It isn’t easy being green — especially when there’s less green around. Experts in organic textiles and the environmental movement warn that cutbacks in corporate social responsibility are likely to be part of belt-tightening measures undertaken by manufacturers as the recession takes hold. Participants at the Organic Exchange Global Conference and Marketplace held in Porto, Portugal, this month suggested the apparel industry’s drive to sustainability can still bloom in today’s harsh economic climate.
Still, the organic industry’s time-old conundrum — how to achieve price parity with conventional goods — has never been more critical. Goods with a price premium may remain highly niche, warned Nick Chiarelli, director of consumer trends at GfK Roper Consulting, which, in a study conducted six months ago, found that apparel is one of the first things Americans will spend less on.
The key is to make green products financially as well as morally compelling, he said, suggesting retailers may have to take a hit on margins.
“Our market research says our customer is very happy to play a part in helping the environment, but they’re not prepared to pay additionally for that — especially in the current market climate,” said Phil Chamberlain, head of sourcing for price-conscious retailer C&A Europe, which sells organic and conventional products with similar price tags.
A case in point: Luxury apparel line Edun has taken a 25 percent hit in department store sales, whereas its lower-priced secondary line Edun Live is up 29 percent, according to chief executive officer Christian Kemp-Griffin.
To ride out the helter-skelter economy, Edun is diversifying its approach to retail. E-commerce sites like the U.K.’s Adili are increasingly important for the brand. It’s also testing innovative retail concepts to shift leftover inventory. It introduced a pop-up concept — one opening in San Francisco with a second slated for Los Angeles in November. “It’s an interesting financial move, for us, it limits our risk,” Kemp-Griffin said.
Likewise, luxury fashion label Noir has diversified with a diffusion line dubbed Bllack Noir, which was picked up by Harvey Nichols and Seibu this season. That collection, which is in a lower price bracket than Noir, has helped boost the Danish company’s business 145 percent over last year.
“When it comes to Bllack Noir, newness is the key driver for retailers and consumers, so we have had a good start,” said Peter Ingwersen, Noir’s founder and ceo.
Indeed, many remain confident sustainable textiles offer apparel the added value to tempt consumers to part with their dwindling supply of cash.
“Consumers are looking for reasons not to buy,” said Marci Zaroff, founder and president of organic fashion and home label Under the Canopy, whose sales have doubled to an estimated $10 million this year. “The whole organic movement makes the consumer feel good about what they’re buying.”
In the lower market, organic and ethical labels are proving popular as means for supermarkets and high street retailers to lure reluctant consumers to open their pocketbooks.
“High street retailers with falling sales are finding ways to innovate and they’re finding an organic collection is new and topical and relevant,” said Sarah Compson, business development officer at the U.K.’s organic certifier The Soil Association, which has seen a 58 percent rise in applicants for organic textile certification so far this year. “In some ways the credit crunch is working in organic’s favor.”
At New Look, sales of organic cotton, plus knitwear, denim, linen and twill, which are new to the U.K. retailer this season, have beaten targets.
“It’s rare to have a product left in the [organic] section,” said Xavier Wilmes, New Look’s director of France and Belgium.
“Customer feedback [suggests] they want to buy into organic product, but that the easier we make it the more likely they are going to buy,” added Anna Greig, the chain’s organic and eco-buyer.
It’s a similar story at fast-fashion behemoth H&M. The chain more than doubled its use of organic cotton this year to 3,000 tons. It also introduced organic and recycled wool as well as recycled polyester this fall. Though organic garments sell at a premium, they are still within H&M price levels. “It makes it possible for customers to buy green fashion even during an economic slowdown,” a spokeswoman said.
Independent fashion boutiques are likewise weathering the storm. Though growth has slowed slightly this year at Sweden’s House of Organic, strong sales of stalwarts such as France’s Veja sneakers, Norway’s Fin and Sweden’s Righteous drove business up between 6 and 7 percent over 2007. “I think the fact that this economic slowdown makes people think more before they spend is resulting in better choices all over,” said owner Johanna Hofring. “A lot of pure impulse buying doesn’t happen.”
The retailer, which has stores in Stockholm and New York, will open a Parisian unit in 2009 while across the channel in London, Love Life Story, a concept combining an eco-fashion store, restaurant and beauty salon, will open next year.
At the marketplace in Porto, however, several suppliers said demand, particularly from high-end players, is slowing down. “We hear from [potential customers], ‘the market is slow, we have to think about it, we will come back, let’s see and calculate,’” said Paul Schnepf, managing director of Swiss high-end yarn manufacturer Hermann Bühler AG, whose organic yarn deliveries have dropped by 50 percent in the last few months.
Swiss organic cotton supplier Remei AG said orders had fallen from clients like French mass retailer Monoprix this year.
Others were upbeat. “Two customers have asked that we move out deliveries by a few weeks, but that’s been the extent of it,” said David Basson, president of Seattle-based organic garment supplier Greensource, whose clients, which include Macy’s Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., haven’t reduced their orders.
Recalling that many environmental departments were disbanded during the Eighties recession, consultant John Elkington, co-founder of Volans Ventures and SustainAbility, warned that as the recession deepens, some firms may drop CSR efforts altogether. “With the squeeze companies are facing, we’ll see cutbacks,” he predicted. In a time of great economic volatility, however, nobody wants surprises, declared Rebecca Calahan-Klein, director of programs at the Organic Exchange, pointing to brand image and sales losses due to environmental or social scandals.
“What you will see is the companies who are taking a very organized, strategic approach [to sustainability] will continue while those who have looked at it as a seasonal fad or just a marketing thing will drop out,” said Esther Verburg, Benelux general manager at the Dutch consultancy Made-By.
Take H&M, which has pledged to use 50 percent more organic materials every year for the next five years, and has questioned the sustainability of using 12.5 percent more raw materials on average every year. “The challenge is how to decouple the growth of the company with the growth of raw materials,” said Henrik Lampa, environmental supply chain manager.
The crisis will bring about fundamental changes in consumption that will benefit those companies that have invested in green or sustainable, said Edun’s Kemp-Griffin.
Such investment may prove vital for those who are in the enviable position of already being seen to be green. Some 76 percent of shoppers at Recreational Equipment Inc., for instance, rated the outdoor retailer as having a “very good” CSR performance, yet a full two-thirds couldn’t name a single environmental or social initiative. “We’re the outdoor industry so we must be green,” quipped REI’s director of product integrity, Kevin Myette. The move to sustainability is what people are already expecting, said Simonetta Carbonaro, a partner at Real-Ise business consultants, whose clients include Ikea and Migros. After all the hullabaloo of too many, too tempting bargains and ad messages aiming always at their wallets, consumers are now asking for time out, calling on fashion design to act as a driving force for change, she said.
In his new book “Hollywood Royale,” Andy Warhol’s Protégé Matthew Rolston celebrates the Eighties revival of Hollywood glamour. Featuring more than 100 portraits taken by Rolston from 1977 to 1993, the book contains photos of icons like Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, and @drewbarrymore, pictured here in 1991. “Hollywood Royale,” out today, will be accompanied by an exhibition opening at Los Angeles’ Fahey/Klein Gallery on March 1. #wwdeye
"Nowadays when life is not so happy with everything going on in the world, I think people come to me for a little bit of whimsy and color and fun." - Designer Rebecca De Ravenel on her cult-favorite jewelry line. (📸 : @vsteves) #wwd40
“Everyone is talking about how the retail industry is struggling, but I think it’s an incredible time because brands who are doing something different and innovative are setting themselves up for the future,” said @adamgoldston, who founded the luxury athletic brand @apl with his brother @ryangoldsten. The Goldston’s are part of WWD’s 40 under 40: a group of industry notables. See the rest of the list on WWD.com. (📷: @vsteves) #wwd40
@eyeswoon blogger Athena Calderone debuted her first-ever cookbook, “Cook Beautiful,” which is heavily centered on the presentation and visual expression of food. Pictured here are her miso glazed carrots from the book. Get the recipe on WWD.com. (📷: @johnny_miller_) #wwdeye
“It’s passion that helps get anybody to a certain point and it’s what’s propelled me,” said Kith founder @ronniefieg, one of WWD’s 40 under 40: a group of industry notables who are changing the face of retail, fashion and beauty. Fieg, who opened a Manhattan flagship on October 7, began his career at age 13 as a stock boy and salesman for footwear chain David Z. “I think staying true to [my] beliefs, hard work and passion have gotten me to where [Kith] is today.” See the rest of the 40 at WWD.com. (📷: @vsteves) #wwd40
25-year-old @samweaving is about to break out this fall, starring in Netflix’s horror film “The Babysitter,” fittingly out today on Friday the 13th. That’s not the only place you’ll be seeing her, though — Weaving’s got a role Showtime’s “SMILF” and another alongside Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Though she’s got a full plate at the moment, there’s one role she’s got her eye on: Marilyn Monroe. “I’m a little too young at the moment, but it’s on my bucket list,” the actress told WWD (📷: @dandoperalski) #wwdeye
BFF's Poppy Jamie and Suki Waterhouse celebrated the launch of their bag line Pop x Suki at Nordstrom last night. "The line is really about our friendship, and how we are so different but complement each other," said Waterhouse. 👯 (📷: Katie Jones) #wwdeye
After designing the new @louisvuitton and @bulgariofficial flagships and a @chanelofficial boutique opening in Japan, @petermarinoarchitect has another project on his plate: The Lobster Club. Located in the Seagram Building, it’s the famed architect’s first restaurant project in New York, serving up modern Japanese brasserie-style cuisine. Bronze hues, bespoke material detailing, blush and chartreuse tones and a heavy emphasis on Picasso can be seen throughout. Mark your calendars for Nov. 1 for the much-anticipated opening. (📷: @clint_spaulding) #wwdeye
Did you know: @carlychaikin of "Mr. Robot" has been painting for about a decade? The actress, who plays Darlene on the show, is a self-taught artist who lists Salvador Dalí and Chuck Close as some of her idols. Chaikin told WWD that painting is a form of meditation for her — A much-needed one given the intensity of "Mr. Robot." See a piece Chaikin is working on at WWD.com (📷: @jilliansollazzo) #wwdeye