Type the words ‘future’ and ‘fashion’ into any search engine, and you’ll get a stream of results on 3-D printing, wearable technology and e-commerce websites – sustainability is but a mere mention. Yet, the S-word has undeniably made its way into the modern apparel-making process and increasingly influences what lands on runways and store racks.
Through innovative business practices, the fashion industry has come a long way in improving environmental and social conditions along complex global supply chains. Still, it has a way to go. A brief look into the industry’s storied past illuminates how corporate style setters have responded to shifting consumer demands, market trends and natural resource constraints over the years – signaling what the future of sustainable fashion might hold.
Back in 2011, Letitia Webster, now senior director of global sustainability for VF Corp., was asked to start and lead the company’s global sustainability program. This involved creating a framework to align sustainability efforts across the corporation’s 30 brands, including The North Face, Timberland and Vans.
To accomplish this task, Webster looked closely at waste, energy and water issues connected to the production of the brands’ diverse products. During her assessment, she noted the great environmental impact of the chemicals used throughout the manufacturing process. That observation sparked the eventual creation of CHEM-IQ, VF’s new chemical management program launched with pilot factories in 2013 and set to scale across the corporation’s entire supply chain this year.
As college football season drew to a close, fans were certainly more fixed on the final score of the championship than on the “made in” label on the back of their college T-shirts and hoodies. Take a closer look at your (or your kid’s) college sweatshirt, though, and you’ll discover a college apparel company with values at its core.
In an industry that manufactures most of its apparel in developing countries that pay garment workers a little more than subsistence wages, Alta Gracia Apparel – a clothing factory in the Dominican Republic that pays employees 300 percent above the legal minimum wage – is a one-of-a-kind social enterprise.
Through a partnership with Follet Corp., one of the nation’s largest campus retailers, Alta Gracia Apparel makes college T-shirts, sweaters and sweatshirts for more than 350 U.S. colleges. Alta Gracia gear is sold in more than 800 college bookstores across the country.
The four-year-old company, owned by South Carolina-based sports apparel giant Knights Apparel, is the only apparel factory in a developing country to pay workers a living wage, maintain high health and safety factory conditions, and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with a workers’ union. And all of these accomplishments have been verified by the independent labor rights organization Worker Rights Consortium.
We’ve all been there before (or know someone who has): We’re strolling through our neighborhood mall and our eyes catch a glimpse of glossy signs inviting us to escape into a land of cotton and polyester. Dresses $8.99! Sweaters $9.99! Jeans $14.99! Once we step inside the brightly lit, chandeliered store, the mounds of perfectly folded garments, seductively postured manikins and catchy pop music have us hooked. Before we know it, we’re checking out at the register with a bag of reasonably priced clothes that we never planned on buying – and we’ve only spent $35. How can we resist?
For a generation of budget-conscious millennial shoppers, popping into stores like Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo and Zara – that offer trendy clothes at low prices – has become par for the course. In 2013 alone, those four fast fashion retailers generated a combined $48 billion in global sales. And a recent report by the financial services firm Cowen Group forecasts that fast fashion sales will increase 11 percent year-over-year through 2020.
The realized growth in the fast fashion market has been astounding – and it’s leaving conventional apparel retailers in the dust. The traditional apparel model of selling seasonal lines of clothing, manufactured and marketed months in advance, has been replaced by these bargain brands that rapidly respond to the latest fashion trends and live by just-in-time production. As a whole, consumers have been loving it; yet, recent events have shed light on questionable aspects of fast fashion’s modus operandi that are prompting some consumers to think twice about purchasing those $5 T-shirts.
New York City’s apparel manufacturing sector is about to get a makeover: To reignite local fashion manufacturing and spur economic development, the city recently announced it will invest $3.5 million to help launch the fashion incubator Manufacture New York, a co-location center with sustainability in its DNA.
Founded by Bob Bland, a Brooklyn-based fashion designer, entrepreneur and community organizer, Manufacture NY will be the country’s first fully-integrated facility with on-site, on-demand manufacturing – taking the term “Made in the USA” to the next level. Part production hub, part incubator, part learning lab, part R&D lab, the 160,000-square-foot Brooklyn facility will advance sustainably-minded research, design and manufacturing for emerging designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs in apparel, textiles and wearable tech.
Just as fast food chains have fueled Americans’ hunger for more, bigger, faster when it comes to what we put in our bodies, fast fashion brands increasingly beguile shoppers the world over with options of what to put on our bodies. Over the past decade, rapidly made garments – sold at low prices and manufactured at even lower price points – have proliferated shopping centers across the nation. In some fast fashion shops, consumers can even buy an outfit for the price of a Happy Meal.
Consumers’ fascination with stores such as Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo and Zara isn’t rocket science – who wouldn’t want to buy the latest trends for a fraction of the cost? Why pay $100 for a sweater, when you can get a near-replica for only $25? That’s how most shoppers understand fast fashion.
And that’s why earlier this year, fast fashion forefather Forever 21 opened the concept test store F21 Red, which boasts starting price points as low as $1.80 (selling $3.80 T-shirts, $5.80 leggings, and $7.80 denim jeans). Consumers are eating it up. Fast fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it’s growing. Already, Forever 21 operates 600 stores worldwide – and the company plans to double its global presence by 2017 – while Zara has 1,800 locations and H&M owns 3,400 stores. Annual revenue for those companies has risen by the billions in the past years, a significant contrast to the slow decline of the traditional apparel retail market.
Rather than follow the traditional apparel model of selling seasonal lines of clothing, manufactured and marketed months in advance, these bargain brands rapidly respond to the latest fashion trends, quickly address consumer demands, and live by just-in-time production. As a result, consumers get more, faster: A fast fashion shopper can get a dress, two scarves, a shirt and pants for the price of only one sweater from a traditional retailer.
While this model may be good for consumers’ pocket books and closets, incidents such as the collapse of Rana Plaza and the unnaturally dyed polluted rivers of China have shown that making clothes using low-cost labor in environmentally unregulated developing countries can come at great costs. What is the antidote to this apparel paradox?
When you hear the words “locally grown,” images of leafy-green-lined farmer’s markets, multi-colored CSA boxes, and interestingly odd-shaped heirloom tomatoes may come to mind – and not necessarily a piece of clothing. Borrowing a cue from the local food movement, The North Face has developed an all-cotton hoodie that was grown, designed, cut and sewn within 150 miles of its corporate headquarters in California. The Backyard Hoodie, as it’s called, is the first in The North Face’s Backyard Collection, a line of products manufactured in the United States using locally sourced materials and resources.
The limited-edition men’s and women’s sweatshirt represents the brand’s commitment to connect with its regional textile supply chain and build products with local roots that have a positive local impact – a significant feat not common within the global apparel industry. In collaboration with the organizations Fibershed, Foxfibre, and the Sustainable Cotton Project, The North Face sourced the cotton used to make the Backyard Hoodie from California farmers who implement biologically-based practices that protect land, air and water resources and result in improved water and air quality, healthier soil, and reduced chemical exposure for farm workers and rural communities.
Beyond the source material, the Backyard Hoodie’s design was also intentional: Motivated to reduce waste, designers accounted for excess fabric in the design process and consequently lowered the hoodie’s waste percentage below the apparel industry average. This type of apparel production gives a new meaning to conscious design. I spoke with Adam Mott, director of sustainability at The North Face, to hear more about the making of the product from seed to sweatshirt, and why a locally grown product like this matters.
When the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory took the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh last year, the world’s eyes were fixed on what multinational apparel companies would do to ensure that a similar tragedy would not reoccur.
In the wake of the calamity, agreements to improve factory working conditions – such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the corporate-led initiative the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – were created, building retrofits and renovations were jump-started, and reparations were made. Notwithstanding the progress that Western companies, labor unions and local government continue to make to secure safe working conditions Bangladesh, several social enterprises are helping to advance the sustainability of the global apparel supply chain beyond safety compliance and toward a considered focus on business ROI and social impact.
The multi-trillion dollar global apparel industry – of which Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporter (after China) – employs about 25 million garment factory workers, 80 percent of which are women. Historically, the conditions at a factory such as Rana Plaza have been less than ideal: Workers endure low wages, long hours and unexpected changes in daily schedules. Even more, in most societies that are home to low-wage garment factories, workers are culturally discouraged to complain when working conditions are trying – especially if you are a woman. Unfortunately, those cultural barriers and lack of communication channels have often been costly for factories. (Evidence suggests that Rana Plaza could have been avoided if factory management had listened to worker concerns.)
Organizations such as LaborVoices work to prevent just that. Using basic mobile phone technology, LaborVoices provides a platform for garment factory workers from various countries (as well as workers in other industries) to provide real-time feedback about working conditions at specific sites: Employees can call or text a dedicated line 24/7, free of charge, to anonymously complete a brief survey and also have the option to leave a voice recording with anecdotal feedback. This valuable information is then shared with apparel brands and factory management to help them solve problems in their supply chain before they become bigger issues.
LaborVoices not only gives workers a voice, literally, and supports supply chain transparency – it’s also a useful business tool.
While big apparel brands ramp up production of a slew of fashions to gear up for the holiday season, Zady, the e-commerce curator of sustainably made womenswear, menswear and accessories, is set to launch its own collection of ethical styles for the holidays — with one slight difference: It will only sell one item.
In the spirit of slow fashion, the New York-based startup plans to release items from its first collection one-at-a-time in the coming months. The initial private label piece, which will become available on their site in the coming weeks, is a knit wool sweater that was entirely designed and manufactured in the United States.
Zady prides itself in offering high-quality clothes and home goods that are made to last and provide an alternative to the world of disposable, fast fashion. Its new Essential Collection is an extension of that endeavor.
Farm to Closet
Self-described as the “Whole Foods of fashion,” Zady has built an online destination that does more than simply sell local, organic and ethically made products — it espouses conscious living and engages consumers in each product’s journey from farm to closet.
“Whole Foods is massively successful because there’s a consumer who is awakening,” said Maxine Bédat, Zady’s co-founder. “The conversation is changing. Whole Foods pushed organic food into the forefront, and now Walmart carries organic food. We’re reaching out to a community of people who want to buy beautiful products and feel good about it.”
Buyers of the new Essential Collection sweater have much to feel good about: The knit is made with natural fibers and low impact dyes, and it’s made by manufacturers who treat their employees well.
Another value that shoppers can revel in with Zady’s new collection is that all products are completely made in the U.S. The wool for the sweater, for example, was grown in Shaniko, Oregon, treated in Jamestown, South Carolina, dyed in Philadelphia, and manufactured in Southern California.
An early adopter of organic cotton and the first major brand to bring Fair Trade apparel to market, prAna has now joined the growing list of beloved green brands (think Annie’s Homegrown, Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine) to be gobbled up by the big guys. The California-based lifestyle brand best known for its climbing and yoga apparel was recently acquired by Columbia Sportswear – a move that will not only help the parent company, a historically cold-weather sports brand, expand its offering, but will also fortify the smaller brand with an operations platform that can help its sustainability mantra reach new global markets.
PrAna’s commitment to sustainability has set it apart from the rest from the start. In its early days, prAna’s founders would cut and sew clothing in their garage, craft hangtags made with homemade recycled paper, and ship orders to customers in boxes gathered from the local grocery store. The company was also an early proponent of renewable energy within the apparel industry, pioneering wind power through its Natural Power Initiative, for which it was recognized as an EPA Green Power Partner. PrAna has come a long way from making its garments in garages and delivering clothes in fruit boxes – today the company’s products are sold at 1,400 specialty retailers across the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia and its sales are expected to hit more than $100 million this year. All of this is expected to continue to grow in the wake of Columbia’s acquisition. The question on everybody’s minds is: “Will this acquisition change the company’s commitment to sustainability?”
In an age when more and more socially and environmentally responsible companies are being bought to help diversify big corporate portfolios, what can we learn from a company that has woven sustainability into its business from day one and has consistently sought to strike a fine balance between commerce and idealism? I spoke with prAna CEO Scott Kerslake to hear more about what this new corporate partnership will mean to a company named after the ancient Sanskrit word for “life force,” and how the brand has set its intention to keep it real.
Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit dedicated to sustainability in the apparel and textile industry, announced today that leading fashion, footwear and outdoor brands, including H&M and Eddie Bauer, will join The North Face in adopting the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) – a third-party certified animal welfare and traceability standard that upholds the ethical treatment of animals along the down and feather supply chain. The North Face initially worked with Textile Exchange and Control Union Certification, an accredited third-party certification body, to design version 1.0 of the standard, which was launched earlier this year.
Upon completion of the RDS in January 2014, The North Face gifted the standard to Textile Exchange to administer and evolve it as needed, as well as work with more brands and down suppliers to implement the standard. As part of this effort, Textile Exchange is evolving the standard through a stakeholder feedback process that includes input from brands and NGOs such as Adidas, Outdoor European Group, Outdoor Industry Association, and Four Paws.
“As more brands adopt the RDS, it will bring improved animal welfare conditions and better traceability in the down supply chain at a much larger scale than any one organization or one supply chain could accomplish alone,” said Anne Gillespie, Director of Industry Integrity of Textile Exchange.
Down and feathers that are used in apparel, bedding and home goods are traditionally sourced from geese and duck that are grown for the food industry — and in recent years animal welfare groups have raised concerns about live-plucking and force-feeding practices found among certain suppliers. In response, Textile Exchange and its partners worked with a diverse set of stakeholders and did extensive research, including visiting the sourcing regions in remote areas of Europe and Asia, to fully understand conditions and address issues along the global down supply chain in its creation of the standard.
Day-to-day, a rotating list of companies announce their latest efforts to set new sustainability industry standards, from game-changing initiatives such as Walmart’s Sustainability Index and Puma’s triple bottom line accounting system to a spectrum of brands broadcasting new metrics, programs or platforms that advance their corporate sustainability goals. Setting the pace for industry-leading change has become an industry standard. While this type of leadership is commendable (and necessary), it does not always guarantee systemic change. This is one important distinction between two standards recently launched by two outdoor apparel giants: Patagonia’s Traceable Down Standard and The North Face’s Responsible Down Standard.
Patagonia, which launched its new standard last November and announced that from fall 2014 forward all its down-insulated products will contain only 100 percent “traceable down,” is certainly an exemplar of all-things-good for the outdoor and apparel industry. As Patagonia has done in the past with its commitment to organic cotton and recycled polyester, the company hopes its new down traceability standard will “inspire other companies to look closely at their own down supply chains and utilize the model.”
When you’re at a music festival, ears attuned to pulsating drum beats and hypnotic vocals, the last thing on your mind is saving Mother Earth. Yet, a growing number of music festivals across the country – and world – are going to great lengths to go green. From investing in carbon offsets to promoting waste diversion and offering attendees locally sourced food, beer and wine, large-scale music events from Tennessee to California are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. All this is good and well, but the most sustainable step that music festivals can take has nothing to do with going green.
I recently had the opportunity to think through how the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, a festival that takes place in San Francisco’s historic Golden Gate Park every year, could take their commitment to sustainability to the next level.
More articles on the controversy surrounding bottled water can be found here!
On a recent walk along New York City’s Union Square Park, I came across a beautiful sight: walking in 95-degree humid heat, I saw fountains and fountains of cold, clean, and free drinking water. A city employee, wearing a ‘NYC Water’ t-shirt, urged me to hydrate and drink some of “the best tap water in the world.” Not used to such humidity and heat, I took this as a much-welcomed request (I live in San Francisco where it is 60 degrees as I write this).
After some prolonged gulps, I heard the man explain the virtues of New York City’s tap water: “It’s Healthy, It’s Affordable, It’s Green, and It’s Convenient.” New Yorkers profess that their tap water is indeed “the purest and tastiest” in the world. This summer, the New York Department of the Environment is rolling out an environmental education campaign on city streets to inform residents of just that–and to discourage people from buying bottled water.
More and more, company websites are becoming dynamic educational tools that businesses can use to communicate their sustainability strategy to stakeholders. As a recent report published by AltaTerra Research reveals, corporate marketing and stakeholder communication are evolving in interesting ways. The report analyzes the evolution of corporate sustainability reporting and evaluates how sustainable business leaders are communicating their sustainability strategy online.
AltaTerra Research hosted a webinar yesterday in which it reviewed key findings from its recent report, entitled “Greening the Company Website: A New Era in Online Sustainability Reporting.” During the webinar Jaclyn Pitera, senior research analyst and lead report author, presented her research findings while Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact at Starbucks, shared best practices for sustainability reporting and stakeholder engagement from his experience with the Starbucks Shared Planet website.