A new report from McKinsey shows that among mass-market apparel brands, only 1% of new products introduced during the first two quarters of this year were sustainably made.
It’s a surprising finding, considering the same report showed online searches for ‘sustainable fashion’ have tripled since 2016.
While consumer demand for responsibly-made apparel is on the rise, it seems that most retailers are dragging their feet when it comes to sustainability efforts.
Of course, there are retailers within that 1% that are pushing ahead with more responsible fashion production models. Everlane champions eco-friendly and transparent manufacturing, ASOS features a variety of ‘eco brands’, and GAP has ongoing efforts to use only sustainable cotton in production by 2021, to name a few examples.
But smaller, more agile fashion brands seem to be finding success leaning into responsible production models.
Ahead of Sustainability Day next week on October 24, I spoke with the founders of two female-led fashion brands to learn about how they’ve navigated the path to responsible production, as well as the why driving those efforts.
For Kayti O’Connell Carr, founder of clothing brand MATE The Label, her experience navigating responsible manufacturing started with old-fashioned trial and error.
As part of her research into potential production partners for her company’s clothing items, Carr went in person to visit a variety of different US-based vendors. In doing so, she was able to see for herself what factory employees dealt with on a daily basis, both in the factory and in the dye house.
The more she learned about fabrics, processing, and production, the more her passion for responsible, eco-friendly practices grew—not just on the employee side, but on the consumer side, too.
“I realized it’s not just the consumer that is being exposed to harmful chemicals, but also hundreds of thousands of global garment workers,” she said. “I was shocked at how common it is for workers to be exposed to toxic chemicals and microfibers all day if they don’t wear a mask.”
As a result, Carr ended up working with a Los Angeles-based factory (the same one used by Everlane) that aligns with the brand’s responsible production values and quality standards.
It’s more expensive, but Carr says she tries to look at the full cost from a footprint perspective and to remember that it’s a more environmentally responsible path at the end of the day.
Today, 95% of MATE’s product is made within five miles of its headquarters, and the other 5% is made within a 10-mile radius. She explained that while it’s rare to have such a localized supply chain, it’s allowed her to consider the full life cycle of the brand’s products and how sustainability practices fit in at every step.
For Nicola Harlem, founder of luxury clothing and outerwear company The Curated, sustainable production has been a priority from day one—and it’s proved a highly profitable path.
The brand’s luxury clothing items (most of which fall in the $350 price range) are made using leftover fabric remnants from factories. While this means their quantities are extremely limited, the scarcity this approach produces means their items almost always sell out.
Now having shifted to a pre-order model, The Curated maximizes production and quickly moves through product runs that are sold out before they are even finished being manufactured. At the same time, this approach means they produce no excess product, and can operate with zero waste.
“Because our fabric is not a commonly used composition, there’s often very little of it left in stock—so if we do find it, we buy it and release a limited edition of colors,” Harlem explained.
The strategy is paying off: In September, pre-orders for The Curated’s most recent batch of products resulted in $45,000 worth of pre-orders in the first hour alone. A year in, the brand has already seen revenue in excess of seven figures.
Harlem sees this responsible approach to production also proves more ethical in that it encourages consumers to invest in quality staple pieces they can use for many years, rather than opting for cheaper, lower-quality items that are quickly cycled through.
Industry experts like Mike Colarossi, Vice President of Product Line Management, Innovation, and Sustainability at Avery Dennison, say that more apparel retailers need to follow suit and look to sustainable production processes.
“As the second-largest polluter in the world (behind only oil and gas), the apparel industry has an obligation to act,” he said. “Data consistently shows that sustainability is simply good business.”
He went on to say that he believes adopting sustainable production practices will help ensure the longevity of companies in a highly competitive fashion market by allowing them to address a growing consumer demand.