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Sustainability Now: Just Do It, Don’t Wait for Consumers to Care

It’s easy to get bogged down in numbers when even an ethical fashion brand tied to Bono can’t avoid making a loss, but the pursuit of sustainability can benefit the bottom line.

News broke last week that Edun, founded in 2005 by Ali Hewson and her husband, U2 frontman Bono, had racked up $7.56 million in losses in the year ended Dec. 30, 2015—its fifth straight loss-making year. But during a discussion at WGSN’s Futures Conference in New York City Thursday, apparel companies with sustainability engrained in their offerings and operations hashed out the challenges and true benefits of an ethically conscious business.

Moderator Simon Collins, founder of Fashion Culture Design and the former Dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, kicked things off by imploring Patagonia creative director Miles Johnson to explain how the company can possess a genuine commitment to responsible behavior and still make money.

“I think people believe that sustainability is going to cost so much more money and it does sometimes cost a bit more money—it’s certainly more effort. We know from the years of doing this that you must work closely with your supply chain partners to be able to achieve the goals that we have,” Johnson said.

“Do you think Patagonia would be as successful as it is if you weren’t committed to the environment?” Collins asked, to which Johnson replied that he didn’t think so.

Amy Hall, director of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher, explained that last year when the brand pledged to eliminate one of its top volume fabrics—viscose—by the year 2020, no one was sure how it would happen.

“Viscose represented 20 percent of our total volume and we didn’t have a completely viable replacement for that,” Hall said, describing how that challenge inspired the brand’s design team to push innovation in a way they hadn’t anticipated. “It’s been very exciting. We’ve shown the margins for our sustainable materials have grown and are very close to meeting the margins for our conventional materials.”

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If you wait for consumers to care, it will be too late

That’s all well and good, Collins said, but how can apparel companies encourage consumers to care about responsible and eco-friendly business practices if they don’t already?

“We have to meet our customer where they are. Some people do already care and many don’t, but we must start by giving them great product that they love and that they want and if it also happens to be sustainable, whatever that means to their customer, fantastic,” Hall said. “It almost in a way doesn’t matter if the customer cares but obviously, our goal is to get her to care through engaging her with the product to the point where after she leaves the store she’s actually going to take further action.”

Marybeth Schmitt, continental communications director at H&M, echoed Hall’s sentiments.

“We have a campaign behind our ‘Conscious’ collection but for our ‘Close the Loop’ collection it’s within every category so you actually just stumble upon it, and in that way we let people choose fashion first and then sustainability,” Schmitt said. “We also know a lot of the time sustainable clothes are more expensive and I think that deters people from buying sustainable clothes, so what we like to do—and we use our scale for this—is to be able to create collections made from more sustainable materials or closed loop and make it affordable and high fashion.”

Act now and consumers will catch up

Johnson agreed with H&M’s tactic, pointing out that most people have a strange perception of what sustainable product looks like.

“They think it’s all going to be rustic and tree-hugging. It’s not like that,” he said, adding that responsible companies shouldn’t force people to swallow all the good things they’ve achieved. “Just make some commitments and stand by them. There’s a lot to be done but I think that sustainability is a big topic and there’s so many ways of looking at that. It’s just about being conscious. We must be conscious but we also must get the consumer to try to be a bit more aware of what goes into these things that they’re buying so much of.”

Collins recalled a time when Nike had some fleece hoodies made from recycled plastic bottles but never mentioned it in marketing and the styles still performed at retail. Similarly, Esprit’s recently published sustainability report heralded how the brand’s design teams and suppliers would choose more environmentally friendly materials, including Better Cotton, going forward.

“They’re not going to put it in their ad campaign. They’re just going to do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Collins said. “We all want to wear nice clothes on a Saturday night and we all buy stuff—we live in a capitalist society, it’s what we work for—so what can we [the fashion industry] do? How can we continue to be profitable, because of course we must sustain our workforces with income, how can we do that and still not damage the planet?”

Collaboration is key to achieving long-term goals

Tracy Rickert, senior consultation at Alvanon Inc., said it’s a two-fold approach.

“It’s making small incremental changes and then at the same time setting huge aspirational goals that are a bit longer term and require industry partnership to get there, but doing both at the same time, rather than just waiting and saying ‘We can’t do anything because we want to reach this big goal,’” Rickert said.

Johnson agreed: “We’re all together on this and the more we can talk to each other about it, the more we can support each other.”

That’s the idea behind H&M’s Global Change Award, an annual innovation challenge started in 2015 that seeks to make fashion circular.

“We’re investing because people who have these innovative ideas for recycling clothes or closing the loop, whichever way you want to talk about it, the ideas usually die at the beginning because they don’t have enough money to bring it forward,” Schmitt said. “It’s my dream to see the clothes that everyone is wearing today become the resources that we use for the fashion of tomorrow and I think that takes technology. I know last year for our Global Change Award we had people making clothes out of algae and orange peels and that gives me hope.”

Per Johnson, if an apparel company has made a commitment to do something but is faced with a challenge, that’s where creativity—and collaboration—must come into play.

“Even if it’s the highest tech piece of clothing that must be suitable for climbing Mount Everest, there is a way of doing it,” he said. “It’s just a challenge to get there but there is so much technology out there in mills, in suppliers and in the places where we make our clothing that if you work closely with them and befriend them and find ways and solutions then it’s all possible.”

Collins agreed: “Don’t wait for someone else to solve it,” he said. “You go find someone to work with. Don’t look at people and say it’s their fault because yes, it’s also yours. There are people that want to work with you. There always are. Ask questions and do something about it yourself. That’s the only way this is going to change.”