Future of Commerce Blog

It’s hard, but possible: operationalizing sustainable and responsible brand initiatives

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Leaving our meetup in SoHo last quarter, we reflected on some learnings and conjured up a few questions; namely around the sustainability practices that Antonia Saint (of THINX and Antonia Saint NY) and Maureen Samy (of AUrate) discussed.

It really got us thinking: how do brands operationalize sustainable practices? Operationalizing sustainability requires people to become self-learners which explains why it’s tough to do.

Making Less, Better: The Taylor Stitch Way

We met with Brian Larson over dumplings (yes, it’s linked because anyone reading this and in SF must go here) to discuss how Taylor Stitch is doing their part in reducing apparel waste. His vision as Brand Director is responsibility rather than sustainability: “Ideally the rhetoric within the industry should change to the idea of responsibility. Sustainability doesn’t tell you much about a product. Responsibility incorporates the lifetime impact of any given product.”

Brian brought to our attention that measuring the impact of a product during production is quite different than the overall responsibility of the finished good. For Taylor Stitch, it takes around 18 months from product conception to product completion, which is a tight timeline considering they’re designing their own fabrics and adhering to Various Responsibility Guidelines.

How do they do it?

To build strong relationships and audit the manufacturing process, Taylor Stitch visits and monitors its factories often. And no, manufacturing abroad doesn’t mean poor quality and unsustainable products. China has become The Center for clean and quality manufacturing processes that just aren’t practiced here in the US. “The only people progressing the apparel industry forward are in places like China. They are investing in technologies and building a workforce that is dedicated to crafting skills,” says Brian. By committing to manufacture in China, Taylor Stitch fulfills their promise of a consistent fit, durable fabrics, and better construction.

Taylor Stitch leverages the partnerships that larger brands like Patagonia have with factories to make their own efforts more practical. Part of the Taylor Stitch concept is to take something like a sweatshirt and upgrade the fabric and fit to work for multiple components of a person’s life; this gives a garment more wear, without wearing out.

Of course, the most responsible option is to give old garments a new life. Restitch does just that. Brian and his team uses Yerdle to inspect, repair, re-tag, and re-sell their garments–closing the loop. Best of all, each garment is transformed into something unique so it’s ready for its second life.

So, how are customers learning about how TS gets it done? Transparency: “We’re using organic fibers and responsible manufacturers. At the end of the day, the best thing we can do is to convey that to our customers. Products are manufactured with higher quality in China and what that means is it’s less likely to ever end up in a landfill.”

Your old tees, now new: Marine Layer + ReSpun

Marine Layer is pioneering something pretty cool: taking your old tees–any fabric, with or without graphics (yes, we saw that tee with 300 faces of Ryan Gosling on it)–and turning them into new, soft, durable tees.

We spoke with Andrew Graham, Director of Custom Projects at Marine Layer, who has dedicated a great deal of time to this initiative and learned some neat things. ReSpun was conceived about 2 years ago, and things have moved quickly. Since Andrew and his team believe in maintaining brand authenticity throughout the ReSpun process, they chose to work with Recover, a mill in Spain to take the rags leftover from broken down tees, spinning them into durable fibers, using little water.

The logistical challenges of ReSpun are many, and Marine Layer knew that they’d likely not profit from the product until more processes were streamlined. And, as one might imagine, this is a huge operational endeavor, and a process Marine Layer is continuously looking to improve: “We partnered with a freight company that is carbon neutral in order to ship the tees to a factory in North Carolina. We realized that by first breaking the tees into rags, it was less expensive to ship, and it reduced the overall environmental impact. That material is then sent to our mill in Spain where the fabric is made. The fabric is then shipped back to LA where we manufacture the tees,” notes Andrew. Clearly, every part of the process is meticulously monitored and acknowledged.

We’re sure you’re all wondering what then happens with the zippers, buttons, and miscellaneous components the donated tees might have. Not to worry: even those are downcycled.

Responsible and sustainable practices are only as strong as how they’re communicated to their loyal customers, and Andrew’s team understands this all too well: “We’re still working at creating a way to talk about ReSpun to our customers. Thinking about this effort is a serious topic, something we take seriously, but we’re not a serious-minded company.” Additionally, the younger generation’s demand for sustainable apparel is high, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of educating the consumer and making it accessible to all:

“It’s really hard not to get caught up in every aspect of creating a responsible and sustainable product. I think the best way we can do our part on educating the consumer is by being honest every step of the way. The other small initiatives we can take such as changing to LEDs in our stores and recycling our boxes are also great ways to continuously improve.” – Andrew Graham, Director of Special Projects, Marine Layer

Andrew and his team have an end-goal of manufacturing 50% of their product through the ReSpun project by 2020. Our biggest takeaway is Andrew’s care for the customer and a mindset of continuous improvement: “We’re constantly looking to involve our community in projects like these, which is why we started with the customer for ReSpun. We produce everything in small batches and are looking to create a community of change which will continue to drive this important  initiative forward.”

How other brands are doing good

Of course, there are many brands who are focusing on sustainability, including large brands looking to make a dent on the industry’s poor reputation. Here’s a snippet of a few brands hard at work:

 

We’d love to hear from you: how are you working toward building responsible practices at your brand, or as a consumer?

Emma Miller-Crimm

Marketing at Stitch Labs
Emma lives in the Bay Area, and does Content Marketing for Stitch Labs. She believes in providing information brands can use to visualize themselves before they invest in their operations, and loves helping brands in their growth journey. She is especially passionate about sustainable fashion and hopes her content helps brands realize their full potential.

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