How Clothing Brands Are Embracing Transparency to Meet the Growing Demand for Sustainable Apparel

Patagonia, Everlane and PACT lead the trend

Everlane lists materials as well as labor and transportation costs for each piece of clothing on its site. Everlane
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Much like current trends in food consumption, shoppers are placing a higher value on where their clothing comes from and how it’s made. They will even spend 10 to 15 percent more on ethically produced clothing, according to Marshal Cohen, retail analyst at NPD Group.

“The younger generation, in particular, is willing to pay for the responsibility factor, because they’re not buying as much stuff in the first place,” Cohen said. “They want to buy things that are good for the environment and are going to last.”

Patagonia has been leading the way by encouraging people to repair, reuse and consider the environmental impact of its apparel. In late 2016, it launched re\\\collection, an apparel line made from recycled fabric.

“It’s sold amazingly well so far,” said Cory Bayers, Patagonia’s vp of marketing. “Customers are more educated about materials, and it’s why they’re buying more of our products.”

Patagonia's Worn Wear College Tour (top) offered to repair students' garments; PACT (above) makes its clothing from organic cotton; and recycled fabric is used in re\\\collection's apparel line (below).

Patagonia also provides repair guides so people can get more mileage out of their clothes, and they also can send the company damaged clothing for free repairs or recycling. This spring, for the third year in a row, Patagonia’s Worn Wear College Tour visited campuses around the country. Students could bring garments, regardless of brand, to a vintage wooden camper truck for repair.

“Part of our mission is to get more people to use recycled materials and think about manufacturing environments,” Bayers said. “The education level of the customers is there, and more brands are recognizing it.”

One of those brands is ecommerce site Everlane. For every piece of clothing sold on its site, Everlane lists the materials, hardware, labor and transportation costs, and provides info on production, including photos of the workers and factory floors in China where yarn is spun or silk is woven.

“We stand behind factory transparency and back up the story of each piece of clothing with real data,” said Michael Preysman, CEO and founder of Everlane. “People are more aware how clothes are made today because of social media, and, as a result, they know what the dark side is,” he added. “The more information we can provide about our process, the more clear it is to the customer why the decision they’re making is better for the planet.”

Similarly, PACT Organic makes its underwear, T-shirts and dresses from organic cotton, which uses 71 percent less water and 62 percent less energy than conventional cotton, and its products also are produced in safe working conditions that pay living wages, with no child labor. PACT logged $500,000 in sales in 2011, and is expected to hit $20 million this year.

PACT’s CEO, Brendan Synnott, got his start in the food industry, founding organic Bear Naked granola, and likens the organic food movement to the sustainable apparel one.

“Now, most people understand organic, and they’re taking the same philosophy and applying it to apparel,” he said. “Most apparel is abominable in its opaqueness. But being honest with the consumer, and sharing with them how you make the product, has become more important.”

Mainstream brands like New Era, which recently launched a cap for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers made with recycled plastic bottles, also are embracing the trend.

“People have a lot of hats in their closet, so when they’re purchasing another one, it really helps that the materials are making a difference,” said Chi-Kay Lam, senior category manager, brand partnerships at New Era.

Sustainability and ethically produced clothing increasingly will factor more into shoppers’ value equations, said Mary Brett Whitfield, svp at Kantar Retail.

“Over the past few years, consumers have placed more importance on whether products stand for something, and they’ll continue to do so,” she noted.

This story first appeared in the May 1, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.