Last year for Earth Day, Polo Ralph Lauren made a visible statement by introducing the Earth Polo, a sustainable alternative to the company’s signature polo shirt created from thread derived entirely from recycled plastic bottles and dyed in a process that uses no water. Each Earth Polo is made from an average of 12 plastic bottles.
“Changing the way we innovate, design and produce our products is the first of many steps we are taking as a company to be more sustainable. For us, it all started with the Earth Polo,” said David Lauren, chief innovation officer. “Ralph Lauren commits to using at least 170 million recycled plastic bottles in our products and packaging by 2025. Plastic waste is a major issue threatening the environment — we want to be part of the solution and utilize an innovative approach to create something valuable.”
In the first iteration last year, the shirts were offered for men and women in four colors. This time around, they’ll be available in 19 colors and patterns for men in short- and long-sleeve options, as well as seven for women and nine for children. The brand is continuing to partner with First Mile, which works with entrepreneurs in low-income communities to collect recyclable plastic bottles, which are then processed and turned into the yarn and ultimately the fabric for the shirts.
Here, Lauren discusses the expansion of the program and how the coronavirus pandemic has made the company’s sustainability message even more essential.
WWD: You launched the shirt last year, how successful was it?
David Lauren: A lot of people were very concerned that our customers, who are used to cotton and natural-fiber product, would not respond to anything but that. But we found there has been incredible customer interest and response to products that promote sustainability, that have a story behind them — and customers feel very proud to wear them. There was that question, “Will customers pay for a full-price polo? Would they, given the choice, rather wear different kind of fibers?” And the truth is, they are willing to pay the full price, they are willing to buy products that have meaning. They’re asking a lot of questions, they want to know about the process. In our stores, the salespeople across the world wanted me to explain the dying process, the fiber. We thought of it like the Impossible Burger. If we could match the quality and the hand of the classic polo with synthetic fibers made from plastic bottles, that would be a miracle. People have made things out of plastic bottles before, but having the hand feel familiar — like buying a burger that is vegetarian but tastes like meat — we figured that out and it made it much easier for customers to digest.
WWD: Were the shirts popular with people of all ages or mainly among the young?
D.L.: It wasn’t really age specific. But there are so many stories. This one young lady, she was 15 or 16, wrote me a letter about an Earth Day project that she had been working on for an entire year. When it was time to present to her class, she found out about the Earth Polo, and she put on the shirt because it helped her complete the sensibility after everything that she had learned. I love hearing stories like that — people from the younger generation who are discovering our brand because of the Earth Polo. Our company is very proud of that. At the U.S. Open, which we hope still happens, the ballboy uniforms are made from recycled plastic tennis ball cans. It’s just this ongoing effort to find anything appropriate that we can do sustainably.
Now I think what you’ll start to see over the coming years is much more of a movement in our company beyond all the promises we made and the supply chain changes we’ve made. We are totally committed to creating products that are better and better every year. The key though is that we don’t always have to promote it and we don’t always have to make a campaign around it, sometimes you just do it. This shirt, because it’s our icon and the symbol of the company, had a symbolic message, but the future is not about having to market it any more. We know the customer is comfortable buying it, we don’t have to make it cool, they already think it’s cool and they’re asking for more product. So just putting it in the line we know people are looking at the label, they want to know what something is made of, they want to know if something is sustainable. The fact is that for years we’ve made quality products that have a long life, that get passed on from generation to generation. That has always been part of our philosophy, things are made to last, which is by nature, sustainable in many ways. That has really resonated. And if there’s anything to celebrate in our company, it’s that idea that this is an investment in your future. You’re not just buying a trendy product at Ralph Lauren that is sustainable, you’re buying a shirt that you may give to your children.
WWD: Do you see yourself expanding the use of this fabric to other product categories?
D.L.: We’re looking at everything and the way we make everything. So the fabric, the water supply, the dying, the factories that we work with — it’s not just us pushing it. It’s not hard to sell the idea to the factory or down the supply chain. Everybody is changing and evolving. What was complicated five years ago is not so complicated today. Factories that don’t have a disposition toward being sustainable are not going to make it. What’s happening is that there is a clear understanding that being sustainable and transparent is just the nature of our business. And it’s the only way we’re going to have a future. It doesn’t take reporters or consumers to tell us to do it. Employees and everybody down the chain gets it already. The world has changed. Momentum creates momentum. If one person in the supply chain is doing something, they expect the next one to do it, and the next one and the next one. The whole ecosystem is effecting each other and it doesn’t have to start at the top with a powerful brand or the consumer, it’s naturally evolving. Almost every day we’re learning something new, and that’s amazing.
WWD: Has the pandemic impacted the sustainability program you’ve already unveiled?
D.L.: Some of our initiatives were pushed back. We had some things slated for fall, which will now probably happen in spring. Right now, it’s like fix your world, fix everything, it’s hard to fix just one product.
WWD: What else have you learned from this pandemic?
D.L.: Every time someone talks about the origin of the pandemic, it really started with man’s interaction with animals. The more we cut down forests, the more animals are not safe in their environment to hide and not be prey, if the world keeps living an unsustainable existence, we’re going to see more pandemics. There’s proof of that today and there will be more proof of that in the future. As you effect the ecosystem, everything becomes affected. We’re going to see our entire supply chain disrupted faster than we think. This is a wake-up call for just how frightening and fast change can be. Everybody’s been talking about global warming — and it could happen one day that the weather changes on us dramatically. What this experience has shown us is that what seemed to be far off and unlikely is not so far off and can be likely, and people’s fear of things they thought were low risk are now high risk. I think we’re going to take things much more seriously. And top of the list is going to be sustainability. A lot of people have had time to think and wish they could be outside walking in a beautiful grass field or playing in a tree with their kids. Our appreciation for a world of purity and goodness, and for the world that we cherish, is going to be more valuable than ever. And I hope and think people will return to being more sensitive to each other in the right way.