Even in the post-pandemic era, sustainability remains one of those hot-button topics in boardrooms and offices the world over. And when it comes to boardrooms around the globe, one industry that regularly cops a lot of flack in the conversation around sustainability is the fashion industry. Luckily, some fashion brands are leading the rag trade down a path to redemption. We’ve spoken to three ‘slow fashion’ companies we believe are building admirable sustainable business models: talking through their signature products; what makes them sustainable; and everything we’ve learned along the way.
But before all that, it’s probably a good idea to settle on a working definition of the word ‘sustainability’ – an intensely meaty subject that requires us to enlist real experts. And no: taking public transport to work and separating your plastics doesn’t quite cut it.
The ‘Triple Bottom Line’
Graz van Egmond is CEO of Banksia Foundation: a not-for-profit that puts the microscope over businesses and publicly recognises those achieving big strides in the eco-friendly field. According to van Egmond, UN Sustainable Development Goals are the gold standard for measuring actual sustainability, yet a simpler introduction to it all comes with the notion of the Triple Bottom Line (‘TBL’).
Accordingly, the TBL mandates that a sustainable business model should always balance three social and environmental considerations: care for people, care for the environment, and economic viability. These are the ‘3 Ps’ if you will – people, planet, profit.
Bearing this in mind, below we cycle through three sustainable fashion labels that we think are taking a good run at the ol’ TBL.
Care For The Environment – Icebreaker
Almost a decade ago, scientists made the disturbing discovery that synthetic micro-fibres (the kind that gets washed down the drain every time you do your laundry) are at risk of poisoning our global food supply. Research is still being conducted to find out what sort of adverse health effects these fibres will have as they become an increasingly pervasive part of food chains, but the early warning signs (as you’d expect) are not good.
That’s where ethical outdoor clothing brands in the mould of Icebreaker come in. The “sustainable Merino” label is committed to raising awareness of the issue; and has even come up with a few initiatives to help tackle the problem.
Where It All Started
A chance meeting with a Kiwi wool farmer (who had created a pair of thermal underwear using merino fleece) led Icebreaker’s founder, Jeremy Moon, to establish the company. Now a global brand offering men’s and women’s outdoor clothing, in just 25 short years their range has grown to include sweaters, jackets, t-shirts, socks and underwear. Moon didn’t raise the business solely on great natural fibres: his company’s operational playbook incorporates a number of key themes about regeneration and ecological balance. Of course, at the centre of all this is the Merino fibre.
Ancient, reliable and naturally occurring, it’s no wonder merino has often been called the King of woollen materials. With excellent thermoregulating properties and a soft, comfortable handle it is an ideal textile for crafting outdoor clothing. In addition, because of the way merino is woven, the fibres are great for wicking moisture and transferring it to the garment’s exterior – evaporating faster and keeping you cool.
The innovative and much-needed work that Icebreaker has been doing in the environmental space for the fashion industry is best explained by telling you exactly what happens every time you wash your clothes. In 2011, a team of scientists led by Dr. Mark Browne, a Senior Lecturer at The University of NSW, released a report detailing the build-up of microplastics in the ocean along multiple international shorelines.
Along with micro-fibres, these plastics are released into various populations up and down the oceanic food chain (e.g. molluscs and crustaceans) every single time we wash our clothes. According to Browne’s research, one garment can release over 1,900 synthetic micro-fibres – which are then washed into the ocean via a series of sewage outlets. Adjusted for the number of times the average household does their laundry every week; and the threat of irreversible damage to the global food supply begins to look extremely real.
Merino Wool – The Original Superhero Fabric
So what does this all have to do with Icebreaker?
For starters, the brand brought the micro-fibre issue to widespread attention via its #TeesForGood campaign. Launched with the tagline, “What impact does your T-shirt have”, Icebreaker’s efforts celebrated merino wool’s remarkable odour-eliminating qualities – implying they’d hold up to over a week’s worth of wear without the need for laundering.
The takeaway here is that clothing made from natural fibres generally remains fresher for longer; thus requiring less water across its lifespan. Additionally, when you do wash these garments what you’re sending down the drain isn’t full of synthetics or microplastic – less likely to do harm to the ocean’s food supply.
Who Is The Icebreaker Customer?
In discussion with Carla Murphy, Icebreaker’s Vice President (Global Brand & Product) we asked if the masses really care about washing micro-fibres down the drain enough to change their purchasing habits. In response, she pointed to the continued and long-term growth of organic beauty: initially deemed a ‘fad’, this category in the beauty industry has grown 7-10 times faster than in other areas – indicating a collective shift towards conscious consumption amongst consumers.
Additionally, there are various prongs to Icebreaker’s sustainability strategy. In no particular order: the brand uses plant-based dyes in its manufacturing; provides assistance to farmers in the development of better land-care practices; and the annual ‘Transparency Report’ – which also outlines how they’re doing on the two other fronts covered by TBL. You can access 2022’s edition of the report here.
Care For People – Clothing The Gaps
Clothing The Gaps produce a variety of fashion items that save lives by supporting healthcare programs for at-risk indigenous Australians. The company’s mantra of “creating a just society” might sound a little hokey (like something you’d read in a back-issue of Action Comics), but read on and you’ll see just how serious the brand is about this mission statement.
‘Free The Flag’
A few years prior, the AFL made front-page news with a controversial story about its inability to utilise the Aboriginal flag during the league’s all-important indigenous rounds. Headlines with the phrase “Free The Flag” appeared in response to letters of demand issued by WAM Clothing, the non-indigenous company that owns the exclusive right to use the design on apparel.
Rather than the copy of some pithy desk editor, the term was actually coined by Clothing The Gaps a number of years prior to the AFL controversy. The brand uses a range of ready-to-wear clothing (including tees, singlets and hoodies) to promote awareness of the difficult issues affecting Australia’s indigenous communities; usually with provocative slogans like “Always Was, Always Will Be” and “Shades Of Deadly”.
Even though Clothing The Gaps began primarily as a means of funding community healthcare programs for indigenous Aussies, the brand has experienced something of a rise to prominence thanks to its uptake among professional athletes involved in the AFL (such as the entire Collingwood team, who have been spotted training in the brand’s apparel).
The Power Of Merch
We spoke to Laura Thompson, General Manager of Clothing The Gaps, and Sianna Catullo – the brand’s Chief Creative Officer. Both were originally employees of Spark Health – the two designed its own clothing to hand out to volunteers as program-themed merch. All this kit proved so popular that they soon found a way to turn it into a supplement to government funding, and Clothing The Gaps was born.
When Cultures Collide
To better support Clothing The Gaps’ profitability, Catullo and Thompson widened their target market to encompass many non-indigenous Australians. Initially, that wasn’t without its own learning curve.
The duo’s solution was to incorporate subtle references to traditional Aboriginal design in their activewear (still an ongoing line) and use more universally recognisable clothing motifs for their streetwear. Additionally, branding features references to uniquely Aboriginal language and concepts, which Thompson hopes will encourage non-indigenous Australians to learn more about the causes they’re supporting when buying from the brand.
The Power Of Fashion
It’s difficult to argue with the awareness that Clothing The Gaps has achieved in both the mainstream and more specialised market for sustainable clothing. The brand has found favour with musicians, professional athletes and a variety of other celebs that spend a lot of time in the public eye; and in part, thanks to this exposure, Thompson explains to us that the brand’s sales will soon be able to bankroll the relevant healthcare programs without government assistance.
Care For Profitability – Outland Denim
There’s a reason that fast fashion continues to persist – deregulated labour and huge margins are hard things to pass up. Yet in Outland Denim’s case, things are done a bit differently: the sustainable fashion label was created to support and rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking – by giving them vocational training and financial independence.
According to James Bartle, Founder of Outland Denim, the horrific circumstances faced by many of the garment workers (disproportionately women) who are now core to the business were best tackled by operating a business with a completely overhauled supply chain and business model.
Bartle spent six and a half years building a sustainable manufacturing model from scratch; and it has been operational now for nearly the same amount of time (all manufacturing is based out of Cambodia). Beyond outlaying resources to train employees in all the technical aspects of making denim clothing; Bartle’s brand also provides opportunities to learn English, basic financial literacy and other interrelated skills essential in the fight against poverty.
Admittedly, building a business with the heart of a social enterprise can become expensive very quickly, raising the question about how a brand can remain sustainable (in the social and environmental sense) while also being competitive. We spoke with Bartle, who was quick to emphasise one point from the get-go – quality.
How A Values System Works For Business
Many fashion NGOs that don’t make the long-term cut fail because the product that is at the heart of their business is, to be truthful, completely unexceptional. While brands like Patagonia and Brunello Cucinelli have proven it’s possible to sell a values system as well as a hard product – the latter is non-negotiable. Man cannot live on lofty ideas alone, and all that.
That begs the question as to what sort of model does work where the employee-employer relationship is concerned. Unlike the vast majority of large international businesses that take advantage of cheap labour in the developing world (the elephant in the room) Bartle explains that it is in fact prudent to invest long-term in the nuts and bolts of business operations. Seen by some as outlays, in his view, they are a kind of delayed-return dividend:
You’re Only As Good As The People You Hire
Case in point: by training its seamstresses in the technique needed to cut and sew an entire denim garment, Outland Denim is able to leverage a multi-skilled workforce that is able to support the business anywhere along the production line.
A case in point – Outland Denim trains their seamstresses to make the entire denim garment – not just how to sew on pockets or buttons. Highly skilled seamstresses make great garments, full stop, but highly skilled seamstresses also make versatile employees, who are able to jump in anywhere along the production pipeline, providing big wins in terms of efficiency.
A knock-on advantage in Bartle’s business model is that by investing heavily in their staff and giving them skills that are individually enriching, each employee’s morale is high. So when things get crazy, and the business grows quicker than anticipated, the brand can call on a skilled and engaged workforce.
Sink Or Swim
Much like Icebreaker, Bartle’s brand has done its due diligence; and knows that the market for informed and ethical consumption exists and is still growing. One of Outland Denim’s more recent initiatives is the vertical integration of its own cotton farms; giving them more control over production and the environmental impact of making denim. Again, this is a significant outlay – but one that Bartle says brands cheap out on at their own peril.
Going beyond the names we’ve mentioned, there are a metric ton of established fashion brands operating around the world that continue to make headway for TBL compliance. One consistent theme underpinning all of our discussions was that in order for brands to be truly sustainable into the future, it’s impossible to do so alone.
In other words: the fashion eco-system at large has to hold suppliers, textile mills, logistics companies and their consumers accountable and vice-versa. More challengingly, sustainability even requires one to engage in useful dialogue with the competition – something that seems counter-intuitive to life in the free market. Surprisingly when asked about whether she’d help competitors to set up their own systems of sustainability, Murphy explained she saw that as a no-brainer: