Introduction

On January 13, 2020, Goulston & Storrs PC hosted a panel discussion featuring leaders in the fashion industry’s movement towards more sustainable practices. The panel was organized by Jen Furey, a member of Goulston & Storrs PC’s retail group, and Ana Gonzalez Herrera, the founder of the boutique strategy, branding and sales agency, AG Casa.

Ana kicked off the panel by sharing some troubling statistics that display just how important this topic is. The fashion industry has a massive waste problem. According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the fashion industry:

  • consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined, accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions;
  • produces 20% of wastewater (water affected by human use);
  • is responsible for 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • loses $500 billion of value every year due to clothing underutilization and lack of recycling.

Panelists

The panel, moderated by Claire Konviser, Founder and Consultant at CLK Consulting, included three women in different areas of the fashion industry, each leading by example in the movement towards more sustainable practices. The panelists were:

  • Stephanie Benedetto, CEO of Queen of Raw, a marketplace that allows customers to buy unused, excess fabric that would otherwise end up burned or buried. Queen of Raw allows customers to save 700 gallons of water per yard purchased;
  • Tina Bhojwani, Co-Founder and CEO at AERA, a luxury, vegan footwear line that not only neutralizes their environmental impact, but goes one step further to offset it, hence their mission of being 110% sustainable; and
  • Eden Spatz-Bender, Development and Production Manager at ADAY, a clothing line that creates sustainable, seasonless clothes, inspiring its customers to practice conscious, mindful consumption and to do more with less.

Demand for Sustainability

One of the key drivers of sustainable fashion development has been consumer demand. Eden explained that, when it comes to sustainability, ADAY’s relationship with their customers is reciprocal. Sustainable practices are increasingly important to consumers, and there are plenty of platforms for consumers to call out a brand when they fall short of their sustainable goals.

It isn’t only consumers that are seeking out sustainable brands. AERA pre-launched in mid-June 2019 and completed their seed round just a few months ago. Tina found that investors are increasingly looking to put their money in companies that have a mission involving sustainability.

Supply Chain Cooperation

However, creating a product requires companies to work with suppliers and manufacturers that may not share their sustainable goals. The panel acknowledged this concern but the future seems hopeful. Eden explained that, initially, it was a struggle convincing suppliers to operate in sustainable ways when larger companies were not asking for those same practices. Now, however, there is a shift where those larger companies are buying into the idea of sustainability, and when those larger companies ask for meaningful changes to manufacturing, it benefits smaller companies by allowing the manufacturers to scale those sustainable practices resulting in lower costs within the supply chain.

Tina echoed the struggle. She is working with multi-generational family factories in Italy and asking them to rethink everything and work with AERA’s vegan materials. At first, they thought she was crazy; now, they see sustainable practices as the future of their industry and recognize that implementing these practices will help keep their businesses alive.

Sustainability and Profit

An important balance is between sustainable practices and what implementation of those practices ultimately costs the consumer. A 2019 report from e-commerce personalization platform Nosto reported the results of a survey of 2,000 U.S. and U.K. based shoppers. The survey found that 52% of those consumers surveyed want the fashion industry to follow more sustainable practices, but only 29% of those consumers would pay more for sustainably-made versions of the same items.

Eden explained that ADAY addresses this balance by being open about any sort of premium customers are paying for sustainability. For example, they converted to a recycled polyester version of their bestselling style. They were open with their customers about the increased price, which resulted in a moderate margin for ADAY. They know their customer cares about it and make their sustainable journey a real and accessible experience for their customers.

Stephanie found that sustainability can actually result in more profit for a company. If a company can identify waste where it occurs, they can then monetize that waste and there is a liability off of their books. For example, products and fabric that would otherwise have been burned or sent to a landfill can instead be resold, reused and recycled, creating a circular economy with a business. Sustainability and profit do not have to be mutually exclusive concepts.

Increasing Implementation

Our panelists each faced unique challenges in pursuing sustainable missions, and as trailblazers, often had to create their own solutions to those challenges. However, sustainability is becoming more “mainstream” and therefore becoming easier to implement. There are third party companies that specialize in measuring the environmental impact of a company and its suppliers, which allows that company to understand its current impact and make adjustments as needed. Top fashion academic institutions such as FIT, Parsons and Pratt are offering courses in sustainable fashion, which will result in new generations of fashion professionals beginning their careers already trained and aware of sustainability’s relationship to the industry.

How Consumers Can Help

As far as areas of improvement, the panelists and the crowd agreed that a large part of sustainability is changing consumers' behavior. It is so easy to make purchase with one click of a button, that consumers are further and further removed from the process that goes behind creating a shirt or a pair of shoes. The panelists agreed that a good start for the consumer is adopting a philosophy of doing more with less. When making purchasing decisions, investing in timeless and quality pieces versus trendy fast fashion will create less closet turnover. When it is time retire a piece of clothing, consumers should consider donating to increase the clothing’s life beyond one user. Consumers are also encouraged to educate themselves about where their products come from and how they are made.

Conclusion

The fashion industry has its challenges in achieving sustainability, but our panelists demonstrated that there is a sustainable way forward within the industry. As knowledge about sustainable practices grows more widespread, it’s becoming easier and more beneficial for both industry professionals and consumers to do their part.