Although brands have long kept production secrets close to their chest, the pricey road toward sustainable practices (which customers increasingly require today) is forcing them to open up.
Fashion Positive, an arm of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, is helping facilitate these conversations with its Plus Membership. The membership invites paying brands to identify high-volume materials used in the industry that could benefit from eco-friendly and ethical improvements. Currently, those brands include Eileen Fisher, H&M, Loomstate, Kering, Stella McCartney, Marks & Spencer and Zero + Maria Cornejo. Annie Gullingsrud, the project’s director, is tasked with bringing five more brands on board in 2018.
The members’ goal, ultimately, is to build out a library of safe materials that can be perpetually cycled without harming people or the planet in the process, a concept referred to as circular fashion.
“The way the system is set up right now, we’re creating materials that are continuing to be harmful; we’re recycling materials that are contaminated,” explained Gullingsrud. “We believe in designing out contaminants from the beginning instead.”
“These brands usually work in a really competitive way, where, even if they’re sharing materials or suppliers they don’t really talk to each other about it,” said Gullingsrud. “Now, I’m witnessing vastly different companies like H&M and Kering require partnership and collaboration to achieve their sustainability goals.”Those sustainability goals are lofty, she added, requiring technologies that don’t exist yet and can only come to fruition with “a crap load of money and time.”
So far, Fashion Positive’s library has 70 materials — a mix of yarns, dyes, fabrics, zippers, trims, finishes and more. Those materials all receive the Cradle to Cradle certification, one of many sustainability-focused certifications in the industry, albeit the only one focused on improving initial material conditions, rather than just recycling semi-toxic materials or minimizing the use of any toxic materials that are already out there.
It’s based on “more good, not just less bad,” said Gullingsrud, explaining that, on top of starting out with entirely safe materials, they privilege using renewable energy over less energy and improving water quality on top of reducing its use.
“We get the brands together, identify shared material needs and then set the strategy for satisfying those needs,” explained Gullingsrud of the process. Eileen Fisher, for example, might rely on the same recycled polyester that H&M does. It’s then up to Fashion Positive to go out and find a way for that recycled polyester to meet their high-level standards. Alongside third-party consultancies who are trained on issues like renewable energy and social fairness, Fashion Positive works with brand suppliers to improve their production practices.
While the brands on board already have some sustainability standards in place, the Cradle to Cradle certification standard employed by Fashion Positive looks at more metrics for success than they do internally, on categories including water use, renewable energy or carbon management, social fairness, chemistry and material rehabilitation.
Fashion Positive is keen on bringing big brands on board since they help ramp up demand for harmless production, and have significantly more sway over the suppliers — especially when they band together. “We could get this research money from other sources, but the suppliers are way more likely to change their ways if many brands are asking for the same things,” said Gullingsrud.
The brands’ concession is twofold: greater availability of sustainable materials and acclaim. “They’re now considered pioneers and can take responsibility for doing the work,” said Gullingsrud.
So what convinced these competing brands to share that spotlight and work together? Money, of course. Gullingsrud and her team had approached brands independently with the idea a few years back, but were turned away due to the investment required. They were willing to work with other brands, however, once they realized the difference in cost per year was about half a million dollars. (Fashion Positive can offer more affordable rates, as more brands sign on.)
Today, annual Plus membership fees are based on each company’s annual revenue. To wit, those raking in more than $10 billion a year pay $50,000, while those making less than $20 million pay $7,500 for the same period. Half of their dues support the assessment and improvement of materials, while the other goes toward project management and impact reporting, which demonstrates the progress being made.
“By working with Fashion Plus, we are given the opportunity to work with other brands on increasing demand for sustainable and circular materials,” said Inka Apter, the facilitating leader of fabric development at Eileen Fisher. “We believe that businesses can be a movement and that only through partnership and cooperation with other companies will the industry finally shift.”
“The change will happen a lot quicker if there are more of us trying to do it, working on this in parallel, because we can do a lot of good together,” H&M’s sustainability expert Cecilia Bransten said during a webinar last year about the membership.
For the sake of staying true to this integrated industry vision, Fashion Positive’s material library and all of its related resources are open-source. “Everyone who’s a member wants to impact the entire world and withholding these materials would go against that,” said Gullingsrud.