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Five Sustainable Brands Changing the Clothing Industry

Levi’s, Patagonia, Outerknown, Nau and Industry of All Nations.

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We’re in a period of change. The internet’s rapid dissemination of content has proven a double-edged sword. The shifting geopolitical landscape dominates headlines and the effects of climate change intensify with each passing season. Citizens across the world are yearning for greater transparency from governments, corporations and businesses, but facts are often misconstrued in the din of information online. Industrial pollution, among other pressing issues, is a flashpoint between First World and developing countries, and between investors and environmentalists. It’s a surprise to many, though, that one of the biggest contributors to industrial pollution is the apparel industry.

From production of raw materials to manufacturing and shipping, an incredible amount of natural resources are used in the creation of a garment. A large amount of water is needed for cotton production, and pesticides are frequently used to ensure crop yield. The process of dyeing clothing frequently uses toxic chemicals. Fossil fuels are burned transporting materials between every stage of production, and the growth and acceptance of fast fashion — and the consumer’s reliance on low prices — have exacerbated supply chain issues and unethical manufacturing processes. The big picture isn’t pretty.

There are a number of clothing brands, though, that see the environmental issues as imperative, and the complex manufacturing system as an ongoing challenge. Exploring the state of sustainability in the clothing industry, we talked with five people from a range of brands: Paul Dillinger (Levi’s VP, the head of global product innovation and premium collection design), Miles Johnson (Patagonia, creative director of product design), John Moore (Outerknown, co-founder), Mark Galbraith (Nau, co-founder) and Fernando Gerscovich (Industry of All Nations, co-founder). See highlights from the discussion below, and in-depth interviews on the following page. Though the industry has a long way to go, these people (and their brands) are leading the way for more sustainable practices in the clothing world.

Gear Patrol: Why is sustainability important in the clothing industry?
John Moore: Just as a car would emit CO2, or the way plastic pollutes our oceans en masse, our clothing can have similar effects on our quickly deteriorating environment — anything we can do to help reverse that process, we should be doing now.

Paul Dillinger: We need to understand that we are not just buying a cute outfit; we are buying the manufactured output of an industrial system that consumes resources and creates waste. Each item of clothing is an assemblage of materials, and each material has a distinct environmental or social impact.

Mark Galbraith: The reality is that clothing production has a large impact on the environment, related industry workers and consumers. For context with regards to natural fibers, conventionally grown cotton accounts for 25–30 percent of all pesticides used globally. In addition, these pesticides make their way into the biosphere and farm workers are exposed to these chemicals during production.

Miles Johnson: With the environmental crisis reaching a critical tipping point, we now more than ever need to work to protect and save our most precious natural resources.

GP: What has the industry model been in previous decades, and what were/are the problems?
Fernando Gerscovich: The importance of sustainability is not a new concept; if you go back in time before the industrial revolution and mass production, most supply chains were sustainable.

PD: From the consumer’s point of view, there has been limited transparency and a dearth of clear, useful information on the environmental impact of the current industrial model.

JM: We’ve been on this seasonal treadmill of moving too quickly and cutting corners for speed and profit. From a business perspective, brands have always gone for manufacturing methods that will yield them the highest internal margin. In terms of distribution, we’ve always been held to the global fashion calendar, which dictates four seasons of newness every year.

MG: The industry has primarily focused on performance and price with little attention paid to the effects on the environment, apparel workers and the consumer. If environmental concerns were addressed, it was typically through traditional conservation efforts on land and water issues or preserving natural landscapes for us to enjoy.

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GP: What are the difficulties surrounding the implementation of sustainable processes now?
JM: Currently, it boils down to cost and resources. Until sustainable becomes the new norm within the industry, the demand for these types of materials will be lower, therefore making the cost higher. In our short history, we’ve seen many more resources become available — so the foundation is being laid.

MJ: Materials are often not available or aren’t up to our standards.

MG: If a company opts for sustainable materials and better factory conditions, they are faced with lower internal margins or strategic price increases. The need to communicate this added value to the consumer, and in turn their educated demand for better products, are the keys to success.

PD: We know enough to buy nutritious produce when we’re hungry, but considerations of need or quality rarely inform our purchase decisions when we’re shopping for t-shirts.

GP: What steps are you taking to increase and promote sustainable practices in the industry?
PD: Our most recent Life Cycle Assessment, released last year, highlights the opportunity for water conservation at every stage of a garment’s life, from cotton cultivation and garment production, all the way to consumer care and end-of-life resolution.

JM: Our global sustainability officer, Shelly Gottschamer, has helped us build Outerknown’s global supply network from scratch, working with like-minded suppliers who support the innovation we are looking for while continuing to provide style and quality.

MJ: Using as many recycled materials as possible. Creating a neoprene-free wetsuit. Working with PrimaLoft to develop a technical insulation out of 55 percent post-consumer recycled content. Using 100 percent traceable down for our down products…

MG: We continue to use only sustainable materials, and the current focus is on third-party certification to ensure integrity throughout our supply chain.

FG: Human and cultural sustainability is a big part of Industry of All Nations; we take manufacturing back to the original makers.

GP: What can customers do to find and support sustainably minded brands?
MG: Research brands, know what you are buying and support brands that align with your values. Encourage your favorite brands to continue the journey to more sustainable and responsible practices.

FG: When looking for sustainable brands, conscious customers should do their research ask a lot of questions. And don’t always believe what brands say.

MJ: Seek out and support the growing number of certified benefit corporations that exist today. 1% for the Planet connects dollars and doers to address the most pressing issues facing our planet and has a network of 1,200 member companies and thousands of approved nonprofit partners located in more than 40 countries.

PD: I also think that consumers should maintain a degree of healthy skepticism when they’re confronted with a marketing campaign that shouts loudly about a product’s sustainable bona fides. There’s no one right answer, and there’s no easy solution.

Full interviews on the next page.

Levi’s


Paul Dillinger, Head of Global Product Innovation and Premium Collection Design


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GP: Why is sustainability important in the clothing industry?
PD: As fast fashion and deep discounting enable the fashion consumer to buy more and more clothing every season, it’s important that we educate ourselves on the impact of consumption. We need to understand that we are not just buying a cute outfit; we are buying the manufactured output of an industrial system that consumes resources and creates waste. Each item of clothing is an assemblage of materials, and each material has a distinct environmental or social impact.

GP: What has the industry model been in previous decades, and what were/are the problems?
PD: From the consumer’s point of view, there has been limited transparency and a dearth of clear, useful information on the environmental impact of the current industrial model. You could say that in a market economy, the industry will become more transparent in response to consumer demand. I would argue that transparency is an issue of corporate social responsibility, and shouldn’t be predicated on supply and demand economics.

I believe that companies should be more forthcoming about their impact, and I’m happy that Levi’s is a leader in this space. We have industry-leading terms of engagement in place with every vendor, and our product Life Cycle Assessment is available on our website.

Q: What are the difficulties surrounding the implementation of sustainable processes now?
PD: We all understand the importance of energy efficiency and fuel economy for cars. We look for higher mpg or choose an electric of hybrid vehicle because we understand the need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel.

Similarly, we all understand the importance of healthy agriculture — buying organic produce or supporting local farms that use responsible cultivation practices. These forms of conscious consumption have become part of our daily lives.

However, we rarely bring that same level of consideration to our clothing purchases. Polyester is a petroleum derivative, but how many of us consider the purchase of new yoga pants through the lens of fossil fuel conservation? Cotton is often grown in fields right beside other food crops. We know enough to buy nutritious produce when we’re hungry, but considerations of need or quality rarely inform our purchase decisions when we’re shopping for t-shirts.

GP: What steps are you taking to increase and promote sustainable practices in the industry?
PD: We are continuing to educate ourselves on the impact of our production. Our most recent Life Cycle Assessment, released last year, highlights the opportunity for water conservation at every stage of a garment’s life; from cotton cultivation and garment production, all the way to consumer care and end-of-life resolution.

We’ve been working for the past six years to reduce our water impact in the garment finishing stage though our Waterless program. This past year, Levi’s hosted a water symposium and invited a large group of apparel manufacturers — including our major competitors — where we shared all the work we’ve done to reduce our water impact.

We believe that knowledge-sharing as a form of pre-competitive collaboration is an important practice if we want to make real change in this industry.

GP: What can customers do to find and support sustainably minded brands?
PD: The most important thing is to become informed. Make thoughtful, deliberate choices and do a little research before you buy. I also think that consumers should maintain a degree of healthy skepticism when they’re confronted with a marketing campaign that shouts loudly about a product’s sustainable bona fides. There’s no one right answer, and there’s no easy solution.

Learn More: Here

Outerknown


John Moore, Co-Founder


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GP: Why is sustainability important in the clothing industry?
JM: Sustainability is important in the clothing industry for the same reason it should be in all other industries — we must take responsibility for our behavior and habits as consumers. Think about that word, consume. It’s so ugly, and conjures the idea of buying without thinking. Responsible buying habits could really allow sustainability to take hold. Consumers want everything immediately and that means businesses rush and cut corners by using harmful chemicals and fibers in clothing that, once discarded, can’t be broken down. Just as a car would emit CO2, or the way plastic pollutes our oceans en masse, our clothing can have similar effects to our quickly deteriorating environment — anything we can do to help reverse that process, we should be doing now.

GP: What has the industry model been in previous decades, and what were/are the problems?
JM: We’ve been on this seasonal treadmill of moving too quickly and cutting corners for speed and profit. From a business perspective, brands have always gone for manufacturing methods that will yield them the highest internal margin. In terms of distribution, we’ve always been held to the global fashion calendar, which dictates four seasons of newness every year. Traditionally the fashion media and retailers have controlled this, and we had no choice but to play by the rules if we wanted our collections to hang in the retailers that matter. These factors are now changing.

Rising temperatures due to climate change are making the seasons almost seem silly. Do we really need to deliver jackets in August because that’s when the traditional fall calendar says we do? What if we did away with collections and seasons altogether? The word collection means that something only lives in a certain place, for a prescribed amount of time. Moving forward, we’re thinking about it totally different. We’re thinking about designing stylish products in a sustainable way without an expiration date.

And in terms of our ability to communicate, we have more power in our pockets today than most major retailers have on their shop floor. We can share our message and build our community via social media channels and we can tell our story in its most complete form on our website. So this new digital world is much more conducive to sustainability if we slow down enough to utilize technology as a powerful tool to inspire and educate our fans, and make the buying experience enjoyable and easy.

GP: What are the difficulties surrounding the implementation of sustainable processes now?
JM: Currently, it boils down to cost and resources. Until sustainable becomes the new norm within the industry, the demand for these types of materials will be lower, therefore making the cost higher. In our short history, we’ve seen many more resources become available — so the foundation is being laid. Sustainability is too large of an investment for most large brands today, and too challenging for emerging designers to tap into. It shouldn’t be. Sustainability should be viewed as a business opportunity for brands and manufacturers. Our government should give preferential tariffs to using preferred fibers like recycled or organic. And fashion likes a party, so the governing bodies should start awarding “Most Sustainable Designer,” “Most Sustainable Brand” and “Most Sustainable Retailer.” Recently, I was having a discussion with a colleague about how restaurants are given a letter grade for health and cleanliness in Los Angeles, and we should do this for fashion and retailers too. You wouldn’t eat at an establishment with a “C” in the window, so why should you wear products that are just as unhealthy?

As more brands come on board with this idea, the process will become easier and costs will come down. Ultimately, that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do — raise awareness about how to build a successful business with sustainable morals and values. It can be done!

GP: What steps are you taking to increase and promote sustainable practices in the industry?
JM: The obvious steps towards responsible innovation are focusing on our suppliers all over the world that can hit and exceed our strict environmental and social standards. Our global sustainability officer, Shelly Gottschamer, has helped us build Outerknown’s global supply network from scratch working with like-minded suppliers who support the innovation we are looking for while continuing to provide style and quality.

But I also think a lot about my favorite items in my closet. Why do I like them so much? What do I look for in clothing? And that’s how I approach sustainable practices for Outerknown. I don’t obsess about responsibility anymore. I did when we started, but now that’s become who we are. So now I think about building great products and telling inspiring stories. You gotta wear something for a while, get a feel for it. Change what doesn’t feel right. Nothing is permanent in this business, and everything evolves. We’ve always said this is a journey, and we’re learning more every day. Bottom line is that you have to love an Outerknown sweater because it’s the best sweater in your closet — it feels and fits great. Sustainable practices don’t sell clothes. Great design does. Sustainability should be something you design into everything.

Learn More: Here

Patagonia


Miles Johnson, Creative Director of Product Design


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GP: Why is sustainability important in the clothing industry?
MJ: Sustainability is important in every industry. Nearly 138.5 million people — almost 44 percent of the nation — live where air pollution levels are often dangerously high. More than half of our nation’s rivers and streams are in either fair or poor biological health and each year, nearly 29.7 million acres of land with healthy soil are lost due to drought and desertification. With the environmental crisis reaching a critical tipping point, we now more than ever need to work to protect and save our most precious natural resources.

GP: What are the difficulties surrounding the implementation of sustainable processes now?
MJ: Materials are often not available or aren’t up to our standards. As an example from re\\\collection, we would have loved the threads that sew the actual garment together to have been recycled, but used thread would break. We continue to work with material developers to create materials that allow us to make the best product while also doing no unnecessary harm with the goal of one day reaching a point where all of our fabrics are recycled.

GP: What steps are you taking to increase and promote sustainable practices in the industry?
MJ: Using as many recycled materials as possible. Creating a neoprene-free wetsuit. Working with PrimaLoft to develop a technical insulation out of 55 percent post-consumer recycled content. Using 100 percent traceable down for our down products. Developing a wool supply chain that reflects high standards for both on-farm animal welfare and land management provisions. Expanding our participation in the Fair Trade Certified program, expected to reach more than 300 styles by Fall 2017.

GP: What can customers do to find and support sustainably minded brands?
MJ: Seek out and support the growing number of certified benefit corporations that exist today. 1% for the Planet connects dollars and doers to address the most pressing issues facing our planet and has a network of 1,200 member companies and thousands of approved nonprofit partners located in more than 40 countries. In general, it’s important to be conscious of what goes into what you buy, whether that’s reading the label of a product before you buy or asking questions of brands and their practices directly.

Learn More: Here

Nau


Mark Galbraith, Co-Founder


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GP: Why is sustainability important in the clothing industry?
MG: Nau was founded with the belief that sustainability is critical to the apparel industry. The reality is that clothing production has a large impact on the environment, related industry workers and consumers. For context with regards to natural fibers, conventionally grown cotton accounts for 25 to 30 percent of all pesticides used globally. In addition, these pesticides make their way into the biosphere and farm workers are exposed to these chemicals during production. We opt to use organic cotton which is free of pesticides, herbicides and GMOs. The use of wool and down brings up another whole host of land impact and animal treatment issues, and because of this, Nau only uses recycled down and sustainably sourced wool. Synthetic fibers are also a critical issue. The impact of oil extraction, refining and the dependance on a finite resource is well documented. Designing products with a focus on recycled polyester has a lower carbon footprint, requires minimal new petrochemicals to make into fabric, and keeps plastic out of landfills.

In addition to sourcing, we also look at material treatments and the end life of garments. The average American consumer throws away approximately 75 pounds of clothing a year. Typical chemicals used in textile production are known to be harmful to the environment and pose consumer safety issues. DWR treatments that contain PFCs are a good example of this, along with anti-odor treatments often used in technical base layers. These are essentially pesticides that inhibit growth of bacteria in a garment. Employing a restricted substance list (RSL) to eliminate or contain these chemicals is critical. Nau does not use any anti-odor chemicals and from Spring 2017 on, our garments will be PFC-free. We regularly audit and expand our RSL.

The apparel industry is where the food industry was at 20 years ago. Within the last two decades, the food industry has made huge improvements to offer organic, fair trade and local farm-to-table options. It is critical that the apparel industry changes and that consumers are aware of the benefits of buying sustainable apparel. We are on a dead-end path if we don’t shift our behavior in the apparel industry. Most consumers think the energy and food sectors are the big issues, and that apparel is not as important. However, it is a huge industry and also one of the major impacts on the environment, workers and consumers.

GP: What has the industry model been in previous decades, and what were/are the problems?
MG: In the outdoor and sports apparel industry, there is a general attitude that brands make clothes for healthy, active lifestyles, so therefore the product must be sustainable. The industry has primarily focused on performance and price with little attention paid to the effects on the environment, apparel workers and the consumer. If environmental concerns were addressed, it was typically through traditional conservation efforts on land and water issues or preserving natural landscapes for us to enjoy. We are now seeing a shift to this focus and brands are beginning to look at internal processes, material use, and the social impact of our supply chain. For nearly a decade, we have strived to be a leader on the latter and it is nice to see those conversations coming to the forefront of more business models.

GP: What are the difficulties surrounding the implementation of sustainable processes now?
MG: The two main issues with implementing sustainable processes are price and related value and a limited supply chain. In general, sustainable materials cost more than non-sustainable materials, and producing your garments in a factory that meets high labor and environmental standards is also more expensive. If a company opts for sustainable materials and better factory conditions, they are faced with lower internal margins or strategic price increases. The need to communicate this added value to the consumer, and in turn their educated demand for better products, are the keys to success.

From a consumer side, we are seeing a shift to buying less and buying better products, but the industry needs to move off of a consume-and-discard discounted model to a more sustainable business approach. The choices for sustainable materials are more finite and require more work to develop products, but the offerings are growing and technology is improving. At Nau, our product team is consistently looking at new fibers and technology to ensure we design our products in the most sustainable way possible. It can often take us months to years to introduce new fabrics, but we will never sacrifice our balance of sustainability, performance and style.

GP: What steps are you taking to increase and promote sustainable practices in the industry?
MG: We are focusing on three key areas. Materials and Chemistry: We continue to use only sustainable materials and the current focus is on third-party certification to ensure integrity throughout our supply chain. On the chemistry front, we will introduce PFC-free DWR treatments throughout our entire line in Spring 2017. We are among one of the first brands to launch a PFC-free treatment and we anticipate this will be a huge shift to the industry in the seasons ahead.

Social good: Through our Partners for Change program, Nau donates 2 percent of every sale to support social and environmental groups. We are beginning to work even closer with our partners to expand awareness of the key issues they are working on. You can see this initial shift through our latest work with Mercy Corps, as we brought their campaign efforts front and center during the holiday season.

Product design: With the rise of the aforementioned consumers who are carefully considering purchases, we are refocusing on the versatility, quality, and timeless aesthetics of our products. Our goal is to offer high-quality, versatile products, so that consumers have fewer, but better clothing items that last longer and are more useful to their lifestyle.

GP: What can customers do to find and support sustainably minded brands?
MG: Research brands, know what you are buying and support brands that align with your values. Encourage your favorite brands to continue the journey to more sustainable and responsible practices. And stay positive, get out and play.

Learn More: Here

Industry of All Nations


Fernando Gerscovich, Co-Founder


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Q: Why is sustainability important in the clothing industry?
FG: The clothing industry is one of the dirtiest and most pollutant industries in the world. It is one of the biggest industries, with one in every six people on this planet in some way or the other involved in this massive industry. So when an industry of this scale utilizes toxic chemicals in various steps of its supply chain, from pesticides on the GMO cotton fields to chemical dyes, then we have a problem.

All these toxic chemicals don’t disappear after your favorite pair of jeans are made, they end up in our land, rivers, oceans and ultimately in our food chain. A sustainable supply chain is one that doesn’t affect negatively the environment and the people, both the ones involved in the manufacturing and the end consumer.

The importance of sustainability is not a new concept; if you go back in time before the industrial revolution and mass production, most supply chains were sustainable. This problem has been overlooked for way too long now, and the consequences are becoming evident, especially in the context of an increasing consumer population.

GP: What has the industry model been in previous decades, and what were/are the problems?
FG: Implementing sustainable processes should be a must, and not an if. And of course, there are difficulties, especially for big companies who are too used to making stuff fast and cheap. At Industry of All Nations we took a from-scratch approach to manufacturing by researching and imagining how every step and component of our products can be natural and biodegradable.

We took very simple decisions — like, for example, only using organic cotton to make our fabrics, using 100 percent natural dyes to make colors, using shell or horn to make our buttons. To make sweaters, we use virgin Alpaca that naturally comes in around 12 different colors and shades, so there is no need to dye. All the way to protecting all our garments with recycled paper bags instead of the standard and very un-sustainable poly bag. Being resourceful is being sustainable.

GP: What steps are you taking to increase and promote sustainable practices in the industry?
FG: When we search the world for alternative makers, the ones that work mostly at a local level without adhering to the global supply chain, we discover that in most cases the materials they use, and the way they make their products, are extremely sustainable, not only because they are trying to be green but because they are being resourceful and saving costs by making materials or components out of recycled or repurposed materials — like a panel made out of coconut shell and sugar cane waste, which our shoemaker in Mexico uses as inserts in the heel of the natural rubber sole.

Human and cultural sustainability is a big part of Industry of All Nations. We take manufacturing back to the original makers. There is nothing more sustainable than waking up every morning and go to work on something that you enjoy, represents who you are, your traditions and your place in the world.

GP: What can customers do to find and support sustainably minded brands?
FG: When looking for sustainable brands, conscious customers should do their research ask a lot of questions. And don’t always believe what brands say. Take care of your clothes, wash them less, repair them, buy used. Think that your grandchildren might appreciate that pair of jeans.

Learn More: Here

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