H&MÕs new eco-friendly swimwear is designed for children and adults.

While many self-isolating parents around the world might be questioning how much longer they can sustain and entertain their children during the pandemic, executives at some environmentally friendly children’s wear are planning for a different kind of sustainability.

With unemployment in the U.S. past the 22 million mark and climbing, consumers are more price-conscious than ever. But some sustainable children’s wear brands see their products as more valuable to consumers whom they expect to make more mindful and earth-friendly choices for themselves and their children.

While sustainability was a buzzy topic before the coronavirus crisis, the expense of following through on those good intentions and plans for greater corporate responsibility might prove too costly for some brands. Transitioning toward sustainability yields a $20 billion to $30 billion financing opportunity per year to develop and scale disruptive innovations, according to a report released earlier this year by the Boston Consulting Group and Fashion For Good.

Protecting people and the planet’s resources are dual purposes for children’s wear labels like the Australian line Little Emperor, an organic cotton, ethically made collection. As a member of the 1% for the Planet initiative, the company donates 1 percent of its sales to environmental nonprofits. Other brands like Faire Child, offer a Take Back Program to ensure well-worn goods are recycled.

Two looks from the Faire Child collection.

Two looks from the Faire Child collection.  Courtesy Photo

After the pandemic, circular business models that play up reuse might become a really good opportunity for companies, according to Deborah Drew, an associate for the World Resources Institute’s Center for Sustainable Business. The fact that children outgrow clothing quickly makes children’s wear ripe for rental services, as well as buying repaired and used apparel, she said. The fact that millions have lost their jobs or are more financially challenged will make circular models more appealing, Drew said.

The pandemic demonstrates the need for sustainability and the need to conduct ourselves in a way that is just, Drew said. “The way we’ve been doing business is obviously not sustainable, because it is too fragile. We need to be looking at the environment and sustainability and how we conduct ourselves,” she said.

But circular business models need to be affordable, Drew said. “People are going to be really hesitant about what they spend money on. We’re seeing a lot of people be hit very hard from all this.”

With a goal of increasing the amount of sustainable materials in its total material use, H&M is trying to make more environmentally friendly choices available to a larger group of people. By 2030, the company aims to only use sustainable sourced materials. Today recycled materials or materials sourced in a more sustainable way account for 57 percent of the total, and 76 percent of the children’s range, according to a company spokeswoman. As of last year, all cotton products in the children’s collection are made from organic cotton, recycled cotton or BCI cotton.

H&M uses its Conscious green hang tags to signal to shoppers that that product was made with at least 50 percent sustainably sourced materials. To make its Conscious collections attainable for shoppers, those products are not marked up. “We see it as investment for the future,” the spokeswoman said.

A swimwear collection made from recycled polyester and geared for the whole family will be introduced Thursday and H&M will be collaborating with a Global Change Award winner this fall, the spokeswoman said.

Despite the shutdown in many countries, H&M is still available in 74 markets internationally. In many markets, schools and kindergartens are open, the spokeswoman said.

Mike Edwards, president and chief executive officer of Hanna Andersson, said the biggest question now, as is the case “with anyone working in apparel, is, ‘What’s my order and when?’ It’s really tricky. The global supply chain changes by the day, depending on the country.”

With its 60 stores temporarily closed, Hanna Andersson has reduced its workforce from 950 to 360 employees, due primarily to furloughs and to a lesser degree layoffs. As for whether those displaced workers will be rehired, the company is taking a wait-and-see approach. “There are a lot of moving parts about what stores can open and in what time frame,” said Edwards, who joined the company last year from eBags.

Hanna Andersson’s online sales, which account for 80 percent of its volume, have been “really robust,” thanks to demand for two stay-at-home favorites, pajamas and activewear, Edwards said. Started by a Swedish immigrant in 1983, who believed in organics, the brand has been committed to sustainability since the beginning. Post COVID-19, Edwards expects consumers’ awareness about healthy lifestyles and environments to only increase. “The climate change situation is not going away so that will keep the topic top-of-mind in a variety of areas and categories,” he said.

The company has tightened its expenses and shored up liquidity with its banks. IT-related projects have been put off for a month or two. Hanna Andersson’s design capabilities are being amped up and new marketing and business plans are being put in place to prepare for post-pandemic business. Edwards said, “In other downturns, we have seen that people still spend a lot on their children and on their pets.”

Elizabeth Bold said she started Little Emperor in 2013 to drive change in the fashion industry and create a business with the types of conscious practices that she would support as a customer. After the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013 killing 1,134, Bold said that like many she was “horrified” by how “our appetite for fast, cheap, disposable fashion has encouraged brands to cut corners with the lives of workers in their supply chains.”

A look from Little Emperor.

A look from Little Emperor.  Courtesy Photo

Her company makes children’s clothing that is ethically manufactured and creates a positive environmental impact, she said. The direct-to-consumer Australian brand, which is also sold in about six Australian boutiques, has done well in the travel retail sector. While the pandemic has largely shut down international travel, The Little Emperor has seen a significant shift in traffic to online sales, Bold said.

Many U.S.-based shoppers have been taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate with the Australian dollar. Some customers, who had to cancel their trips to Australia, have purchased items from the Australian label. Others are creating holidays at home that are complete with Little Emperor purchases for their grandchildren upon their virtual returns, Bold said.

With many children finished with the school year prematurely and playgrounds in some countries closed due to COVID-19, Bold said some parents like herself are inclined to purchase outdoor games and sporting equipment for their children. She continues to support ethical brands, but with online purchases as opposed to in-store ones.

Uncertain when partner boutiques and the travel retail sector will be up and running again, Bold said the company’s strategy is to keep building its online presence and engaging with its growing online community over the next year. “We reply to each and every e-mail, and we treasure the relationship we have with every customer,” she said, adding that finding more ways to care for and reward customers is a priority. “It’s not really an innovative or new approach, but rather a return to good old-fashioned customer care, relationships and community.”

Launched in 2018 by Tabitha Osler, Faire Child specializes in recyclable outerwear. The Nova Scotia-based company uses Sympatex fabric that is made from recycled PET plastic bottles. Faire Child meets such certification programs as Bluesign, Oeko-Tex Standard 100 and the Global Recycled Standard. The collection is sold direct-to-consumer, as well as through about 15 to 20 retailers each season. Sales are slightly ahead of last year but not to the degree that was expected said, marketing assistant Emma Power.

Adjustable sleeves and pant legs are designed to extend the amount of time that a garment can be worn. That also helps to justify the price point of a $125 raincoat for some shoppers, Power said. “Not only will it last a long time but it’s recyclable and can be handed down to children.” When garments can no longer be worn, Faire Child has a Take Back Program and will take responsibility for recycling.