Athleta received a B Corp Certification today, becoming one of the largest retailers with the distinction that recognizes for-profit companies meeting high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.
The certification, which is also held by Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, is the latest accolade for parent company Gap Inc. as it continues to position itself as a frontrunner in transparent and sustainable retail. In January, Gap Inc. was the only U.S.-based retailer that made Bloomberg’s inaugural Gender-Equality Index, which analyzed employment statistics, salary rates and policies across ten industries. This came after serving as one of the first retailers to release its global factory list, in 2016, as part of an accountability measure for worker safety, prompting several competitors to do the same.
The announcement also highlights Gap’s continued dedication to investing in Athleta’s growth, which despite being one of the smallest companies in the portfolio, has also been one of the most rapidly expanding since it was acquired in 2008. The company’s sales have increased by 25 percent each year since 2012 and established itself as a top-performing brand within the saturated athleisure market.
The certification highlights Athleta’s commitment to advancing social and environmental issues, particularly around women’s rights and sustainable sourcing. Since joining Gap Inc., Athleta has been an active participant in the company’s Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement program, which supports female garment workers by providing educational tools and access to resources. Building upon efforts like its female empowerment campaign, Power of She, the company also hosts regular fitness and wellness events at stores across the country, plus it provided a combined 10,000 hours of employee volunteering in 2017. Further, the brand has established itself as a leader in sustainable production in the activewear market: Today, 40 percent of Athleta’s apparel is made using recycled materials, with a goal to reach 80 percent by 2020.
Athleta’s chief marketing officer Andréa Mallard said the rigorous certification process took about 18 months from start to finish, and included a thorough analysis by members of the B Corp team. In order to receive the official certification, companies are required to apply to the program and undergo a full assessment that varies by industry and company size. A minimum score of 80 out of 200 is needed to receive the recognition, which the group describes as similar to “what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.”
“It’s not easy to get certified. It’s no joke; you really need to be worthy,” Mallard said. “That said, I think it’s more about where the brand started. For Athleta, it makes sense because it’s always been part of who we are.”
Today the the B Corp group has more than 2,400 certified organizations across 130 industries in more than 50 countries. However, a search for “retail” on the database yields just over 100 results, largely comprised of small, lesser known companies, liked Cotopaxi and United by Blue.
“It’s striking that so few apparel companies have done it,” Mallard said. “My message to them is: Join us. It’s not antithetical to being a high-growth business; I think it’s essential, frankly.”
Beyond the obvious publicity (and, in turn, likely sales) boost to receiving such a certification, B Corp also advocates that joining helps companies instigate wider industry change by attracting B Corps investors, partnering with fellow B Corp partners and getting involved in legislation. Still, such certifications are not a coverall for persistent issues in the industry. Rather, they serve as a starting point for identifying companies making efforts toward improvement and forging coalitions dedicated to sharing best practices. In recent years, brands have increasingly come together to form organizations like Fashion Positive — a group comprised of retailers like Eileen Fisher, H&M and Kering — that works toward more sustainable materials sourcing.
Ultimately, Mallard said she was surprised by the lack of retail representation on the list and hopes Athleta will set an example for peers considering going through the process. She said it was particularly beneficial to work with the B Corp certification team, which also helped improve the brand’s internal processes along the way.
“B Corp looks at many dimensions of being ethical; it’s not just one thing. That’s what makes it so powerful — it looks at many issues that companies can address and work with them on to get to the right place,” she said. “In the next ten years, I hope to see the flood gates open and more companies join.”