Cara Smyth and Anne Fulenwider

Marie Claire’s editor in chief Anne Fulenwider hosted on Wednesday morning the magazine’s first-ever Sustainability Forum, roughly eight months after the release of the magazine’s first sustainability issue.

Held at Hearst Tower, the forum featured some of the leading experts from fashion and beauty’s largest companies to clarify what is an extremely complex and increasingly urgent issue for an audience of social media influencers and Marie Claire readers.

Cara Smyth, vice president of Glasgow Caledonia University New York and founding director of the Fair Fashion Center, moderated a panel that included Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs; Amanda Hearst and Hassan Pierre of ethical fashion e-commerce site Maison-de-Mode, and Shane Wolf, founder of Seed Phytonutrients and general manager worldwide of Redken Pureology and Mizani. Kara Hurst, Amazon’s head of worldwide sustainability, spoke on the e-commerce behemoth’s initiatives, and Rebecca Jarvis of ABC News moderated another panel with Burak Cakmak of Parsons The New School; Emily Scarlett, H&M USA’s media relations and sustainability manager, and Piyush Jain, Unilever’s general manager and vice president of marketing hair care for the U.S.

Within a blessedly speedy hour-and-a-half window, the experts managed to cover a lot of ground within the sustainability framework while distilling some of the top issues into consumer-friendly, practice-driven laymen’s terms. Sustainability has become one of the fashion and beauty sector’s main concerns and areas of investment, yet it can be difficult for consumers with a genuine if somewhat passing interest in the topic to parse and apply to one’s own life.

The forum did a good job highlighting key issues, one of which Fulenwider laid out at the outset: “There’s this oft-quoted statistic out there that the fashion industry is the number-two most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas,” she said. “I did some research and we can’t find the source of that quote. We don’t know exactly how it was measured; in fact, we don’t even know how someone would measure that. So there is a lot of complexity to this issue.”

A few things are certain: First, few can agree on a single definition of the term “sustainability” and the terminology doesn’t matter all that much. “Today is not the tine to spend on the definition, but it’s better to act,” said Daveu, noting that Millennial clients care a great deal about sourcing and production, but not word choice. “They don’t come into the boutique saying, ‘Can you tell me the five most important [sustainability] criteria,’ but they will ask about the traceability and say, ‘Can you tell me a little more about the precious skins and animal welfare where it’s been produced?’”

Hurst also dismissed the importance of the word “sustainability” at the consumer level. “You can take the word sustainability off the table,” she said. “We have taken a lot of time talking about it to our customers, talking about our products in this green language and frankly, that’s just alienating. Instead of talking about that, talk to people about information transparency and providing that in a way customers can use to make their own decisions about how they purchase and shop and review.”

Stoking customer engagement was another topic of concern, specifically how to make sustainability “sexy.” “At Kering we think sustainability is very sexy,” said Daveu. “We think also that sustainability is not an option, it’s a necessity.” Kering has built it into its business model, making sustainability one of its key pillars, and in that respect, is doing the work for its customers — they don’t have to think about it as much.

Several other panelists presented staggering statistics that suggested that while raising consumer awareness and encouraging action on the part of the individual would go a long way, it’s a lot to ask.

Hearst and Hassan built Maison-de-Mode so that users could “shop without a conscience,” meaning they can go on the site and know that everything complies with some sort of ethical standard, rather than hunting around for sustainable products on their own. Still, aesthetic and quality always trump sustainability for Hearst and Hassan. “At the end of the day, you’re not going to buy something because of the story,” said Hearst. “You’re going to buy it because it’s something you want to wear.”

Scarlett noted that H&M has a garment recycling program at every single one of its stores in all of its 69 markets, which allows customers to bring any used textile — clothes, towels, curtains, even underwear — and it will be given a second life through reuse and rewear. “Last year we collected 2.5 million pounds in the U.S., but if you equate that to every single person, 0.7 percent of the American population participated,” she said.

Big results happen when big businesses take responsibility. Hurst’s statistics on Amazon’s packaging were remarkable. Ten years ago Amazon started its Frustration Free packaging, which eliminates “romance packaging” that is required when purchases are made in-store. It’s free of twist ties and is 100 percent recycled. Through the program, Amazon has eliminated 244,000 tons of packaging and avoided almost 500 million boxes.

Wolf cited a U.K. study that found that “the likelihood of plastic being recycled in the kitchen is significantly higher than plastic that is consumed in the bathroom, because as consumers, we can’t be bothered to walk from the bathroom to the recycle bin in the kitchen,” he said.

A key innovation of his brand Seed Phytonutrients is the first shower-safe paper bottle, which is launching on April 22 on Earth Day. To incentivize consumers to walk the bottle out of the bathroom to the recycle bin, the Seed team put a packet of seeds inside of it, so people have to crack it open and interact with the packaging, which makes them more likely to recycle.

Wolf launched Seed Phytonutrients based on the statistic that in the last 100 years, 94 percent of all seed varieties have ceased to exist. Seed works with innovation at the seed level. He talked about being on the executive team at L’Oréal, and implementing sustainability on a mass corporate level.

“A lot of my friends were like, ‘Are you crazy? Why wouldn’t you leave and go and sell this to someone?’” Wolf said. “Because, at the end of the day, going and selling [Seed] to someone for a 4.5 or 5-times multiplier wasn’t what was motivating at all. What was motivating was making a change from within the world’s largest beauty company and actually impacting an enormous amount of people through a portfolio of brands.”

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