Sustainability for retailers is a particularly slippery slope. While some are lauded for campaigns that make a significant impact, others are cited for hyperbole or greenwashing.
Regardless, having an environmentally friendly ethos is important to consumers — a Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — and brands have taken note. It’s not enough to just sell run-of-the-mill goods, brands need to have a defined social and societal impact.
We took a look at some of the recent efforts by eight major retail brands and assigned them letter grades based on genuine transparency ventures, reception by consumers and industry leaders, and commentary from outside experts.
Patagonia has long been the frontrunner when it comes to sustainability in retail. In November, it pulled an unprecedented move and donated 100 percent of its global Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Patagonia also has a robust repair program that helps consumers maintain longevity of their products, in addition to selling used branded clothingfrom its Portland retail store. (And no one has forgotten its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in 2011, which asked consumers to think twice before making a purchase in an effort to prevent waste.)
“Patagonia has done a tremendous amount of innovation for people and the planet. It’s been in their DNA from the beginning,” said Rebecca Mallard, founder of Maven Women, a sustainable women’s wear company.
Levi Strauss and Co. recognized it had to do something to cut its abundant water usage, so in 2011, it implemented its Water<Less program, which streamlines its production process to reduce water used to make denim. However, what really sets Levi’s apart is its focus on inter-industry collaboration when it comes to environmental efforts. It hosts an annual “collaboratory” that convenes retailers from around the world to glean insight and tips about more sustainable operations. It also expanded its worker well-being program last year to benefit more countries.
“They’re taking their role seriously in supporting innovation,” Ballard said. “It’s open source and about creating a cohesive network, rather than having a clutched fist attitude. Partnership is an essential element of ethics and sustainability.”
Gap, Inc.: B
Earlier this week, Athleta, part of the Gap, Inc., announced that it is launching its first line of athletic wear fully certified by Fair Trade USA, which is focused on supporting global factory workers. For every garment sold in the collection, factory workers are given an additional financial premium to use to benefit their community in areas like childcare, transportation and education. With its Fair Trade line, Athleta primarily aims to support female factory workers — the new styles are made by a factory in Sri Lanka where more than 80 percent of employees are female.
The move by Athleta follows Gap, Inc.’s announcement last year that it has begun disclosing global factor lists in a push for transparency, taking a cue from companies like UK-based Marks & Spencer and Belgium-based C&A. While it’s an important move, it only serves as the initial step before making tangible improvements to working conditions and Gap has yet to launch a program like Levi’s worker well-being efforts.
“It’s a really great first step in transparency and accountability, saying ‘these are our factories and we’re going to own up,’” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just, a informational platform focused on sustainable fashion and beauty.
Kering Group: C+
Kering came under fire in December when it received low marks in the Apparel & Footwear Benchmark Findings Report, developed by watchdog organization KnowTheChain. Kering was positioned fourth-to-last on the report, which ranked mass retailers in several categories, including risk assessment, recruitment, monitoring and governance.
Kering claims the score was a result of issues around its information disclosure practices and that information highlighting its most recent sustainability efforts was not considered. Among these ventures is Kering’s environmental profits and loss app, which launched in October as an educational tool to track the environmental cost of fashion design. In response, Kering launched a “next generation” sustainability strategy at the end of January, a comprehensive plans to curb emissions and increase working conditions.
Though H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012 and has since worked with organizations to help improve transparency standards, the actual level of transparency from H&M is minimal, with sporadic posts on social media alluding to improved working conditions. Additionally, the company has been caught in several troubling incidents, like the revelation that it had used refugee workers in Europe.
“The issue with H&M is they brand themselves as better than they actually are,” Ballard said. “When you find Syrian refugee children working in factories in Turkey, which happened, and a recycling campaign that has a greenwashing component, it makes me pause.”
Like H&M, Zara has been plagued with similar challenges falling upon fast-fashion retailers. However, it took four years longer than H&M to launch its first eco-friendly line. As part of its new effort, launched late last year, the Spanish company began offering recycled packaging and boxes and also started a clothing donation program (modeled largely off of H&M’s existing program).
“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy, told Glossy in a previous interview.
Despite operating on a mantra of “radical transparency,” Everlane has shown this notion is particularly elusive. Even with its push to share “Transparency Tuesday” Q&As on social media and its efforts to take customers on tours of factories, it is prohibited from disclosing its factory list and has unspecified compliance guidelines for locating new factories. However, the company audits every facility each quarter and avoids at-risk countries so there is no compliance risk, according to CEO Michael Preysman.
Preysman told Glossy in a previous article that the lack of information about its factories is an attempt to protect other brands that operate out of the same spaces. “Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.”
In September 2016, an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Asos workers were subjected to particularly brutal conditions, including being discouraged from taking bathroom and water breaks and getting fired for taking sick time. Despite numerous reports, the brand denied that it was complicit in the allegations. “There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information,” it said in a statement.
*This story first appeared on Glossy
Fast-fashion retailer Zara is trying its hand at sustainability with a new fashion line made using environmentally friendly materials.
The push by Zara, which has nearly 2,000 stores in 88 countries, is indicative of the continued push for increased transparency in retail, and demonstrates the importance for retailers to commit to sustainability, according to Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy.
“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” she said.
According to the Zara site, “the collection embraces a woman who looks into a more sustainable future” and is made with materials like organic cotton, recycled wool and Tencel, a recycled fabric derived from wood cellulose. Zara says that its Tencel is sourced from sustainably managed forests and that the farming process for its organic cotton uses 90 percent less water than usual cotton.
It’s a tenuous stance given Zara’s role in perpetuating the trend of cheaply produced goods, typically made from easily procured materials, sold at a low price point. Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co., said in the Glossy Podcast in August that it’s nearly impossible to reconcile sustainability with fast fashion and still turn a profit, making environmentally friendly efforts incongruous to the brand identity of companies like Zara.
“Wouldn’t it be a dream if [fast fashion retailers] stood up and said, ‘we are going to do one less delivery this year, we’re putting too many clothes out there, and we’re going to take a profit cut?’,” she said. “The race to the bottom in my opinion is very real.”
View this post on Instagram
Join Life Collection AW.16 | New editorial. A fusion of masculine and feminine style which defines clean silhouettes and a colour palette inspired by mineral tones Selected pieces mainly made of Tencel®, a wood fiber extracted from forests that are sustainably managed, guaranteeing its reforestation The farming process of organic cotton consumes 90% less water than conventional cotton #joinlife
The Spanish company is also launching a social campaign using the hashtag #JoinLife that includes “Boxes with a Past,” a selection of artists on the site creatively transforming Zara cardboard boxes into works of art. Zara lso launched a series of clothing collection receptacles at 300 locations in Europe for consumers to drop unwanted clothing of any brand, with plans to expand the effort to Asia and North America in 2017.
Users can also request free clothing collection in Spain and additional clothing will also be donated to the Red Cross and Oxfam, as well as to textile projects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lenzing, an Austrian based company focused on sustainable fabrics.
Blashill said focusing on environmentally friendly offerings is an increasingly important focus for retailers like Zara, noting that a recent Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials would be willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings. Competitor H&M launched its own Conscious line back in 2012.
The move also comes on the heels of retailers making increased pushes towards transparency, including Gap announcing earlier this month that it would disclose its full global factory list. Wright told Glossy in a previous article that efforts like these help create a domino effect of other brands enacted sustainable efforts.
“When a big brand steps forward like this it’s exciting because it shows that if a company at this scale can make a change like this, other more nimble companies can do the same,” Wright said.
*This story first appeared on Glossy