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            How Sustainable Are These "Eco-Friendly" Fashion Brands?

            Maxine Bédat of the New Standard Institute assesses the practices of 13 fashion brands that claim to be sustainable.

            image
            Courtesy

            What does it really mean for a fashion brand to be “sustainable”? Some companies tout their use of recycled and reclaimed fibers, or their use of natural (non-petroleum based) raw materials, while others focus on timeless designs and artisanal labor, or their reduction of energy and water consumption. But these definitions lead down very different paths.

            Recycled polyester (a.k.a. material made from recycled plastic), for example, has become synonymous with “sustainability” despite available data suggesting that it may have a higher carbon footprint than natural fiber—not to mention the micro-plastic pollution it generates. Because there is no global fashion industry standard for sustainability, companies large and small continue to label their products “sustainable,” when in fact, they still impact the environment on the following fronts: energy, water, chemical use, and impacts on forests and biodiversity.

            To steer the industry on a more sustainable course, New Standard Institute analyzed the brands best known for their low impact on the environment. How do they stack up? Use the key below to see how sustainable they really are:

            Good, an A for effort

            + Better than average

            ? Unclear, too little is disclosed to make an assessment

            ❌ Would be false to claim “sustainability”


            Reformation: ✓

            How they define sustainability: "We put sustainability at the center of everything we do. It is an evolving goal and definition, and we don’t have all the answers. But we want to focus on efforts that have the biggest impact. It influences four main areas: product, people, planet, progress." The brand has also been carbon-free since 2015 and offers a $100 credit to anyone who switches to wind energy.

            Nikita Dress
            thereformation.com
            $248.00
                • Materials used: Viscose/rayon blend, organic cotton, micro-modal/nylon/spandex blend, tencel/spandex blend, linen, viscose, REFIBRA™ Lyocell/organic cotton/recycled elastane, modal/cotton/polyester/elastane.
                • Assurances of safe water management on cotton farm: None disclosed.
                • Assurances against toxic chemical use: Some materials are GOTS certified.
                • Energy use/GhG: Based off of existing Life Cycle Assessments.
                • Labor: Nothing beyond code of conduct and audits.
                • NSI analysis: The company is making an effort to develop products using “preferred materials.” That the basis of those preferred materials is mixed from a scientific perspective, one cannot fault the company for this. The brand has developed a materials matrix, which is based off the following methodology: “In general, to rate our fibers we layered the Life Cycle Assessments, Materials Sustainability Index, Made-By Fiber Benchmark, garment care implications, commercial viability and potential for circularity. Our standards also include certifications for specific fibers. These certifications are required to ensure content and/or manufacturing processes are as sustainable as possible.”
                • Areas of improvement: Their materials matrix methodology is not transparent. It is hard to judge how they are making these determinations. Their labor standards do not deviate from traditional brands, apart from part of their production happening locally, and therefore theoretically protected by U.S. labor laws.

                  Mara Hoffman: ✓

                  How they define sustainability: “We use responsibly sourced organic, recycled and regenerated materials whenever possible. We work to minimize the negative impacts associated with manufacturing and to ensure that all people involved are treated fairly and respectfully along the way.”

                  Moon Top
                  Mara Hoffmant marahoffman.com
                  • Materials used: Econyl, repreve, hemp, organic cotton, linen, alpaca, Tencel lyocell, Tencel Modal, Tencel with Refibra, Tencel Luxe.
                  • Assurances of safe water management on cotton farm: None disclosed.
                  • Assurances against toxic chemical use: Oeko-Tex 100, ZDHC.
                  • Labor practices: “We regularly conduct in-person factory visits to ensure that the people producing our clothes are paid fairly, treated respectfully, and working in safe conditions.” Unclear how “paid fairly” is defined or assurances on this.
                  • Energy use/GhG: None disclosed.
                  • NSI assessment: This company is making a concerted effort through their material mix and in-person factory visits.

                    Everlane: ❌

                    How they define sustainability: "Ethical factories. Radical transparency." Although transparency in supply chain is a very positive thing for a company to offer, in that it often results in more accountable and responsible sourcing and manufacturing, transparency is not synonymous with sustainability. A company that shares information about their suppliers does not per se make them sustainable.

                    The ReNew Anorak
                    Everlane everlane.com
                    $88.00
                    • Material Used: Conventional natural fibers, conventional natural and synthetic blends, leather, triacetate (a chemical compound), and one line of recycled polyester jackets made from plastic bottles. This is the material mix one sees in a traditional brand, with significant environmental impact. Given that competitive spring rain-resistant jackets are generally made from synthetic materials, this one product can be considered a more sustainable option. (Although Gap, Fjällräven, the North Face and Patagonia all also offer recycled polyester outerwear.)
                      • “Radical transparency” claim: From Google search results, it appears this company is labeled “sustainable” based on what it describes as “radical transparency.” During this research period, its homepage was dedicated to a collaboration with the New York Times on its climate reporting. It would seem that these marketing collaborations also give the impression that the company is “sustainable.”
                        • Actual transparency in practice: Everlane is actually not all that transparent. The company only lists a limited number of its 1st tier providers (and not all of them, some are given vague names like “The Handbag Factory”) and none of their second tier fabric mills, where environmental impacts dominate. Gap and H&M, companies certainly not defined by sustainability, are more transparent than this as referenced here and here.
                        • Ethical Factories: There does not appear to be a standard that Everlane uses to proclaim that their factories are “ethical.” They publish a vendor code of conduct, which every significant company also publishes. See H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. Everlane's transparent costing includes a generic labor costing formula that is used across the industry, taking a country’s minimum wage as its base. It provides no explanation or assurances that this wage is actually getting paid. (Other companies in the industry, using the same factories, are working in this regard to get these assurances. Everlane is not a part of those multi-stakeholder initiatives).

                          Kowtow: ✓

                          How they define sustainability: "All Kowtow garments are certified by non-profit internationally recognized organizations. Independent audits and accreditation bodies ensure we remain true to our values. We support fair wages, no child labor, gender equality and grower community."

                          Fold Over Skirt
                          Kowtow kowtowclothing.com
                          $279.00
                          • Materials used: Organic cotton, ECONYL/elastane jersey.
                          • Assurances of safe water management on cotton farm: None disclosed.
                          • Assurances against toxic chemical use: GOTS certification, Bluesign certification.
                          • Energy use/GhG: Not disclosed.
                          • Labor practices: Some products are Fair Trade Certified across the supply chain, others have more vague language (“certified ethical and transparent supply chain”).
                          • NSI assessment: This company gets an A for effort. They use third-party assessment to drive their material choices. Some of those third parties are better than others, but we cannot fault the company for that.
                          • Room for improvement: It's not just about the material used, but what is happening within the factory itself. To improve, it could require Life Cycle Assessments from the specific suppliers to ensure they are keeping their environmental footprint to a minimum.

                            Maggie Marilyn: +

                            How they define sustainability: "Leaving the world a better place than when we found it."

                            Ruffled Polka-Dot Silk-Satin Dress
                            Maggie Marilyn net-a-porter.com
                            $625.00
                            • Materials used: Cotton/silk, polyester/viscose/spandex, linen, organic cotton.
                            • Assurances against toxic chemical use: None disclosed.
                            • Assurances of safe water management on cotton farm: None disclosed.
                            • Labor practices: Cut and sew is made in New Zealand, a low-risk labor country.
                            • NSI assessment: This is a company that has made immediate public commitments to sustainability with defined targets. While it currently does not disclose detailed information about its materials, it has targets to do so within two years.

                              Veja: ✓

                              How they define sustainability: Veja was founded as a social good company. They have direct relationships with the suppliers across their supply chain.

                              Women's 3-Lock Leather Sneakers
                              VEJA barneys.com
                              $130.00
                              • Materials used: Organic cotton (bought directly from the farmers working with them on healthy soil practices), natural/synthetic rubber blend (18-22 percent), cow leather, fish leather.
                              • Assurances of safe water management on cotton farm: None disclosed, though there is a mention of working with farmers on healthy soil practices, which could speak to this.
                              • Assurances against toxic chemical use: REACH standard, leather (gold certified under Leather Working Group).
                              • Energy use/GhG: Not disclosed.
                              • Labor practices: Fair trade principles through supply chain (though not certified).
                              • NSI assessment: This company gets an A for effort. They are directly involved in the supply chain and thoughtful about chemical impact.
                              • Room for improvement: They could disclose Life Cycle Assessments to back up their work in the field, and they could have their suppliers certified to back up their fair trade principles claim.

                                AMUR: +

                                How they define sustainability: “All materials are sourced with an eye toward environmental good, whether organic and natural fabrics, reclaimed fibers that conserve material resources or trims made by artisan collectives in the developing world. While it’s an evolving process, one we’re continually striving to improve, each piece in the collection embodies a singular philosophy: that mindful living will always be in style.”

                                One-Shoulder Top
                                AMUR farfetch.com
                                $250.00
                                • Materials used: Silk, cupro, organic cotton, organic cotton, organic silk, linen-viscose, recycled polyester, virgin wool, wool-spandex blend.
                                • Energy use/GhG: None disclosed.
                                • Assurances against toxic chemical use: None disclosed.
                                • NSI Assessment: While the language the company uses to assess sustainability is vague, there does appear to be a concerted effort to use improved materials.

                                  Aritzia Denim Forum: +

                                  How they define sustainability: "The collection is made from organic cotton and by using technologies such as Green Screen certified fabric softeners, ozone washes, laser finishing, e-flow washing, bio-based softeners and recipe combinations, we are able to reduce our water use by over 60 percent."

                                  The Farrah Wide-Leg Crop Jeans
                                  Aritzia Denim Forum aritzia.com
                                  $110.00
                                  • Materials used: Organic cotton, lyocell/organic cotton/elastomultiester/elastane.
                                  • Assurances of safe water management on cotton farm: None disclosed.
                                  • Assurances against toxic chemical use: None disclosed.
                                  • Labor practices: None disclosed.
                                  • NSI Assessment: While there are clear areas for improvement, we consider this line better than average for its use of organic cotton, which at least minimizes pesticide use, a significant issue within cotton production.

                                    H&M Conscious: +

                                    How they define sustainability: The H&M Group releases a full, in-depth sustainability report each year. "Our sustainability vision is to use our size and scale for good, and with the help of technology and innovation, lead the change towards circular and renewable fashion while being a fair and equal company."

                                    Jacquard-Weave Top
                                    H&M Conscious hm.com
                                    $29.99
                                    • Materials used: Includes organic cotton, Tencel, or recycled polyester.
                                    • Assurances against toxic chemical use: Has a target to remove toxic chemicals by 2020.
                                    • Assurances of safe water management on cotton farm: None disclosed.
                                    • Labor Practices: Code of conduct and audits—though operating in high risk labor countries.
                                    • Energy/GhG use: Not disclosed.
                                    • NSI assessment: This line received a "+" compared to H&M’s standard collection. There is not sufficient disclosure on what percentage of recycled polyester is in their polyester. There are few assurances of labor practices. It appears that these products are cut and sewn in the same facilities as their main line, which has itself received criticism for failure to pay living wages. There is no specific disclosure around greenhouse gas emissions within its facilities.

                                      Brother Vellies: +

                                      How they define sustainability: Leather used is animal byproduct; they have personal relationships with the farmers that supply their goods; they use vegetable dyes, recycled denim and used car tires; diversity in employees across globe; shoes are mostly made by hand as opposed to machine; efforts to reduce carbon footprint with shipping methods.

                                      Lace-Up Shoes
                                      Brother Vellies farfetch.com
                                      $225.00
                                      • Materials used: Kudu leather, nile perch, springbok, rabbit, python, shearling, fox.
                                      • Assurances against toxic chemical use: Some use of vegetable dyes, though no other assurances.
                                      • Energy use/GhG: Not disclosed.
                                      • Labor practices: Claims fair trade principles are applied through the supply chain (though not certified).
                                      • NSI assessment: This company argues that its leathers and skins are byproducts of the food industry, but it’s not a clear cut argument (python, shearling, fox?). It uses “artisanal” labor but does not provide assurances that the workers are paid fairly. Artisan labor can still be exploited labor. And while it incorporates vegetable dyes, it does not appear to be universally applied.

                                        Cuyana: ❌

                                        How they define their sustainability efforts: “Fewer, better is the philosophy behind everything we do. We create timeless collections for the modern woman through carefully selected fabrics, precise silhouettes and attention to detail.”

                                        Tall Structured Leather Tote
                                        Cuyana cuyana.com
                                        $215.00
                                        • Materials used: Leather, silk crepe de chine, yak, alpaca, pima-modal-spandex, micro modal, viscose-linen, cotton-elastante, modal pima cotton.
                                        • NSI assessment: There is no indication that the materials or factories have a particularly lower environmental or social footprint.

                                              Vivienne Westwood: ?

                                              How they define sustainability: “We are working towards a Global Environmental Policy to monitor, control and review environmental impacts and drive continuous improvements. We encourage our suppliers to be aware, concede to and implement their environmental responsibilities according to our Global Environmental Policy.”

                                              "The Planet Is Good" Set
                                              Vivienne Westwood viviennewestwood.com
                                              $655.00
                                              • Materials used: Cotton, “bio-cotton” (unclear what that actually means), viscose, viscose-linen, viscose-cotton, wool.
                                              • NSI Assessment: We have requested more information on their Global Environmental Policy. From what they currently disclose, it is hard to see how the material choices are different from a traditional fashion company.

                                                Kamperett: ❌

                                                How they define sustainability: “Highest quality materials and ethically run factories.”

                                                Silk Organza Dress
                                                Kamperett kamperett.com
                                                $645.00
                                                • Materials used: Cotton, silk, organza (of an undefined material), 14.1% nylon, 64.8% polyester, 21.1% mylar.
                                                • NSI assessment: Highest quality is not aligning with anything science-based. Their cut and sew factory is located in the U.S., but that puts them in the same categories as their peers. Most small companies have to do local production because of minimum order quantities.
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