on wages and payment, health and safety, workers’ rights and governance, gender equality and empowerment, healthcare and benefits, as well as carbon footprint, raw materials integrity and durability, processing and manufacturing, packaging and distribution and post-use product lifecycle, earning up to 100 percent in each category.
Consumers can scan a QR code on the back of the product’s hang tag to unlock a landing page with a key to how each category is assessed.
“We didn’t want to have to build this label,” Woodyard said. “I wish that we weren’t a brand spending four years and $500,000 in the development of this tool,” he added, noting that Nisolo is conscious that the effort might come off as greenwashing. “This is the most comprehensive tool that’s been brought to market—that doesn’t mean it covers everything, and we’re aware of that. We want that feedback.”
Woodyard hopes that using the insights of dozens of third-party groups will help consumers and sway brands. The buy-in of peers and competitors would also legitimize the standard. “That’s one reason why we open sourced all the methodology,” he added. “We want the critique, we want to improve upon this.”
Nisolo wants consumers to urge their favorite brands to adopt the label, Woodyard said, coining the hashtag #SustainabilityFactsLabel to start the social media conversation.
Rallying peers and competitors is something the company hasn’t shied away from, historically. In 2019, Nisolo developed the #LowestWageChallenge, asking fashion industry players to publish the wage of their lowest paid employee in the interest of promoting transparency. While the effort began to gain traction, the pandemic upended momentum and the campaign seemingly fizzled out.
Woodyard hopes that the Sustainability Facts Label will help bring the issue back into focus. In the first half 2022, the company will focus on integrating brand and shopper feedback, and then spend the second half of the year trying to build industry support.
Because the label depends on information gathered through third-party audits and certifications, brands that have the resources and drive to amass these qualifications will likely be among its first adopters. Larger organizations, or groups that have made sustainability a part of their brand ethos, may be better positioned to join the movement than small startups or brands that are working toward certifications, which require time and investment to procure.
“If someone wants to adopt this exact label, we’re ready for that,” Woodyard said. “We can pass exactly how we got this information, what the criteria is and templates for other brands to leverage and utilize in their supply chains.”
“I think that a critical component of an ongoing and effective sustainability movement is restoring trust between consumers and brands,” he added. “And the only way that that is possible is through making the concept of sustainability both more comprehensive and holistic.”