The Transformative Power of Fashion’s Ethical Native Brands – Sustainable Culture From the Roots

Jul 22, 2020 | Ethical Production, Sustainable Fashion

By Danielle Healy

Sustainable. Ethical. Upcycled.

A decade ago, these words were scarcely associated with fashion. Now, they are frequently discussed and touted by brands to demonstrate purpose and enable consumers to align actions with their values.

In 2019, Nielsen found that sustainability is a top priority for consumers across the globe, with 73% saying they would definitely or probably change a behavior to reduce their impact on the planet.

The industry is listening. For many companies, this is a necessary shift to remain in the good graces of their shoppers. For others, it’s been a part of their mission from the start. This creates an inherent contrast within the fashion industry between brands that are Ethical Adopters and brands that are Ethical Natives.

Adopters are well-known industry behemoths like Zara, H&M, Adidas, and many others. They’re large scale retailers with sprawling supply chains that are exploring sustainability but working backward to improve their existing systems.

While essential, there is a costly and slow reality to overhaul infrastructure that wasn’t developed with sustainability in mind and many adopters built their success on “fast fashion” models that rely heavily on quick trend-turnover. Hmmm… conflict of interest? For example, Zara releases roughly 20,000 new designs per year at prices that encourage customers to visit stores almost weekly to see what’s trending, and there are no signs of this letting up post-pandemic.

Production and consumption at this rate are inherently unsustainable, regardless of whether the T-shirt in the landfill was made with organic cotton or sold in a more energy-efficient store.

Sustainability can’t be measured solely on a brand’s manufacturing impact on the planet. It must also encompass levels of traceability, transparency. More importantly, the company’s culture must reflect the principles they claim to abide by; including a diverse workforce, fair treatment of their workers, and more.

This disconnect creates confusion among consumers about what brands are really supporting the issues they care about. You may have felt this yourself, and you’re not alone. As a part of their WearOurValues campaign, Dhana Inc. released a 2019 report assessing gaps in brand-consumer value alignment within the fashion industry. The 5,000-participant survey revealed an overwhelming desire for more production information as 97% of consumers desire further brand transparency.

That’s where the Ethical Natives come in. Natives are brands like Allbirds, Girlfriend Collective, Tabii Just, Patagonia, and so many more that were founded on ethical and sustainable principles. It’s core to their culture and the reason they were founded, not simply a reactive add-on to widen their market. For many, the goal is not just to lessen their environmental impact, but to actively do good both for the planet and the people who inhabit it.

The Clean Clothes Campaign’s 2019 Tailored Wages report found that while 85% of the top 20 brands assessed had made some form of commitment to paying workers in their supply chain a living wage, no brand could show evidence of widespread implementation. That’s why two Nashville-based retailers, Nisolo and ABLE, started a campaign called The Lowest Wage Challenge to push brands for greater transparency by encouraging them to publish their lowest wages. This is all in hopes that conversations surrounding worker treatment will become as commonplace as those around carbon emissions are currently.

This extra step by Nisolo and ABLE directly reinforces the commitments they already have to ethical production and women’s empowerment. Extending their involvement through this campaign is not simply the result of growing consumer concern, but underscores and actively supports the values they have carried with them from the start.

In discussion with Forbes about The Lowest Wage Challenge, ABLE’s CEO Barrett Ward said, “We want our consumers on this journey of improvement with us, and we believe the industry has to embrace that you don’t have to be perfect before you’re honest with consumers.”

Ethical Natives of all kinds embrace this truth in their own unique way. Founded on the desire to build better things in a better way. Allbirds prioritzes material innovation to create stylish, functional, eco-friendly footwear.

Their soles are developed from fast-growing, Brazilian sugarcane, replacing the petroleum-based EVA found in most sneakers with a renewable energy source. And their laces? Crafted from post-consumer plastic. One old plastic bottle equals one pair of shoelaces.

Even with these extraordinary credentials, Allbirds continues to be radically transparent with consumers about their sustainability journey, including reporting areas for improvement and what they’re doing about it in the meantime (a self-imposed carbon tax to fund projects that neutralize their footprint).

Similarly, Girlfriend Collective leverages material innovation to create activewear staples that encourage wellness for both you and the planet. When Quang Dinh’s wife Ellie couldn’t find an eco-friendly sportswear brand, they decided to start their own using high-quality fabrics made from recycled water bottles and fishing nets. Each piece is then stitched together in SA8000 certified factories that guarantee all the really important stuff like no child labor and safe working conditions. Oh! Not to mention their packaging is 100% recycled and recyclable.

Meanwhile, Tabii Just utilizes waste of a different sort to create their timeless array of zero waste designs, using 90% surplus fabric sourced from Preview Textiles. Since 2012, founder Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs has encouraged conscious consumption through easy-to-wear clothing that combines her sunny Trinidadian roots with a distinctive Brooklyn edge. Made in the USA under ethical conditions, Tabii Just approaches sustainability with equal parts curious humility (Tabitha is a self-proclaimed “lifelong student of conscientious living”) and artistry.

Being an Ethical Native isn’t just for small brands or start-ups. Sustainable practices can be scaled responsibly and with great success. Just look at Patagonia! The outdoor apparel company has been leading the way for over 45 years, with the longstanding aim to create great products, cause no undo harm and advocate for the planet. Recently the brand’s mission statement has changed to clearly convey one, all-important goal: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.”

They’re doing everything in their power to live out that mission. From suing the president over a national monument reduction to returning their 10 million dollar tax cut to grassroot environmental organizations, Patagonia has, and continues, to serve as an example for all brands to follow on the path toward holistic sustainability.

This is a complex issue, and we need support from everyone if the fashion industry as a whole is to ever become genuinely sustainable. As Ethical Natives lead the way holistically from the bottom up, Ethical Adopters can be game changing leaders in driving the industry toward a more sustainable future from the top. Their size and influence signals potential for massive improvements.

So, who holds the key to a better future? Will Adopters expedite a shift in priorities and investment, with tangible results in five or ten years time? Or will consumers accelerate voting with their wallets, allowing Natives to grow and become the new industry leaders?

Ethical Natives provide a compelling path forward, building trust with consumers about their values, leading with transparency and rooted in a culture for good. They are committed, they are many and they are able to be the change the industry needs right now.

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