“We have this internal saying: Challenge fuels us,” said Sarah Carlson, Athleta’s vp of design and innovation, over breakfast in New York last week. “Being a mission-driven brand, we attract mission-driven talent. All you have to do is lay out a challenge, and the team takes it and runs.”
Its latest hurdles were revealed on Saturday, Earth Day, in a post by company president and CEO Nancy Green on the brand’s Chi Blog. Building on the commitment to sustainability statement Athleta released in January, it provided more specifics, including the four pillars it will focus on and clear goals within each. The deadline: 2020.
According to Carlson, her team is in a good place to meet them all. “This didn’t just start,” she said. “We’ve been working on these [goals] for a while.” They’re natural next steps for the brand (“We’re just being ourselves,” she said), and they’re already working to give Athleta a competitive edge.
The 2020 goals
Carlson is personally responsible for Goal No. 1, which states that 80 percent of all materials Athleta uses will be made from sustainable fibers. “That’s things like recycled poly and organic cotton,” she explained, noting the success of the company’s recycling programs (to date, they’ve saved 14 million plastic bottles from landfills) and its current exploration of closed-loop production. At this point, the percentage of sustainable materials is in the single digits, but it’s set to hit the mid–double digits this year. “We actually had set some targets, and the team is surpassing them.”
Athleta’s Pacific top, made from recycled poly
Another focus moving forward will be water savings. Unlike Gap’s Washwell program, which is largely centered on washing — and has reportedly saved millions of liters of water since its launch in 2016 — Athleta’s water-saving initiatives are based on the dyeing process, where most of its water use is concentrated. Carlson said, by 2020, 25 percent of Athleta’s product will be dope-dyed or dry-dyed, neither of which require water.
In addition, the brand has built a goal around supporting women, which piggybacks on its longstanding mission of empowering women and girls. “We think about how we can do that near and far,” Carlson said. Through Gap Inc.’s education-focused P.A.C.E. program and also Fair Trade, which it started partnering with this year, it hopes to positively impact the lives of 10,000 women.
“80 percent factory workers are women,” said Carlson. “With Fair Trade, we pay a financial premium that grants them control to address needs in their community.”
At this time, Athleta is positively impacting 2,150 women through a factory in Sri Lanka. “We make about 40 products there, and we plan to make 100 by the end of 2017,” she said.
As for the final goal, the brand stated its continued dedication to Gap Inc.’s goals of diverting 80 percent of waste from stores and reducing its carbon footprint by 50 percent, which it set in January 2016. “We actually do a great job at Athleta, so we’re really confident in all these targets,” Carlson said.
In the blog post, Green called out the incentives behind the brand’s big, somewhat hurried push: “We have a responsibility to protect our playground; to positively contribute to the direction of the apparel industry; to offer our customers more responsible options and drive demand for sustainable goods; and to support the limitless potential of women and girls.”
Together, the goals hint at promise for a category that’s been slow to clean up its act. In September 2016, ethical fashion organization Project Just gave just four athletic apparel brands its seal of approval: Patagonia, Samanata Yogi, Elle Evans and Fibre Athletics. It called its assessment of activewear — which considered recycled fabrics, low-impact dyes, non-toxic chemicals and transparency of supply chain (to note: Gap Inc. published its factory list the same month) — “no walk in the park,” reporting that it “didn’t find many who were truly thinking about sustainability and ethics holistically, let alone trying to operationalize it or actively improving their practices across the board.”
However, Carlson said sustainability has always been part of Athleta’s design process, which goes: Define a problem to solve, come up with the innovation to solve it, then use relevant fashion trends to make it beautiful. “Sustainability is naturally embedded in innovation,” she said. “Those things are not mutually exclusive.”
Athleta’s Repetition tank, made with DryDye technology
As such, she and her team are forced to remain hip to what’s happening in sustainability in industries across the board. “The innovation behind sustainability [in apparel] is happening at the same time as this larger movement, so we have to know what’s happening — like, ‘There are these guys over here who are doing this thing. How can we do that?’” she said, backing her statement by naming the medical and footwear industries as recent sources of inspiration. “Innovation [in the space] is kind of late-breaking, happening everywhere, all the time.”
Athleta’s missions to learn more and improve processes are about catering to its customer, in addition to hugging the earth. “She’s socially aware and environmentally aware, and she’s also really busy and highly engaged,” Carlson said. Aside from being sustainable, “her performance wear has gotta be super-stretchy and also stay in place. And it has to wick sweat, but then show none. She doesn’t accept compromises.”
And Athleta is clearly meeting her high standards. Though the company doesn’t disclose financials, Carlson made it clear that it’s in a good place. What’s more, Gap Inc., as a whole, seems to be gaining momentum: Its fourth-quarter fiscal 2016 results showed a 1 percent increase in net sales, breaking a seven-quarter streak of year-over-year declines. “We’ve got a really amazing business, both [online and in store], let’s put it that way,” Carlson said, of Athleta. “It’s awesome. The industry is going through a bit of a disruption, to say the least, so [people] are surprised when I say business is fantastic. I think one reason is we’re creating something really unique. You can’t get it anywhere else.”
Still, she’s not afraid to share what she knows with other brands. In fact, for her and her team, doing so is a passion. “We try to go out first, test things out and then share our best practices,” she said. “Brands come to us, wondering how we do certain things: I’ve spoken with brands you would know about innovation and sustainability, and I’ve spoken with brands that are known for sustainability about the process of launching Fair Trade. Athleta really enjoys taking a leading roll in the industry on these things.”
Unlike Athleta, Lululemon has popularly been called out as the leader in the space. However, Project Just revealed the company has not updated much of its sustainability information since 2013. What’s more, its latest earnings statement, which fell short of expectations, hinted that it’s losing steam.
The resounding message: A solid, activated sustainability plan is needed to thrive. A number of retailers have made big sustainability promises in recent months. For example, Athleta’s announcement comes on the heels of H&M’s vow to use 100-percent recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, and have a “climate positive” supply chain by 2040.
“The entire industry is thinking about the same things,” Carlson said. “And making a strong commitment really helps the industry move forward. As for Athleta, we’re really hoping to use our energy and our business for good.”