WWD: How does a manufacturing-based industry like fashion reconcile growth with sustainability? It seems that you say there are many things even before you get to the excessive consumer acquisition part, right?
Linda Greer: There is plenty to be done that will reduce footprints while companies are making the same amount of stuff that they make right now. I’m not saying that that is going to compensate; it’s not like, oh, that’s going to make [the effects] of production be neutral. Not at all. But I am saying that when you look at the acceleration of impacts on this industry, there are measures that can go to really take a bite out of it. We should do it because it matters and it’s relatively easy and we know how to do it.
L.G.: There is low-hanging fruit that nobody is collecting data on. There is a huge range in energy efficiency of production. When you buy knitted cotton fabric, the range in energy intensity, water intensity, pollution discharge — it’s a huge range.
So very low-hanging fruit is like, OK, why don’t we collect information on our portfolio of suppliers and double up our business with the least resource-intensive ones and disqualify the bottom 10th percentile, thereby sending a market signal that you’ll get more business if you do a better job environmentally? That’s not going to solve all the problems but it can take us a first very important step of the way.
There are a lot of different ways to reduce. Nylon, for example, is a very energy-intensive fabric. Are there opportunities to substitute nylon with recycled polyester? Maybe there are. Why don’t companies — the big companies, using all the nylon — ask, “Where could we substitute with a lower-impact fabric that’s not significantly more expensive” and then do it? There are solutions to these problems. It’s not like the only thing we can do is stop buying anything. Yes, we want people to buy less, but there are a lot of things that people can do that will seriously help before that.
So, the first thing I would say is companies can continue to profit while doing much more for environmental protections than they’re doing right now. And then I have my own little philosophical commentary on this. Ready?
WWD: Please, yes.
L.G.: For a long time, industries here in the United States and all over the world have sold us this fundamental concept that voluntary corporate initiatives to protect the environment are the way to go. This is that triple-bottom line business, where what we are looking for is this thing that is good for business, it’s good socially, it’s good environmentally, and with this triple bottom line we will all live happily ever after.
In the same breath, these companies, not just in the apparel industry but in general, have really succeeded in demonizing government requirements for environmental responsibility that historically have curbed the worst of their impacts. This is both in the United States and Europe. Then, that philosophy spread very quickly to the less developed countries, like China, where governments weren’t geared up in the first place for all this industry that was coming in.
The trends that we have seen in this industry and others — but this industry just is growing so fast — certainly bring me back to the view that what we need here is good old-fashioned laws, permits, enforcement that bend the curve of these environmental impacts. There is no reason why there couldn’t be carbon limits on manufacturing, water limits on manufacturing, government limits on how much pollution comes out, etc. It’s just that — and I’ll include the environmental community, which I was a big part of for many years [at the Natural Resources Defense Council] — people bought into this idea that voluntary corporate initiatives were going to be better and faster than, quote-unquote, command and control, which is what they used to call it.
I’m done with that. I think the evidence is in that these companies are not interested in doing this in a big way, that they put profits over environmental protection, that because there are no government requirements, we don’t have a level playing field so the minority of companies that might actually want to do something don’t. They’re not in a position to do it because that will make their goods cost more than everybody else’s goods. If the government just required everybody to do it, it would create that level playing field and take that decision out of their hands.
WWD: There’s very little fashion manufacturing in the U.S.
L.G.: There’s practically no manufacturing anymore in the U.S. and Europe. Any manufacturing that’s still going on here does comply with the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, but we don’t have regulations on carbon emissions. We’ve had a giant food fight about this with the U.S. Congress since you and I were born, practically.
A very high percentage of manufacturing now occurs in China and elsewhere in the developing world. For the most part, those countries do have regulations on the books but they don’t have a lot of implementation, inspection and enforcement. So it’s sort of like paper requirements rather than things that really engage, and we have as a result the Wild, Wild East where companies get away with as much as they can because there is just not as much government oversight as needed to have those requirements be real.
The missing ingredient in this conundrum is that we went along for far too long with the notion that the best way to achieve environmental responsibility is on a voluntary basis, that companies would find their sweet spot between profit and environmental and social responsibility, and this would all be a win-win for everybody. I think the last 10 or 15 years provide abundant evidence that this feel-good theory is not effective and that we need something else.
WWD: Interesting, and to the point.
L.G.: OK, so now all that being said, the other thing I wanted to say to you is — you can tell I’ve thought about this a lot.
WWD: Yes, I appreciate it.
L.G.: Because it plagues me. They’re such important questions. I’m so glad that you’re even thinking about them. So the other thing is, I can see some bending of the arc of the curve of over-consumption in our society. And that curve could open up opportunities for change in this industry that could begin to reduce how much stuff we buy. I’m thinking about the whole simplifying your house, simplifying your life, minimalist tips for this and that, which is taking over the Internet and Instagram pictures, etc. And that’s new.
In my optimistic days, I think it could be as simple as some key celebrities and influencers getting on board with the idea that this could also be true for how many clothes we buy and wear, which could lead to consumer interest in alternative models. Like renting clothes, Rent the Runway, and those monthly boxes. I just read that Ikea is going to have a sideline where you can rent their furniture rather than buy it.
L.G.: I thought isn’t that interesting, because they’re going like gangbusters with just selling essentially very cheap furniture, which doesn’t last as long as your grandmother’s. And they’re going to try this other model, running alongside their [primary] model.
WWD: It’s one thing to send back sweaters, it’s another thing to send back bookcases. I wonder what the logistical plan is.
L.G.: I presume there are standards for what’s returnable. As the parent of college-age kids, I’ll tell you that certainly would have appealed to me, for sure. They could put a rental thing right on a college campus and probably save a lot of time and trouble. So it’s a creative business model.
WWD: Bingo. College, brilliant.
L.G.: I’m also thinking about things like the 10 outfits for travel when you mix and match. This is a very creative industry, and we haven’t taken a real run at developing creative ways to approach over-consumption.
Overall, I think these are the right questions that you’re asking. But there’s plenty to be done while we’re still over-consuming. Let’s take a new look at why don’t we require environmental responsibility rather than hoping for it as a voluntary matter. And last but not least, could we take a run at the creative juices of this industry to capitalize on that simplification trend for our clothing the way it’s nibbling at some other things?
WWD: Just Marie Kondo everything.
L.G.: Exactly. One other thing. I was just talking over the weekend about the trend in raw denim, which I, of course, was unaware of because I’m so not trendy. But how nowadays people are buying very old-school denim that hasn’t been washed, and then posting these Instagram photos about “how many times I’ve worn it without washing it,” how all the little wear areas are exactly where they put their wallet and exactly where they put their keys. That’s about wearing something over and over and over again.
It’s denim, I’ll grant you, it’s not a party dress. But how interesting that this is becoming a denim fashion trend, because the “worn” denim stuff is a nightmare environmentally. It’s a complete nightmare. I have told everybody for years, if you want to buy the environmentally best denim, buy dark blue denim that hasn’t been washed with anything.
It’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are little trends that somebody cleverer than I am could capitalize on. We desperately need it, because this industry packs such a punch and it’s just growing so much faster than most industries that we’ve really got to get on top of this.
WWD: Fashion as a career retains a fascination factor. So many young creatives want to be a part of it, and the big guns must continue to grow.
L.G.: There’s more and more stuff. That’s because there’s market demand and it’s making money. And that just circles back to the fact that that’s the entity we’re asking to self-regulate. Fundamentally, that just doesn’t seem like something that would work, does it? Historically, it hasn’t worked. Look what we’ve got; we’ve got a monster on our hands.