Guest Blog by Leela Rao-Kataria
The global movement toward sustainability went full-throttle in April. Earth Day fell on April 22nd, just prior to the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse. This was followed shortly after by the earthquake in Nepal. The combination of these events created more discussion around sourcing, forcing people to take a closer look at the repercussions of manufacturing products abroad.
As the public was bombarded across channels – from social media to commercials, articles and celebrity activism – it got me thinking: Have you ever heard the expression “it takes 1,000 whispers to make a shout”? Well these 1,000 statements caused a collective moment toward awareness around ethical sourcing. There were several dialogues that set-off the wave of conversation in April. Here’s what came out of them:
Patagonia Takes a Stand on Earth Day
No one goes against the tide more than the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. In honor of Earth Day, Chouinard took out a full page ad in the New York Times that said, “Don’t Buy Our Clothes!”1 This promotion caused quite the stir and set the stage for Patagonia’s refined version of the pop-up store, called Worn Wear Wagon. The wagon is a mobile garment shop that will make its way throughout the country, stitching, mending and fixing any clothing previously purchased from the brand. Chouinard believes this initiative is what separates Patagonia from other brands in that the retailer is actually living the values it preaches to reuse and recycle. “I’ve always felt guilty about making consumer things. So I have a sense that it’s my responsibility to help people wear them as long as possible,” Chouinard stated in an interview with the Today Show following the release of the ad.
Other retailers made waves on Earth Day, too. ModCloth launched its eco-friendly style collection, which minimizes waste through repurposing fabric and highlights the fair wage and comfortable work environment of their Balinese sourcing.2 L’Oreal was featured in Green Retail Decisions for lowering its CO2 emissions by 57%, the majority of which was achieved using renewable energy in facilities.3
Fashion Revolution Day Emerges
Fashion Revolution Day revolution emerged in response to the tragic Bangladesh factory collapse in 2013. Fashion Revolution Day4 occurred on April 24th, marking the two year anniversary of the disaster. Consumers were asked to wear their clothes inside out on that day in order to make the labels visible. The nonprofit organization behind the awareness movement stated, “Social and environment catastrophes in our fashion supply chains continue. Fashion Revolution says enough is enough.” The organization emphasizes the need to value people and the environment, accomplishing this through transparency and education. The day was accompanied by a notable social media push to promote the hashtag #whomademyclothes5. Retailers who implement practices aligned with this thinking were promoted on the Fashion Revolution website.
John Oliver Takes Aim at the Apparel Industry
Millions tuned in to watch John Oliver berate the current state of consumerism specific to the apparel industry. Oliver claimed that people are interested in only shopping for the lowest prices possible, willing to sacrifice ethical work conditions and fair trade wages for apparel manufactured abroad. However, he failed to mention the steps that several retailers are taking to achieve greater visibility into their sourcing and to ensure that labor practices are ethical. This is an issue retailers have faced for some time, and will continue to face for the foreseeable future.
Getting insight into what’s happening at the factory level has been a priority for many retailers who understand that consumers won’t support brands that don’t practice ethical treatment of their employees. Oliver didn’t showcase the retailers that are prioritizing the manufacturers, including brands like Everlane whose value proposition is that true costs are revealed to customers using transparent sourcing. Photos of factories, as well as the stories of employees, are featured on their website, along with clear diagrams of the price their consumers pay for the material, production, etc. and how that contributes to the final price. Activists like Angelina Jolie support the brand and wear its products frequently.6
Levi Strauss & Company7 is another brand that had made strides on this front. Levi’s has partnered with the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) to secure better interest rates for its manufacturers. This allows them to purchase raw materials without the burden that comes from bank loans with exorbitant interest rates. Suppliers are rewarded with better rates based on a responsibility score card. Levi’s features this partnership on its website as a “shared prosperity,” with a mutual belief that suppliers should be rewarded for doing the right thing.
The consumer movement toward ethics and sustainability is in full force. How fast retailers will be able to respond to the demands of the public is still to be seen and will depend on their ability to prioritize investment around these initiatives. Retailers like Patagonia and Levi’s that are ahead of the game in this regard are finding their investments to already be paying off. Those that have fallen behind and fail to create a transparent sourcing model for their consumers will be left behind, as millennials continue to lead the charge toward a new model for apparel manufacturers.
Leela Rao-Kataria is Retail Marketing Manager for GT Nexus