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
Knowing how conventional cotton is grown and denim is made, always-a-better-way outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has set out to change the industry. The company has partnered with chemical company Archroma on a new denim collection, launched this week — which is Fair Trade certified and said to use 84 percent less water, 30 percent less energy and 25 percent less CO2 compared to conventional denim dyeing processes — as well as a campaign telling us all about it.
Patagonia says the “filthy business” of producing conventional denim drove it to rethink the entire process. Typically, denim production involves the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides to grow conventional cotton; dying it produces millions of gallons of wastewater; and jeans are often sewn in factories where workers may not be treated fairly.
Patagonia’s new dyeing and manufacturing process uses dyes that bond more easily to cotton, minimizing the resource-intensive and environmentally destructive indigo dyeing, rinsing and garment-washing process used to create traditional denim. This results in much shorter production lines that consume significantly less water and energy and emits 25 percent less CO2 than conventional synthetic indigo denim dyeing. Because Patagonia doesn’t sandblast, bleach or stonewash its denim to make it look worn, it also avoids the serious social and environmental downsides of doing so. And all Patagonia denim is made with organic cotton, which eliminates chemical and synthetic fertilizers, poisonous pesticides or herbicides. Patagonia® Denim uses an innovative dye process that bonds color more readily to denim fabric.
“Traditional denim is a filthy business. That drove us to change the way our jeans are made,” said Helena Barbour, Patagonia’s Business Unit Director of Sportswear. “We wanted to find an alternative solution to using the standard indigo dyeing methods we once employed to create denim. It took several years of research, innovation, trial and error, but the result is a new path for denim. We’re hopeful other manufacturers will follow suit and help us change the denim industry.”
The Fair Trade program’s market-based approach helps workers receive fair compensation for their labor, while creating better working conditions and safeguarding against the use of child labor. In addition to the six denim styles, Patagonia has grown its Fair Trade clothing styles from 33 in spring 2015 to 192 in fall 2015.
**This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands here.
By Andria Cheng
Fair Trade coffee and chocolate have become commonplace. Get ready for Fair Trade fashion and décor.
Two years after a garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 people and put a harsh spotlight on fashion-industry working conditions, Fair Trade apparel is gaining ground.
The volume of apparel and home goods sold as Fair Trade Certified has grown rapidly in the past two years, according to the nonprofit certification group Fair Trade USA, which in 2012 introduced more than 334 compliance criteria for textile factories.
Fair Trade USA’s apparel certification now appears on 20 brands, up from just a handful before the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. Patagonia, Williams-Sonoma Inc. ’s West Elm unit and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. are among retailers that began selling Fair Trade Certified apparel or home furnishings in the past two years, according to Fair Trade USA.
The number of factories certified by Fair Trade USA is expected to increase to at least 25, in countries from India to Colombia, by the end of 2015, up from fewer than five in 2012.
A range of factors are measured by the group before a factory is labeled Fair Trade Certified—which is a trademarked designation. Those include a factory’s environmental impact, its overall working conditions and the rights afforded workers. As a baseline, workers must be guaranteed local minimum wages. Brands also are required to make additional payments—based on how much they buy from factories—directly to workers in what’s called a Fair Trade Premium.
The total cost to the brands, including third-party factory auditing, worker training and the Fair Trade Premium, is, on average, about 1% to 5% of what brands pay to factories, said Maya Spaull, director of Fair Trade USA’s apparel and home goods category.
Fair Trade USA, according to a West Elm representative, is the only group certifying production facilities for home and apparel manufacturers involved in large-scale production. “Traditionally, certification has been limited to raw materials or outputs,” said West Elm spokeswoman Abigail Jacobs.
Fair Trade USA—founded in 1998 to certify coffee production—now certifies in 30 categories, ranging from furnishings to flowers to spices to lip balms, as well as clothing.
Certified ethical apparel and home goods “need to be available to a wider mass-market audience” to “effect true positive change,” just as organic food choices have gone mainstream, said Marci Zaroff, founder and CEO of Under the Canopy, a fashion brand that works with Fair Trade USA.
Under the Canopy’s Fair Trade Certified line of bedding, introduced for back-to-school season at Bed Bath & Beyond last year, sold out immediately, according to Ms. Zaroff. “Millennials are seeking authenticity and transparency,” she said. They are the ones “driving the rapidly growing movement for sustainable and ethical fashion.”
Under the Canopy has added more Fair Trade collections at Bed Bath & Beyond, including lines of organic cotton kimono robes and throws, which it also sells through Amazon.com and Wayfair.com.
West Elm is expanding the six Fair Trade Certified rug offerings introduced during the 2014 holiday season to 30 rug lines and 13 textile collections this fall, said Ms. Jacobs, adding that the broadening of its certified offerings “speaks to the customer’s interest” and “commitment to consciousness.”
Whole Foods Market Inc. began carrying Fair Trade Certified T-shirts made by Pact Apparel in the spring of 2014. The shirts, which cost $15, are one of Whole Foods’ best-selling basic apparel lines, the company said.
At yoga and outdoor-apparel brand Prana, which was acquired by Columbia Sportswear last year, the single Fair Trade Certified T-shirt introduced in 2010 led the way to nearly 100 items, including dresses, skirts and men’s shirts, said Nicole Bassett, the brand’s director of sustainability. In fact, Fair Trade products now represent about 15% of the overall assortment at Prana, which has approached some existing suppliers to help them get certified, Ms. Bassett said.
**This article first appeared on The Wall Street Journal here.
Bay Area-based nonprofit Fair Trade USA works across a wide range of industries to ensure ethical production of consumer products. The group’s Fair Trade Apparel program, which was established in 2012, grew an astonishing 358% in 2014.
With recent the garment factory tragedies around the world, Fair Trade USA is offering actual solutions for many brands to help address supply chain issues. The group gives garment industry workers a voice, and ensures the safety of laborers and artisans around the world. The company just certified the first Fair Trade factory in the U.S., which is located in Los Angeles.
We recently spoke with Director of Apparel at Fair Trade USA, Maya Spaull, to learn about Fair Trade certification, international factory safety standards, ethically-sources brands and more.
What does Fair Trade USA do?
Essentially what we do is … we are connectors. We work with producers of over 30 product categories — coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, clothing , home goods, soccer balls, footwear. We basically work with the producers around the world that are making the things that, you know, we consume, and certify that they’re making them in a more responsible and safe way. And then we connect those producers to buyers and companies here to ensure that the products are Fair Trade certified and create benefit to give back to those producers.
So, you know, we’re nonprofit. We don’t buy or sell anything. We basically certify a product and then create a consumer movement. Because we believe the consumers are increasingly conscious about what they’re purchasing, and they want to spend their dollars on things that are beautiful and well-made, but also that are fair and just and really are promoting a better livelihood for everyone who is participating in the creation of those products.
How is Fair Trade Certification different for the fashion and apparel industry?
About five years ago, we started looking at expansion of Fair Trade products, and we were getting a lot of requests for clothing — for products made with Fair Trade cotton, and then more importantly, I think there is a real hunger for some kind of assurance that people are safe in the work place. Particularly with the legacy of sweat shops that we saw come up in the 90’s, you know, the whole Nike campaign. And then these issues kept emerging — Rana Plaza, the fire that just happened in Manila last week in the Philippines …
So, basically we were getting a lot of consumer demand. So basically we went out and we developed the world’s first Fair Trade certified factory program. What that really means tangibly is that a producer of rugs, or of sweaters, or of knits can comply with this audit anywhere in the world. It’s extremely rigorous. It’s 334 compliance points. So what that means is we’re looking at everything; we’re looking at working conditions, gender equality, working hours, fire exits, safety in the workplace, protective equipment with sewing machines of if there’s any type of finishing’s or sprays.
It’s extremely thorough because when we put our label on something we’re guaranteeing that this is a safe, positive, great place to work.
You make it sound so easy. I’m wondering why other brands aren’t doing more to ensure these tragedies, like what happened in Manila, stop occurring.
I think in the category of fashion, there’s an extreme amount of pressure on suppliers. To create products quickly, cheaply, and there’s a lot of outsourcing that happens. So, a brand may say, ‘Okay, I need a million units of these pants.’ And the factory, who doesn’t want to lose the business, will say ‘Okay, yeah, we’ll deliver that. But then rather than sourcing it from the factory that they just promised that they’re manufacturing in, they’ll go to a couple guys down the street who can make the pants too, in order to deliver on the order. But maybe the brands aren’t aware of those factories — or in those factories there could be undocumented workers, bad pay and unsafe conditions.
There’s a lot of outsourcing and I think a lot of it is the pressures of the marketplace.
And then I think, sadly, there’s a lot of brands that don’t have the transparency or don’t really care. And there’s a lot of consumers that don’t really care or don’t know to care because they don’t have an awareness of these issues.
What are some Fair Trade certified apparel and accessories brands that people can shop?
You can see a full list of brands that now offer Fair Trade Certified apparel here.
**This article first appeared on Fashion Times here.