What does it mean to be a sustainable fashion brand in 2021?
The fashion industry accounts for nearly 10% of the world’s carbon footprint, and it’s on pace to contribute a whopping 26% by 2050 if nothing changes.
In 2000 the United States generated 9.4 million tons of textile waste. By 2014, it jumped to 16.2 million tons of textile waste, according to McKinsey & Company.
Those numbers are grim. And despite companies like Patagonia fighting climate change in different areas of their business, those numbers raise all sorts of questions, one of which is: what does it look like for regular, everyday brands to be focused on fashion sustainability in 2021?
This is a difficult issue to cover; there is so much nuance to it. There’s no easy way to write about a topic like sustainability in fashion without missing something.
Instead, I’d like to use this piece to highlight some of the ways that clothing brands from around the world are taking on the fight against climate change.
Honesty is the best policy
First things, first. Being a sustainable fashion business is in, at least from an advertising perspective. Brands love promoting how they’re sustainable, but that’s not always the truth. Inês Fressynet, a French/Brazilian fashion writer based in London, agrees that many brands need to be truthful about how sustainable they are.
“Brands can be excellent at marketing their environmental efforts, which is awesome when those efforts are real and can be quantified. Many brands need to be better at banning greenwashing altogether and choosing to be transparent instead, even if they’re seen as less sustainable as a result.”
Greenwashing, what’s that?
It’s a term for brands who falsely lead consumers to believe that their products and practices are more beneficial for the environment than is accurate about their business.
Fressynet contends that transparency is important, even if you’re seen as less sustainable than another brand.
Noah, based in New York City, is one such company. Started by Brendon Babenzien (a former Supreme designer), Noah has played an important role in blending streetwear, surf culture, and prep style into one aesthetic.t
Unlike many brands, Noah is honest about where they’re at with sustainability. They know they have a long way to go.
After a series of articles were published calling Noah a sustainable brand, one in particular titled: “What Makes Noah a Top Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Brand for Men?”, Noah set the record straight with this blog post. Here’s an excerpt:
“We need to set the record straight: Noah is not a sustainable company… the way we operate isn't even close to sustainable… Fashion has become one of the most resource-intensive (both natural and human) industries on earth. Its complex, global supply chain has far-reaching effects that are almost impossible to quantify. It produces stupefying amounts of waste on both sides of the producer/consumer divide.”
This is a bold statement from a brand that could’ve taken the praise and moved on, but they didn’t. They addressed the claims, highlighting how they’ve failed and are committed to being better.
Easier said than done, but some businesses are trying, and being honest about where you’re at is the best place to start.
T-shirts, made to order
One way to combat climate change is by making products without holding inventory. Son of a Tailor (out of Copenhagen, Denmark) has managed to scale this approach.
Founder and CEO Jess Fleischer had the idea for this business almost a decade before deciding to launch it. With a technical background in engineering and manufacturing, Jess gradually noticed how much waste existed in the industry.
“When I looked at the clothing industry, I saw an industry supported by a 100-year-old supply chain. Mass amounts of fast-fashion garments are produced without being sold. At the same time, eCommerce has perpetuated a habit of ‘order and return’ which puts immense pressure on inventories and creates even more waste through Co2 emissions.”
Fleischer attributes Toyota’s “LEAN Manufacturing” philosophy as part of the reason why he started Son of a Tailor, where “instead of mass producing, you treat each garment as the production unit, then you design production around that.”
Sounds great, but convincing factories of this approach early on was challenging. They tested out a number of factories and countries before settling in Portugal, but the initial question they got from factories was always: what’s your minimum order quantity?
“We were turned down many times. Eventually, one factory restructured their processes around single-garment production, and that changed everything for us.”
Jess and the team recognize they have work to do, but they’re also making progress with a nimble team.
They’re focused on removing waste from start-to-finish by “bringing washing machines into our facilities to reduce wait times and unnecessary transportation, resulting in lower emissions, certifying our office to be carbon neutral, and using biodegradable packaging.”
Because their products are made to order and custom-fit, returns are lower than the norm. For context, their average return rate is ~4% vs. the European retailer Zalando, reporting ~50%. With their use of 3D knitting, their latest offering, Jess and the team plan to reduce their production waste to less than 1%, compared to an industry average of around 20%.
Son of a Tailor wants to properly nurture fashion’s four stakeholders: customers, garment workers, the planet, and their business.
Yes, they’re a business, but it’s bigger than turning a profit to them. Ultimately, it’s about fostering a human connection between the clothing and those who make the clothing.
Similar to Son of a Tailor, unspun is another “zero-inventory” business leveraging technology to reduce obscene amounts of waste in the manufacturing process.
They’re a tech company disguised as a denim brand.
They built and maintained a nearly fully automated technology that designs and optimizes the fit of every pair of jeans digitally- before its even made. The result is a beautiful pair of jeans. When you place an order on their website, you use their mobile app to 3D scan your body; their machinery factors your scan (along with height, weight, etc.) to kick start production.
Co-founder trio Kevin Martin, Beth Esponette, and Walden Lam launched unspun with a goal to create a business that would reduce carbon emissions globally by 1% through holding zero inventory and reduced fabric cutting waste.
They don’t care too much about winning big on seasonal trends either. “Because we’re made-to-order,” says Esponette, “we don't have to predict what styles and sizes will sell. We’re putting the power back into the customer's hands. For us, it's not about pushing out the next thing. It's bigger than that.”
And they’ve got more than one tool in their arsenal to accomplish that. Beyond their consumer brand that lets anyone buy custom-fit jeans, unspun is also growing relationships with large retailers like HM, extending unspun’s patented automation technology to them.
“We are setting the stage for how the industry should produce garments and how consumers should consume.”
unspun is well on its way, and while they don’t have 3D weaving fully automated yet, they expect 3D weaving to be a competitive advantage for growing and sustaining the business.
The circularity of fashion
Some clothing brands are trying to weave sustainability into their model one aspect at a time (such as A.P.C. Paris and Noah with their recycling-for-store-credit programs), while others are trying to factor sustainability into every area of their business from start-to-finish. Nisolo, based out of Nashville Tennessee, is a great example of this.
Nisolo designs footwear, from boots and heels, to mules and sandals. Instead of just sourcing recycled materials, or only paying their employees in Peru (where their factory is located) a fair wage, Nisolo is working tirelessly to build a business built on circularity.
Here are four things they’re focusing on with their business:
- Design-side: When choosing and sourcing materials at the design process, they leverage both upcycled and recycled materials to reduce waste.
- Supply-side: 95% of their leather uppers come from Leather Working Group Certified tanneries. These tanneries carry the highest standards of quality and are known for being environmentally responsible.
- Factory-side: Nisolo installed solar panels on the roof of their factory in Perus to help reduce their carbon footprint, something that’s rare to see with most factories.
- Waste-side: They launched a Shoe Reclamation Program, incentivizing their customers to donate their old products instead of sending them to, an initiative that upcycles and recycles certain aspects of a shoe while also offering employment opportunities to people in developing countries helping repurpose those materials.
The company has publicly stated its mission is to “maintain 0% net carbon emissions through measuring, reducing, and offsetting 100% of carbon emissions from the start of our supply chain to our customers’ doorsteps.”
For the critics who say it’s too difficult to achieve circularity, Nisolo would like to have a word.
Building for an audience of a few
Shifting gears a bit, let’s head back to Scandinavia, where John Sterner lives. John Sterner the brand, not the person. Founded a few years ago by Alexander Stutterheim, JS is an experiment in building things slowly.
Today, the idea of building a consumer brand slowly is non-existent, especially when so many DTC brands opt for VC funding, which quickens the pressure to scale and become profitable. Pair that with the need to increase supply chain margins as much as one can, and factories mass-produce goods that go out of style by the next season.
It can be a drug for many founders. But, Alexander is choosing to operate differently. In an interview with Vogue, he shared this philosophy around why he’s building this brand:
“For me, to justify another brand in this world, it must have something else than really good designed sweaters and this sell, sell, sell mentality… Could a brand have values to do something for society? Can we work against mass production and this throwaway society we live in? Is there a place for a brand that could challenge the industry…?”
So, Alexander tried this out. He packed his things and found a quaint cottage on the quiet island of Öland (south of Stockholm) to craft his grand vision: knitwear. Or, as he calls it, Swedish Knitology.
He calls John Sterner a modern luxury brand. Every product is handmade in limited quantities and knitted with love from sheep’s wool at the highest quality.
His products are exclusive and can be difficult to find, mostly because they don’t make enough products to serve a mass audience. And it seems Alexander wants it this way because ultimately, John Sterner is about taking care of the earth.
“Were he alive today, my grandfather would say we live too fast. Too fast to appreciate life, to enjoy real feelings on our skin and in our heart.”
Slow. We could use more brands with a philosophy like that.
Buying in haste
Speaking of slow, another brand worth highlighting is Paynter, a company based out of London. They make limited-edition jackets 4 times a year, and each one is different than the previous one.
I enjoyed interviewing Becky Okell and Huw Thomas (co-founders) recently, where they spoke about bringing meaning back to clothing. When asked what they mean by that, here’s what Odell had to say:
“People too often buy in haste without thinking, and then an item sits unworn for years, only to be thrown out. The wastefulness of that cycle is grim. By creating made-to-order jackets, we’re “no waste,” which is great, and what’s even more exciting is changing people’s perceptions about how things are made. We send our customers weekly updates from the factory where it’s made, so they know what goes into making their product. By the time their jacket arrives, they’ve already formed a deep connection to it. Our customers tell us that that experience has changed the way they buy stuff.”
It’s about more than just turning a profit.
Like Son of a Tailor, making products is about reframing the way someone buys, helping them form a connection to that product instead of just buying in haste.
Where are we headed?
Beyond the buzzword that “sustainability” represents in fashion, one that many businesses like to market themselves as being, true sustainability requires circularity, which Esponette describes as a flywheel, where inputs = outputs = inputs.
Her benchmarks are high, stating, “Waste should be zero. Pollution should not be harmful in any way or contribute to climate change. Resource-use should be regenerative and balanced with the earth's natural material regeneration, and energy use should use zero-emission energy sources.”
Fleischer agrees although he argues that brands should get more granular about what they would like to help solve... “If you try to solve water problems, fabric waste, carbon emissions, air pollution, social responsibility, and more, all at once, you will struggle. Instead, it’s better to focus on one problem you can solve and then go for it. Be hard on yourself, and track how you perform against it.”
Wise words from those who live in the trenches of the fashion industry every day.
It’s a long road to circularity for brands, though they are well on their way. If you’re a brand that’s nowhere near this level of sustainability, perhaps being honest with your customers about where you are is a great place to start.
That’s when the real work begins.