WWD: First, tell me a little bit about your new project, New Standard Institute.
Maxine Bédat: I started a sustainable fashion company called Zady. NSI, New Standard Institute, is the answer to the gaps that I was seeing in that work and how we could actually be able to move the industry forward.
What I identified as a real missing space is that there isn’t a lot of reliable information. One item that’s been thrown out there a lot, but I’m very pleased to see being debunked, is the industry being the second-most polluting industry. In my research I have found that that fact is not alone in not actually having a primary source associated with it.
WWD: I am aware of that; that nobody quite knows where that came from.
M.B.: Right. It’s just one of several examples. Another is that one in six people in the world works in some part of the garment supply chain. That is also something that there isn’t a primary source for. In fact, most of the statistics out there around labor, around the percentage of women in the industry, when you dig deep and try to find the reliable primary source, there isn’t one.
The adage is you only manage what you measure. If we’re not measuring things, it’s hard for us to make progress. So at the heart of what we’re doing at NSI is to bring together the existing information that’s out there and begin to clarify what we know [as fact] and what we don’t know.
With that, it’s an information platform with resources that brands can use to think about making science-based and science-oriented changes toward sustainability.
WWD: How do you plan to bring the science together and collect the scientific facts?
M.B.: The heart of it is a digital platform. Then it’s a community of people from across the supply chain, including scientists and leading researchers on life-cycle assessment out doing the actual work on the ground, mostly in China.
WWD: Your initiative is totally fact-based, and my question is perhaps a little bit philosophical: is it possible for manufacturing-based fashion companies to fully reconcile sustainability with growth? I don’t know if that’s something you want to address.
M.B.: Just from our research perspective, there is good research around the cost to actually provide, say, a living wage for a worker and it’s not astronomical, it’s not from a $5 T-shirt to a $50 T-shirt. It’s a $5.25 T-shirt. So I think that’s one thing.
I think there is this confusion today because, quote, “sustainable” brands tend to be more expensive but there isn’t anything inherent in the creation of a sustainable garment that means it has to be on the luxury side. It does mean, I would argue, that to be sustainable, a T-shirt shouldn’t cost $3 but it doesn’t mean it has to be $30, either.
Every one of us gets dressed. there’s going be more and more people on the planet, so there’s going to be plenty of growth opportunity. It’s more of a matter of what are the business models within that that are going to be successful. And I would say that a fast-fashion business model, which is predicated on people not wearing their garments very long, is inherently not a sustainable one. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t many other business models that could be very successful.
WWD: In the sustainability conversation, I think inexpensive clothes get a bad rap. One of the first things that struck me on your web site was a reference to upgrading purchases. Most people can’t afford luxury.
M.B.: I agree with you to a point. On our web site and in our philosophy, the point is not that quality equates to something being expensive. I did an interview with “CBS This Morning” and it was how to shop better at H&M. If you look at the garments, it’s turning them inside-out and making sure they’re not falling apart before you’re buying them.
That, to me, is the conversation on quality. I’m not talking about the branding around quality. Is it a garment constructed well? Is it made from materials that are going to last in the wash and that you’re going to actually want to wear? That is the conversation around quality. So you could find a quality garment at H&M within that. We are in no way suggesting that buying quality means a much more expensive or a luxury garment.
I agree with you entirely [about perception]. Just like in the food movement, I think there’s been a misstep in the sustainable fashion movement with that it’s [perceived as] an elite thing. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be. It has to be, how are we figuring this out for everybody for the future?
M.B.: But the one thing I would just like to add is that we have increased the quantity of clothing that we purchase on average, and that’s across the board. So I don’t think it’s just a matter of, “Oh, I can’t afford anything else.”
I think the resale market and the ThredUps, The Real Reals of the world are changing that equation in the consumer mind-set. It’s moving away from what is the sticker price of this to what is the cost per wear of this garment. I think that is an orientation that is changing.
WWD: A number of people I’ve spoken with have brought up overall lifestyle simplification, paring down.
M.B.: Exactly. I look at the success of the Marie Kondo book and — now — show that we have now become obsessed with. We have gone through the period of excess. I grew up from having H&M not exist in the U.S. to it becoming my go-to shopping destination when I was in college, so I saw that shift in myself. When I was in high school, clothing was an investment. You only did back-to-school shopping, and really had to think about what your style was because you were only going to be able to buy a couple of pieces and that’s what you would get for the year. I think clothing has become so cheap at the fast-fashion end that people just buy it because they had a bad day or something. It’s getting uncoupled from any sort of sense of self expression.
WWD: I know I’m now talking out of both sides of my mouth but there’s also the Instagram effect — don’t selfie that top twice.
M.B.: Yes. Oh, definitely. We were out in L.A. recently speaking with the Hollywood crowd about that, saying, “Hey, you could really move the needle here if you show up on your press tour or on the red carpet wearing the same clothes.” And they began to see that connection, like, “Oh we play a big role in this, in guiding the consumer expectation.”
It’s important to note that the resale market is growing faster than the fast-fashion market, which is a very exciting and interesting change in mind-set. It goes to show that it’s not as if the fast-fashion business model is here forever on the natural order, these things change and evolve. And the way people will interact with social media as well will change and evolve.