This Earth Day, Green Is the New Denim

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2015 New York Times News Service


Earth Day, April 22, means different things to different people: a chance to plant some seedlings; a call to activism; the time to actually make that New Year’s resolution compost heap.

But to many fashion people, it mostly means an inbox clogged with emails trumpeting “green is the new black” and celebrating “100 percent vegan handbags, backpacks and clutches,” or “10 percent eco-friendly dyes and materials,” or other such initiatives demonstrating the industry’s environmental awareness and progress — as embodied by stuff you can buy.

Meanwhile, Fashion Revolution Day, which takes place a mere two days later, means something else entirely: a day commemorating the human tragedy that was the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse by illuminating the continued lack of transparency in the supply chain. (Individuals are invited to wear their clothes inside out, tag the brand that made them and tweet #whomademyclothes.)

From one day to the other, the messaging goes from one extreme to the other. Stuck between celebration and condemnation, what’s a consumer to think?

The default reaction is, generally, suspicion, at least when it comes to the first. Certainly it is for me, and not just because it is part of my job to question motivation or because it’s also easier to criticize than praise (you look like less of a sucker), but because fashion has become notorious for its supply-chain abuses, from the blood diamond and Nike sweatshop scandals of the late 1990s to today’s Bangladeshi tragedy.

Then, too, fast fashion has created such a glut of inexpensive stuff that it’s impossible to imagine it could end up a zero-sum game, even given such action as H&M’s sustainability report.

And yet a shift of sorts has taken place.

“One line using one fiber for one thing doesn’t change anything,” Jason Kibbey, chief executive of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, said by phone from his base in California. “But there seems to be an understanding now that it’s not about easy shopping choices.” Kibbey’s group is a trade organization whose members include everyone from Burberry to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Call it Sustainable Fashion 2.0 (or, if you must, a “'sustainability journey’ — terminology that drives me crazy,” said Linda Greer, a senior scientist in the health program of the Natural Resources Defense Council).

It comes after stage one — acknowledging there is a problem and marketing the realization — and reflects brands’ attempts to assess their own environmental impact, including water use, electricity, fiber production and so on, and “hold themselves accountable in a way they never have before,” as Kibbey said.

See, for example, the environmental profit and loss statement that Kering created in 2010 and applied to Puma and is currently applying to all its luxury brands, with results due in 2016, or pretty much any of the assessments demanded of the member brands in the proliferating sustainability indexes from names like Dow Jones, Ethisphere and Corporate Knights.

Or see two developments that stood out this week because (like the above) they reflect a relatively new willingness on fashion’s part to engage with the least mediagenic side of the issue. There’s just no good way to reduce these initiatives to an Instagram moment.

And in an industry based on image, one that has embraced that social media platform above all others (to such an extent that the Council of Fashion Designers of America is actually giving Instagram its “media” award this June), that’s worth noting.

First, Adidas, long a part of the above indexes, announced that it had signed a five-year “seven figure” contract to partner with an organization called Parley for the Oceans, which was created to publicize and tackle the problem of ocean plastic. It is the most long-term such initiative the company has signed to date, according to Eric Liedtke, head of global brands, and will involve both developing new plastic treatments that can be used in recycled polyester fabrics and driving direct action. Translation: picking up plastic on the beach.

And second, Maiyet, the socially conscious luxury brand started in 2010 to help create sustainable businesses in challenged regions of the world, embarked on its first supply-chain initiative, working with the Gobi Revival Fund to facilitate a vaccine program and “corral sanitation” for nomadic goat herders in Mongolia as part of a drive to source ethical cashmere.

Effectively, it is committing about $200,000 a year to the project, as well as buying 40 tons of fiber directly from the farmers (as opposed to from the traditional Chinese middlemen), which will then be spun into cashmere in a factory in Italy, with practices assessed by Maiyet. It plans to sell the material at the Florentine fabric fair, Pitti Filati, ensuring quality and supply for their own products as well as for any other brand that buys it. Also, presumably, some profit for themselves.

Still, it’s a more complicated narrative to sell than nice T-shirts. And though Adidas was introduced to Parley via its very camera-friendly supporter, and its collaborator, Pharrell Williams, garbage and goat waste tend not to quicken the heart the same way that, say, handbags and hot models do.

Supply-chain issues are among the thorniest in all of fashion, both because of the human and environmental costs involved and because eyes tend to glaze over at the topic. But they are also, as Greer points out, the “impact hot spots of the industry.”


Pointedly, the tension between the subject and its lack of eyeball appeal is partly why Cyrill Gutsch, the founder of Parley, wanted Adidas as a partner. “The creative community provides buzz,” he said, “and sneakers are signs of rebellion and very close to the youth consumer.”

The irony is, it’s a reversal of the usual equation, in which fashion brands hook up with celebrities to give them buzz and appeal; the fashion part here gives the oompf to otherwise less than sexy subjects. As to what fashion gets (well, lip service to goodness aside), there is the bonus of managing reputational risk and increasing brand equity, which speaks directly to brand valuation.


In the meantime, a third development in yet another non-sexy area of fashion has received almost universal acclaim from environmental skeptics, a rare thing.

To be specific, the appointment of Burak Cakmak as the dean of the fashion school at Parsons The New School for Design. Chosen from among the approximately 200 applicants, according to Joel Towers, the executive dean of Parsons, Cakmak spent his career as the sustainability guy at companies like Kering, Swarovski and Gap.

“We were looking for someone who could articulate the future of fashion and be a crossover figure, and Burak made the most compelling case,” Towers said.

To wit: that sustainability had to be embedded into the curriculum of every class at Parsons, as opposed to being segregated into its own discipline. That understanding the environmental and human impact of design was soon going to be a requirement for all employees at fashion brands, be they creatives or corporate executives. That it was part of “the broader definition of intelligent design.”

In other words, fashion may have reached the stage where it has realized green is no longer the new black: a trendy color that is in one year; out the next.

Now it’s the new denim: a basic every brand needs as part of doing business.