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Consumers are Leading the Way to Sustainability - Are Retailers Following?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, May 14, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, May 12, 2015

by Leela Rao-Kataria, GT Nexus

April was a significant month in the global movement towards sustainability. Earth Day fell on April 22nd, which automatically brought attention to this issue. But coupled with the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse and the recent earthquake in Nepal, people are now paying even more attention to how products are sourced and what the repercussions are for producing these products.

We were confronted from every angle ranging from social media, podcasts, commercials, articles, and celebrity activists, and it really got us to stop and think. Have you ever heard the expression "it takes 1,000 whispers to make a shout"? Well these 1,000 statements caused a collective moment toward sustainability and awareness around ethical sourcing. There were two main dialogues that generated most of the conversation in April. Take a look and see what came out of it:

Earth Day
No one goes against the tide like Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard. Last month, in honor of Earth Day, he took out a full page ad in the New York Times advising customers "Don't Buy Our Clothes!"1 This promotion caused quite the stir and set the stage for Patagonia's refined version of the pop-up store, called "Worn Wear Wagon." The wagon serves as a mobile garment shop that will make its way throughout the country, stitching, mending and fixing any clothing from the brand that a customer previously purchased. Chouinard believes this initiative is what separates Patagonia from other brands: actually living the values they preach to reuse, recycle and not waste. "I've always felt guilty about making consumer things. So I have a sense that it's my responsibility to help people wear them as long as possible," Chouinard stated in an interview with the Today Show following the ad's release.

Other retailers made notable contributions towards Earth Day as well. ModCloth launched its eco-friendly style collection, which minimizes waste through repurposing fabric and highlights the fair wage and comfortable work environment of their Balinese sourcing.2 L'Oreal was featured in Green Retail Decisions for lowering its CO2 emissions by 57%, the majority of which was achieved using renewable energy in facilities.3

Fashion Revolution Day
This revolution arrived in response to the Bangladesh factory collapse in 2013, where over 1,000 workers were killed and more than 2,500 injured due to poor infrastructure. Fashion Revolution Day4 occurred on April 24th, marking the two year anniversary of the factory collapse. Consumers were asked to wear their clothes inside out on that day, so their labels were visibly shown. The nonprofit organization behind the day cites "Social and environment catastrophes in our fashion supply chains continue. Fashion Revolution says enough is enough." The organization emphasizes the need to value people and the environment, accomplishing this through transparency and education. There was a huge social media push on twitter to promote the tweet #whomademyclothes5 and retailers who implement good practices were promoted on the Fashion Revolution website.

Only two days later, millions watched John Oliver berate the current state of consumerism specific to the apparel industry. Oliver claimed that people are interested in only shopping for the lowest prices possible, willing to sacrifice ethical work conditions and fair trade wages for apparel manufactured abroad. What Oliver didn't talk about was the steps that many retailers are making in order to gain visibility into sourcing and ensure that labor practices are ethical. This issue has plagued retailers for a long time and, as the movement towards transparency continues, it will take some time to get into place. For every one retail brand, there is a plethora of factories that make various products. Getting insight into what is going on at the factory level has been a priority for many retailers that know consumers will not support brands that don't practice ethical treatment of their employees. Oliver didn't showcase the retailers that are prioritizing the manufacturers, including brands like Everlane whose value proposition is that true costs are revealed to customers using transparent sourcing. Photos of factories as well as the stories of the workers who work there are featured on their website, along with clear diagrams of the price their consumers pay for the material, production, etc. and how that contributes to the final price. Activists like Angelina Jolie support the brand and wear its products frequently.6 Another brand that has taken massive strides to support its manufacturers is Levi Strauss & Company.7 Levi's has partnered with the IFC to secure better interest rates for its manufacturers, allowing them to purchase raw materials without the burden that comes from loan banks with exorbitant interest rates. Suppliers are rewarded with better rates based on their responsibility score. Levi's features this partnership on its website as a "shared prosperity," with a mutual belief that suppliers should be rewarded for doing the right thing.

There is an undeniable consumer movement towards ethical practices and sustainability. How fast retailers will be able to respond to the demands of the public will depend on their ability to prioritize investment around these initiatives. Retailers that are ahead of the game in this regard are actually finding their investments are paying off in spades. Retailers that fail to educate consumers and create a transparent sourcing model for their consumers will get left behind, as millennials and younger consumers are much more focused on these issues when making purchasing decisions than their more mature counterparts.


Leela Rao-Kataria is Retail Marketing Manager for GT Nexus. She has more than 10 years of experience working with fashion brands/labels including Levi Strauss & Co., Sephora, Estee Lauder, and L'Oreal Companies focusing on global product development, international channel execution and luxury products. Leela helped integrate Sephora's loyalty program, Beauty Insider, into Sephora in JCPenney stores. She later joined Levi Strauss and Co. where she partnered with wholesale and retail partners such as Dillard's, Macy's, and Kohl's to deliver heritage programs to Levi's enthusiasts. She has also developed marketing strategies for new market entrants Yellow Brick Coffee and Amyris. Leela received an MBA in Marketing and Finance from New York University's Stern School of Business.

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Tags:  Sourcing  Sustainability 

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