Alden Wicker is an award-winning freelance journalist and founder of EcoCult.com. She writes deeply researched articles about the big issues and ideas concerning the fashion industry’s global impact on the environment and people. Her work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, Vogue, InStyle, The Cut, Vox, and more.
First and foremost, what defines a sustainable business in your opinion?
Well, let’s back up a bit and reframe this idea of a business being “sustainable” or not. People always want either a yes—you can shop this brand, or no—they’re bad. But sustainability is not a binary. It’s a continuum; from truly egregious behavior from an ultra-fast fashion brand that ruins the environment and poisons people, to a South American farmer’s wife who hand-knits sweaters using alpaca wool she spun and plant-dyed herself. And there’s a whole world in between. Sustainability, in the true essence of the word, means operating in a way that could be done forever, without running out of resources, land, clean water, without polluting or poisoning the air, without harming people or biodiversity. Just by existing right now, we’re in a system that takes more than it gives. We would need 1.75 Earths to support the way we are consuming and wasting.
A truly sustainable business would cause no carbon emissions, or would even put carbon back in the ground through its operations. It would be a business that uses absolutely no synthetic materials. It would be a business that is fully circular, taking back every single object it’s ever made and turning them into new objects. But of course, most of its objects are so high quality that they—with occasional repair—would last your entire lifetime and beyond. This business would send no waste to the landfill or incinerator, and cause no water pollution. This business would be, in a word, perfect. Or a business that has time traveled from the 15th century.
So, I wouldn’t declare any business sustainable, per se. But I would say that some are more sustainable than others. Notably, the brands and retailers that are experimenting and pioneering new ways to address the issues described above. They’re making high-quality products and taking them back for repair and recycling. They’re aware of what goes on in their supply chain and are trying to improve it. They support regenerative farmers and artisan work. They treat their suppliers fairly. They’re measuring their water and climate footprint and trying to shrink it. I could go on and on, but those are the general principles.
Why is it important for retailers to think and act more sustainably in 2021?
There are a couple different philosophies on why retailers should get onboard the sustainability train. I could appeal to your moral compass and say it’s just the right thing to do. There’s been a lot of what is called “Conscious Capitalism,” for the past couple of decades. It’s the philosophy behind the non-profit organization B Lab, which certifies B Corporations. That’s a legal structure for businesses who want to put care for the environment and society on equal footing with maximizing shareholder revenue. But I’ll also appeal to your selfish side. If your company has a bad reputation, it becomes hard to attract and retain talent. If your employees are proud to tell their friends and acquaintances that they work for you, they’ll stick around. But once it becomes embarrassing to work for you, you’ll see more turnover—plus you’ll have to really throw money at new hires to get them to choose you over your competitors.
Finally, I’ve seen in the past year a real acceleration of the understanding that we can’t just ask businesses to do better. This kind of stuff will have to be regulated. The US is starting to block shipments that are connected with slavery, most notably targeting Xinjiang cotton. Germany and The Netherlands are both considering legislation that would make retailers legally liable for what goes on in their supply chain, and the European Union is working on coming up with a system that would require brands to measure and report the environmental impact of their operations and products. Both the EU and California have tightened their regulations around harmful chemistry in consumer products, and Sweden is considering a taxing retailers that sell products with harmful chemicals present. In short, retailers need to prepare for a whole raft of new regulations on environmental stewardship, because if not, it’s going to be a very expensive and chaotic time for your business operations.
What are the quickest and simplest practices retailers can implement right now to make their business more sustainable?
Most of the solutions are neither quick nor simple—they take a dedicated and resourced team of people working to set up a measurement and reporting system, a take-back and recycling system, reforming the buying team’s KPIs so they’re taking into account ethical and sustainable standards as well as price, getting certified as B Corp, etc. But I think the quickest thing a retailer can do is offer carbon offsets for shipping. Just planting trees for every purchase can do a lot of good: out of the top 20 climate solutions, six directly involve planting trees. And it’s an easy thing for customers to understand and very uncontroversial. Who doesn’t like more trees?
What are some of the biggest challenges retailers face in becoming truly sustainable?
I think there are two big hurdles. One is the cost. Sustainable materials are more expensive, for example. Most of a retailer’s climate impact lies in its supply chain, and suppliers will need financing in order to reduce their use of fossil fuels. There’s no way around that. Takeback and resale systems can end up being profitable pretty quickly, but they still take investment at the outset.
The other big challenge is going against the directive to always be growing your business. For example, the luxury conglomerate Kering’s impact per product has decreased, but with the sales growth of the brands, its overall impact increased. And while H&M has invested heavily in almost all of the sustainability initiatives I’ve described, activists won’t let them off the hook for producing a ton of clothing. That is the core conflict at the heart of retailer sustainability: how to grow without growing your carbon and waste footprint. There’s a reason why the most admired retailers when it comes to positive impact are private.
What role (if any) do consumers play in helping to create or encourage more sustainable brands?
If you’re waiting for consumers to give you the incentive to be more sustainable, you’ll be waiting a very long time. Consumers always say in surveys that they will pay more for sustainability, but that’s not true in practice. They always prioritize style, value, and convenience over sustainability. Why else do you think Amazon continues to dominate despite all the negative press around it? And consumers have been burned enough by greenwashing to distrust that when they pay more for something marketed as sustainable, that the money is actually supporting a better system, rather than just padding the profit margins of the retailer. Also, sustainability is complex and confusing! Your customers might be demanding something that is not actually the most sustainable option for you.
So it really will be up to retailers to make sustainability a core part of their ethos, and to integrate it into the job description and KPIs for their employees—all their employees. You’re playing a long game of reputation management, not short-term marketing campaigns for eco-friendly product drops. It will take some time to get there, but obviously, I think it’s worth it.
Name 2-3 brands that are the “poster children” for sustainability in your mind. What can other businesses learn from them?
I think of Patagonia, Stella McCartney, and Saint James. Patagonia has pioneered incorporating more sustainable materials into its products, doing take-back, repair, and resale, and being transparent about its supply chain. Even its marketing campaigns are groundbreaking; they’re not so much campaigns but legitimate activism. It all comes from the heart with Patagonia, and its customers know it. I’m not usually a fan of “vegan” materials because they tend to just be plastic, but Stella McCartney has leveraged the higher price point of luxury to go all in on trying to balance cruelty-free materials with sustainability. It sources the most sustainable and non-toxic version of animal-free materials on the market, like recycled and water-based polyurethane Alter-Nappa, and has supported the development of innovative materials like lab-grown silk and mushroom leather. And the French heritage brand Saint James has a special place in my heart because I’ve visited the French factory where it makes its striped tees and sweaters. And they are of stunningly high quality. I legitimately don’t understand how or why my Saint James Breton striped tee still looks perfectly new after five years of heavy wear, but it does. (Saint James also offers repair.) The brand pulls it off because it is employee-owned and cares about preserving its craft. Otherwise, production would have been outsourced a long time ago.
So, in summary: Make high quality products, take them back for repair, have a mission you care deeply about, be transparent, know your supply chain, support the development of innovative sustainable materials, and keep your company out of the hands of private equity firms.