From Climate Marches to Impossible Burgers, it seems that the attention of the world is finally turning to sustainability. The fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Everyone knows that this is unacceptable, but many apparel brands hit blocks when attempting to address sustainability issues.
Addressing systemic and decades-old problems within the industry is difficult, but these obstacles can be opportunities if approached with the right mind-set. Dedication to a higher goal than simply turning a profit, a willingness to go against the grain, and data-driven technological advancements and tools to measure efficiency and opportunities to improve will be essential to changing the way we create and use products and lowering the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.
To give tangible examples of companies who are already doing the above, we’d like to introduce you to Naadam and Outerknown.
Naadam, a company radically disrupting the knitwear scene, was founded with a mission to democratize cashmere. They focus on radical transparency, sustainability and nonprofit work in Mongolia. One of the main points of Naadam’s success has been their reliance on something a bit unexpected when talking about sustainability today: tradition. Chief executive officer Matt Scanlan and his cofounders have built deep relationships with the traditional herding families who raise and care for the goats that produce Naadam’s cashmere.
Naadam’s Gobi Revival Fund supports about a thousand Mongolian nomadic herding families and provides vet care for more than a million animals. The company uses 100 percent clean energy in its production facilities and works to combat desertification through a network of fencing structures, allowing fresh pastures to grow and thrive. This slows topsoil erosion, increasing the viability and sustainability of the ecosystem. They’ve also created the Naadam park, planting more than 2,000 trees with plans to plant another 10,000 over the next two years. The park will also feature the only grass soccer field in a 500-mile radius, which will drastically improve the local economy and community spirit.
Kelly Slater and John Moore, the guys behind Outerknown, had similar thoughts about ecology and community. They realized that the clothes they had been making were part of the problem, and they wanted to be part of the solution. Outerknown now works to produce the best products possible while making decisions that benefit the planet and the people involved. They curate their production from seeds to suppliers, and work to empower the people creating their products. Every day, they try to answer the question: “What if we could design the kinds of clothes we love in a more conscious way?”
One way they’re doing this is by working with Econyl, a 100 percent regenerated nylon fiber with PFOA-free DWR made from regenerated fishing nets and other nylon waste.
Outerknown’s guiding light is its code of conduct, which lays out their commitment to minimizing, controlling and reducing the impact they make on the environment and the communities in which they live and work. This code of conduct allows Outerknown to create systemic changes in both the labor and environmental practices of the countries their work touches.
This code pertains not only to the Outerknown brand itself, but to all aspects of their operations, including raw materials suppliers and subcontractors. To this end, they even have a set of supplemental guidelines that provide a framework to evaluate current and potential partner performance and suitability. It’s an outstanding commitment to thoughtful, ethical, sustainable production, one I hope inspires more companies to do the same.
These companies aren’t normal. Naadam’s sourcing and dedication to the ecology of their production areas, and Outerknown’s code of conduct make them both outliers. They break the mold, and that’s a good thing. And because of that, these brands won’t be outliers for long. Instead, we can view them as idealistic groundbreakers who will change the way the world looks at production. Their focuses on sustainability, ethical production and consumption, and social responsibility should and will be the standard in the future.
This is exciting not only because focusing on sustainability is good for our planet, but because it is a key force applying pressure to the fashion industry to make ourselves better. As the industry shifts to the direct-to-consumer retail model, we are seeing innovative and explosive change in the industry, but the making of physical products has been a process left relatively unchanged for decades. The choices we make about how we produce items will define not only brand success in 2020 and beyond, but the success of our ethics and sustainability initiatives as well.
A competitive supply chain is not only essential in terms of product making, inventory management and customer delivery, but also in terms of impact visibility and ecological sustainability. Ask yourself the following questions in relation to your brand to help determine how you are measuring sustainability:
- How much fabric, what materials, and how many components are you using? Why are you using those?
- How many samples are you making? How can you cut that number down?
- How much inventory are you over-ordering? How can you improve that efficiency?
- How do you access data related to your impact on the environment? How can you more intelligently use that data to improve your impact?
- What are your company’s core ethical values? How do you scale a successful consumer goods brand while making ethical factory decisions?
The answers aren’t easy, but asking them and putting in the time to truly comprehend your brand’s approach to sustainability will ensure that you can be part of the solution. Having visibility into every link of the supply chain in order to mitigate overproduction and inventory loss will not only help your brand’s profit margin, but can also bring confidence to customers searching for a more thoughtful, intentional product. That same visibility can help ensure ethical and environmental compliance throughout your product development, supercharging your sustainability initiatives.
Now is the time to make an impact on your company’s footprint. We can all move toward more intentional, ethical and sustainable decision-making — let’s do it together.
Matthew Klein is chief executive officer of Backbone.
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