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Building a “Sustainable” Apparel Brand

This is the final musing in our three-part series about the pivotal product development trip we took to Los Angeles in the early days of building Pareto (check out our intro musing). We set out to establish a fully traceable supply chain, from farm to closet, in order to make the best version of the clothing you actually wear. The learnings from the trip shaped Pareto in two ways: 1) they forced us to reimagine the process of developing this supply chain (here’s the recap) and 2) they forced us to reevaluate how we would approach “sustainability”. Now let’s dig into the second one – our early perspective, what made it change, and where we are now. 

 

Our Early Perspective
 
We’ve always believed that “sustainability” in the apparel space wasn’t being addressed holistically. From our perspective, the majority of brands focus solely on how clothing is made, neglecting the quantity of clothing made, despite the fact that both of these factors together contribute to a brand’s impact on our planet and people. Let’s talk about how we thought about each factor in the early days…

1. Quantity of clothing made: Fast fashion (the term used to describe rapid apparel manufacturing at a low cost, often synonymous with brands like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21) has dominated the apparel market since the 1990s (check out Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas for a great read on the price of fast fashion). In both our personal and professional lives, we witnessed brand after brand celebrating this “more is better” philosophy. Just think about all of the promotional emails that you receive from companies celebrating their “100+ new styles dropping today” or their “300+ styles being put on sale tomorrow.” Ultimately, they need to encourage endless consumption to sustain their business model. However, this endless consumption has vast impacts on our planet and people. Every new piece of clothing consumes resources to make, even if it is made in a “more sustainable way.” On top of that, it contributes to our ever-growing landfills new styles are often designed to be worn just a few times before being discarded (Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has been a long-standing inspiration for us on this perspective). As a result, building a brand that directly addressed the quantity of clothing made was our original focus. 

2. How clothing is made: We believed the industry was moving in the right direction when it came to this factor. Brands of all different product categories have been increasingly integrating “sustainable” practices into their operations. Yes, we saw brands setting aggressive, 10-year sustainability goals without clear plans to get there. Yes, we saw brands cherry picking sustainability initiatives for marketing purposes (one that really gets us is marketing ‘Made in LA’ when in fact only the final stage of their supply chain happens there, with the rest happening across the world). Yes, we saw brands falsely advertising sustainability certifications, hoping it’s enough to convert customers. While we knew there was a long way to go, we felt this factor was being appropriately prioritized and steps in the right direction were being taken by many. Our goal early on was to make sure we implemented the best-in-class “sustainability” practices and did a better job being transparent with our community.

 

What Made it Change

...that goal quickly needed to evolve. When we went to LA to begin implementing these so-called “best-in-class sustainability practices” into our supply chain, we instantly saw countless red flags. Our conversations with prospective partners were filled with “sustainability” buzzwords like “low impact,” “certified,” and “sustainably sourced.” When we started to dig deeper, we saw that these terms were used as marketing vs. real, tangible criteria. For example, when we’d meet with fabric distributors, they’d show us fabrics branded as using “low impact dyes”. When we’d ask clarifying questions about the dyes used or the certifications held so that we could be more transparent with our community, we were left with no explanation. These conversations highlighted that the issues we originally thought were “less-than-ideal but moving in the right direction,” actually had deeper root causes that simply couldn’t be addressed with more clarifying questions. How can we expect brands to accurately convey the details of certain supply chain certifications if they have never met (or even spoken to) the majority of their supply chain? 

On top of that, once we left LA and started building our supply chain starting with the farmer, we experienced first-hand the vast untapped potential when it comes to how clothing is made. While conversations with new prospective partners were originally intended to focus on decisions that would impact the quality of the product (outlined in our last musing), they also brought to life how farm-to-closet traceability was a gateway to make environmental and social decisions at every stage. This time, when we asked them questions, not only did they know the answers, they had even more questions for us.

 

Where We Are Now

We still believe that in order to make a true impact, we need to address both the quantity of clothing made and how clothing is made. What did change throughout our trip to LA and along our traceability journey is how we would address each factor.

1. Quantity of clothing made: The conversations, reading, and exploration that we’ve done along this journey have only heightened our commitment to this factor. Not only do we remain committed to producing a limited quantity of styles per year, we also have a renewed commitment to ensure that these pieces are worn day after day, for years to come. This involves a rigorous research and feedback process for every single piece we create. After all, just making less won’t move the needle unless you, our community, also feels the need to buy less.  

2. How clothing is made: Simply relying on the playbook other brands were running and being more transparent wasn’t going to get us where we wanted to be. A piece of clothing touches so many hands before making its way to your closet, and decisions at every stage contribute to the environmental and social impact of a piece. Without having visibility into every supply chain stage, you’re limited as to how “responsibly made” a piece of clothing can be. With our fully traceable, farm-to-closet supply chain, we have been able to outline the key decisions that we have at every stage (both the environmental and social) and work with the relevant partners to shape each decision. At some stages, environmental decisions (e.g., whether we use organic vs. conventional fibers, which dyes we use) are the most top of mind. At other stages, ethical decisions are more of the focus – for example, it is critical for us to work with cut & sew factories with good working conditions and fair pay.

 

All in all, the learnings from the trip to LA have shaped Pareto in a meaningful way. Going into the trip, we were focused on building a traceable supply chain to achieve the best quality product. Our ability to achieve this traceability was unlocked by building our supply chain forward, from the farm to the closet, instead of backwards. The beauty is that this has also allowed us to define our approach to sustainability. You may think (as we once did) that most decisions involve quality vs. sustainability tradeoffs, but in reality, a traceable, farm-to-closet supply chain is the unlock to it all. 

To keep ourselves committed to addressing sustainability holistically, we’ve synthesized our perspective on our website.
 
We want to hear from you...what sustainability buzzword do you hear all the time that you’d like to have explained or debunked?

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