Starting Points of Sustainability

A Bellwether Insight

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Sustainability can be a heavy topic. There is so much information out there, everyone is looking for a starting place, and the media is telling us to ‘act now.’ But, you may be scratching your head asking, “How?” These starting points of sustainability will help you out.

The road to a sustainable future requires effort. You need to educate yourself, educate your workforce, partner with your old suppliers while finding new ones, convince your customer that it’s all worth it; and, let’s not forgot, develop more sustainable product that not only makes your customer happy but (dare we say) makes money. Yikes…ok…deep breath. You can do this…one step at a time.

Download our free checklist for sustainable product development.

We wanted to write this particular post to help you find quick wins. In our opinion, these are the top six things you can do to say “Alright…I think I have a handle on sustainability now and can continue on this path.” So, let’s dive in…

Reduce what you buy

We wanted to start with the controversial one. You and your customers need to stop buying so many things. We know! It’s almost laughable to say “Stop buying our product!” But, trust us… you won’t lose money in the long run; and, what you will gain is a true sense of ‘value.’ Every time we buy a product, there is a trail of environmental and human impacts that lay behind it. If a single pair of jeans takes 2,000 gallons of water to create, then why should we be telling people to buy 20 pairs of jeans? Instead, we need to find ways to create the most value in our products, and then get the most value out of the products we use. How?

First, focus on increasing the durability of your product. Durability refers to making sure a garment is high quality and will not fail in a way that makes the garment not usable, like ripping or becoming misshapen after laundering. We can use certain techniques to increase the durability of a garment, and thus increase the lifetime of a garment. The UK-based fashion charity WRAP has created a set of standards to do this and you will want to consider each guideline when designing and developing your product. These are physical attributes, like constructing the garment to be strong and making sure the customer knows how to care for it; and, emotional attributes, like if the garment is comfortable and the style is timeless.

Second, provide some ways for people to reuse of resell your garment. If we need to reduce what we buy, then we need to gain the most value out of what we do buy. Thankfully we are in a time where this is much easier to implement, due to the rise of resale website. McKinsey & Company expects the resale market to outpace fast fashion within the next 10 years. That means plenty of infrastructure and examples for you to build your own recycle & reuse program or take advantage of someone else’s. The RealReal, StockX, ThreadUp and more all provide ways to resell or offload unsold product. You can also partner with organizations like Oxfam, who will take in the clothing, and then either resell it, donate it or recycle it.

These are just two example of how we are seeking to find ‘shared value’ for our products and business practices. Shared value is where people, the planet and profits all work together so that everyone can get the most value our of your business. Ahh…that sounds nice.

Use recycled materials & ‘whole’ fabrics

The impact of the fashion industry’s waste are staggering, with many consumers and brands alike not knowing what to do with all the waste we produce. About 87% of clothing ends up in a landfill, according to Fashionopolis. That is about one garbage truck of clothes every second. Yes, we were also shocked.

What we put into this landfill of clothing is also a problem. We have moved, as an industry, from ‘whole’ fabrics, like a 100% cotton t-shirt or a 100% linen pant, to the extreme use of ‘blended’ fabrics, like a 95%/5% cotton/spandex t-shirt or a 60%/40% linen/viscose pant. Once we add a different fiber into the fabric, it often cannot be recycled easily, or at all.

One of the biggest things we can do during design and development is to use a ‘whole’ fabric wherever possible. But, when that isn’t possible, consider using recycled materials. If you are using synthetics, look for rPET (recycled polyester), or branded products like Econyl, which uses plastics bottles recycled from the ocean to make virgin nylon. Zegna has highlighted their use of recycled polyester in their #UseTheExisting campaign.

For animal fibers, recycled cashmere continues to grow in popularity with brands like Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher; and, fiber suppliers like Re.Verso. Recycled cotton has not become fully realized in a closed-loop system (where it can be recycled over and over again) like some synthetics and animal fibers. Innovations in mechanically-recycled cotton will need to be discovered in the future.

Partner with like-minded brands

Community is one of the most powerful things you can build around your brand. For your brand, creating a community can help educate new customers while nurturing current ones. For your business operations, creating a community can educate your workforce and nurture your business goals.

Common Objective provides a database of suppliers, organizations, brands, consultants and more that you can use to find materials, manufacturing and information about sustainable business practices. The Fashion Pact and the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action brought together hundreds of companies that used the UN Sustainable Development Goals to create a timeline of sustainability goals. This type of community helps push the industry as a whole to become more sustainable, and learn from each other’s challenges and wins.

Another thing to consider is enrolling in the B-Corp program. The non-profit B Lab has created a set of standards for environmental impacts, social protections and transparency reporting. You can take a quiz on their website, get a score-based improvement plan and then network with businesses who have done the same. They will even certify you as a B-corp so you can prove that you are going more sustainable. Allbirds, Patagonia, Frank & Oak, and Bombas are just a few brands that use these standards to operate their business everyday. A recent integration of the UN Sustainable Development Goals into B-Corp’s database makes it even easier to keep up with the industry’s big players.

Partner with your supply chain

This starting point of sustainability is particularly important — without your suppliers you don’t have product. While a new fashion business has the luxury of finding sustainable suppliers from the beginning, many businesses are left to transform their current processes to become more sustainable. This means asking yourself: ‘Do I still work with this supplier? Do I get rid of a relationship that helped grow my business?’ The answer doesn’t always need to be ‘Yes.’

For years, suppliers have been finding ways to become more efficient, mostly for cost-savings, but their impacts are also reduced. Ask your suppliers what they are already doing and then how you can help. Sometimes it’s as easy as finding a different fiber supplier for your mill, or using a different shipper from your factory to your store, or working with your current shipping supplier to find more sustainable ways to transport. Other times you will need to help invest in your biggest suppliers to help them become more sustainable. Nike has invested countless dollars into their factories to help them use rooftop solar panels for renewable energy and instituted Environment Minimum Programs to help factory’s implement ‘minimum’ sustainability practices to do business.

We must also address the (white) elephant in the room: how we often crunch our vendor’s margins by nickel-and-diming every SKU. Lower margins mean less money, to not only invest in sustainability, but also fairly pay workers. It means that vendors are more likely to cut corners to deliver your products quickly and cheaply. This process get’s pushed down the line to their suppliers as well, and will absolutely have a very big social and environmental impact.

Commitments vs Actions

Remember every New Year’s Eve when you say, “I’m going to lose 10 lbs by February,” or, “I’m going to start holding doors open for people?” Me either…and not because I didn’t say those things, but because someone just held the door open for me as I was carrying all the groceries I need to make several dozen batches of Ina Garten’s famous ‘outrageous brownies.’ Commitments always sound exciting. They make us feel like we are actually doing something. But, all too often, we do not actually follow through with them.

Throughout your journey as a business, you will be making commitments…and remaking them…and either completing them or silently erasing them from the Mission page on your website. But, remember, when you don’t actually work towards fulfilling what you promised, the positive impacts never happen. We must, as an industry, make sure that we are setting clear, measurable and achievable commitments; and, that we make actionable plans to follow through with them.

Educate yourself

If you are reading this, then congrats! You are already educating yourself on sustainability! But, you aren’t done here. Throughout your sustainability journey you will be constantly educating yourself on what’s happening now, what’s happening in the future and where you fit in.

Download our free checklist for sustainable product development.

The education doesn’t stop with you, either — but that’s a great first step. By educating yourself on sustainability, you can then share that information with your employees, suppliers, shareholders and customers. You’ll need to educate them about why we are looking at sustainability, what the current impacts are, where we need to focus and what the everyday person can do to help. Most businesses find themselves lost and the average person doesn’t quite know what they need to do to have a positive impact. Find ways to engage them in learning and also educate them on your sustainably-minded products and what you are doing to become a more sustainable organization.

And, that’s exactly why we created our Sustainability Basics for Fashion Business course, so you can start building your path towards a more sustainable future. We expanded on the starting points of sustainability to create four separate courses that will teach you the current impacts of fashion and strategies for business operations, product development and marketing. Head over to the courses section of our site to take a look.

A note from Benjamin Bellwether: On July 27th, 2020, we removed all references to the brand Everlane from this article. While we do research and look for brands that follow through with their sustainability goals, we know that sometimes that doesn’t come to fruition (or never actually happened). We also know that we are only as good as the information we find, and that when that information changes or a light is shed on the wrongdoings of a brand, we need to make sure to address it. You can find more about the racism and greenwashing at Everlane in this NYT article.