Illustration by Tim Enthoven for NY Times
In my personal TV highlight of the year, Silicon Valley, created by Mike Judge, where just about everything is quotable and memorable for pub talk giggles, there’s a recurring dig at tech companies in the valley, who “want to make the world a better place”, with innovations such as “elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse.” Ok, elegant data hierarchies might be enriching a teensy tiny part of the world but the bigger picture is a beast that is much harder to tackle. We’re at a turning point where companies have gone from shirking away from their sustainability and corporate social responsibilities to broadcasting them – not necessarily loudly or clearly especially when the average consumer is concerned. This Silicon Valley gag is a background thought to two events in the last fortnight that furthers my own ongoing “half arsed” engagement with the quandry that is sustainability in fashion. It’s all very well having a raft of young designers and creatives coming in with alternative products and methods of production but to have the scale and resources to really change the consumer at large is a power vested in the few fashion conglomerates and power players out there. The aim of making the world a better place isn’t actually too lofty a goal for these companies but who are the people that are putting their money where their mouth is and actually actioning good rather than hiding behind a facade of talking up do-gooding?
At the Nike’s Women’s Showcase in New York, I had the pleasure of speaking to Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation at Nike. This interview on Green Biz gives you a detailed four-one-one on Jones. From a former life as a social justice campaigner and journalist, she joined Nike in 1998, right about the time it was on the defence line about its employment of sweatshops in Asia. By defecting from being a change-maker in civil society to becoming one within one of the biggest companies in the world, Jones has had the ability to effect change from the perspective of innovation, starting with materials. Now Nike is a company that regularly wins plaudits for its sustainability initiatives and CSR reporting, going from a company ridden with dirty expose stories to one that can call itself transparent and accountable. What Jones has built up in over 15 years of working at Nike is in short, remarkable.
At Nike Women’s Summit, Jones was merely re-iterating innovations that Nike have been working on for a few years now but from a consumer and a fashion journalist’s perspective, they were revelations to us. A prime example is Nike’s investment in the Netherlands-based DyeCoo. They’ve found a way of using recycled CO2 rather than water to infuse fabric with colour. In Taipei, Nike now have a water free dyeing facility where they are producing their “Color Dry” fabrics. This process reduces dyeing time by 40%, energy use by around 60% whilst retaining saturated and intense colour and removing the need to use processing chemicals. It takes 30 litres of water to dye a single t-shirt and with ColorDry, that will be now be zero. It’s a process that is in its exciting infancy with Nike. Other green Nike tidbits include the fact that they are the biggest buyer of sustainable cotton and recycled polyester, made out of bottles. Since 2010, Nike have saved two billion plastic bottles from going into landfill. They’re also constantly looking for material innovations of their own, as evidenced by the game-changing Flyknit, which still has a long way to go yet as a material and as a technology. Look at the recently released Nike Roshe Random Yarn shoes, with uppers knitted out of excess Flyknit yarn left on the spools so that every shoe is unique. That’s a product that squeezes waste out of a technology, where the objective is to deal with waste in the first place.
Nike Roshe Flyknit
This reuse mentality is something that Jones emphasises over and over again. For Nike it all starts with the material. That is the thing that will unlock and solve problems of waste and fuel consumption. “The end objective is that we can create materials which reuse and renew all the time that don’t use water, generate waste or don’t use fossil fuels, which would have a massive impact on the apparel and footwear industry,” said Jones. “It’s ambitious – it would take a lot of innovation and disruption but even now, we currently have 52 materials made out of factory scraps – turned into parts of apparel or shoe laces in a shoe.” Jones’ missive is mightily ambitious but you believe her when she tells you about her ultimate end vision. “As a consumer, in a future fantasy world, you would come back into a Nike store and turn old product into new product,” said Jones. “It would be a closed loop where everything can be reused.” In this i-D piece about the relationship between sports and fashion by Lou Stoppard, Jones makes a crucial point that weighs in on the current slow fashion movement. “I think trying to tell a consumer in China not to consume is not very viable and trying to tell a young teenager that you have to keep something forever and just make one decision is not very realistic.” The process of fast fashion and having an abundance of product are in some ways irreversible – it’s similar to the food industry where people advocate farmer’s markets and to stop shopping in supermarkets. It would be equally elitist to tell people off for running to Primark and the like when there aren’t available-to the-masses alternatives. Therefore what Jones suggests is to “disrupt” (she uses this word a lot) the manufacturing system as it is, start from scratch and create differently – something that the fashion on all levels industry could also learn from. Sharing knowledge with the industry is also the aim of Nike’s Making app. It’s a nifty little programme that uses all the knowledge that Nike have accumulated about the 75,000 materials, which they use to rank materials based on the environmental impact areas of water, chemistry, energy and waste.
On the subject of corporate social responsibility, Jones is even more confident that Nike hits the mark, where other fast fashion companies haven’t. “If we’re doing something great for the environment but haven’t done the same for the worker, then we have failed,” said Jones. “We’ve created a balance score card, which measures them on the usual things like cost, quality and time of delivery, but also sustainability and worker’s rights. If you’re failing on those two things, then we’ll be talking to them about whether they stay in the Nike production family. When they’re incentivised that way, it lifts everyone up. We’ve built a big strong practise around that “lean thinking” – we’re training managers to treat workers differently. We’re changing the face of the companies that work for us as suppliers.” Does that mean there can’t be auditing loopholes or missed misdemeanours that go on behind Nike’s back? No, but the code of conduct implemented by Jones and her team, in comparison to other fashion companies and conglomerates is certainly commendable and of course in the complex issue of labour practises spread out throughout the world, one company cannot change everything as collective action is also required from law making policy makers in respective countries.
You could say that I’m just rehashing and spreading Nike’s corporate spiel. And yet from a consumer’s perspective none of this is information that is being rammed down people’s throats. You don’t go into a Nike store and see sustainability messaging being blasted out on LCD screens and billboards. “We’re always gonna lead with performance and aesthetic,” said Jones. “I want to surprise and delight you with these sustainability stories – but I’m not going to be putting it all out there on an advert. Most consumers are not thinking about sustainability when they’re going into a store.” For now, those who are curious enough can delve deep into Nike’s Better World (didn’t know for instance about Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe service where old shoes get turned into turf and playground surfacing materials) website and really analyse what it is we’re buying with facts and reports all out there for public consumption. The ultimate end goal is that a consumer just naturally assumes that all Nike products are are made with sustainable materials and under fair and sound labour conditions. That’s the ultimate end goal surely for any fashion brand but Nike has the a fighting chance of getting there first by sheer force of resources and vested interest, spearheaded by Jones.
If Nike are leaders in the performance and sportswear world, then what of high fashion and the luxury end? Last week, François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering Group (fashion conglomerate which houses Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen to name but a few) was in town to mark a five year partnership with the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, which will engage LCF students in yes, how to make the world a better place. Kering and LCF will co-create a curriculum on sustainable practises and innovation and students will have the opportunity to present their innovations and solutions for an annual Kering Award that will give a monetary grant as well as an internship within Kering brands. “Kering’s commitment to sustainability mirrors our own ethos of Better Lives – using fashion to transform lives and create a more sustainable future,” said Frances Corner, head of LCF. “Sustainability in business is no longer an adjunct; it has to be integral to a new way of working. By collaborating with Kering in three key areas, placing people and our environment at the heart of what would do, we can make real progress.” From Pinault’s talk (which can be watched on video here) the main takeaway was that from Kering’s perspective, sustainability equates to good business sense and not because it sells more product. “(Fashion’s) our contribution to global problem-solving may not be immediately obvious,” said Pinault. “But I would argue that by the very nature of our industry’s innate creativity and ability to set trends, fashion can be a powerful player in illustrating new and appealing solutions to a more sustainable world. At Kering, sustainability is everyone’s business. We believe in it not only because it is the right thing to do, but because sustainable business is smart business. And conversely, the companies that bury their heads in the sand and think they can continue ‘as usual’ will simply not last.”
Pinault together with Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs Marie-Claire Daveu, emphasised that implementing sustainability at Kering wasn’t about selling, which is why a lot of the actions, targets and reports are really only communicated on a B2B level as opposed to the average consumer. For instance someone walking into a new Saint Laurent store, designed by Hedi Slimane, that the lighting is 100% LED, reducing electricity by consumption by 30%. Or that Gucci has pioneered a chrome-free leather tanning process, reducing both water and energy usage. Other actions are more overtly communicated as seen at Stella McCartney where of course, good sustainable practise is part of the raison d’etre of the brand. It was interesting that Jones pointed out that Nike’s standpoint was not just about doing less bad but about doing more good. Kering’s targets on the other hand, outlined on their website and at the talk, were definitely about doing less bad. They’re goals that are baby steps for a company wading into the complex territory of sustainability. By 2016, Kering hopes to reduce CO2 emissions and water usage by 25% and that they will be evlauating key suppliers every two years. Materials wise, Kering hopes to be PVC free and that their leather will be from responsible and verified sources, and skins and furs from verified captive breeding operations and that paper and packaging will have 50% recycled content. They will also be implementing an Environmental Profit & Loss Account, which measures and monetises the costs and benefits of a company’s environmental impacts across all of its supply chains from raw material to product distribution – in other words, they will monitor their business performance which takes natural resources into account. What Kering will do and action with all this EP&L data is slightly less clear. As I was listening to Pinault and Daveau speak, there was a feeling that it was more about the talk than real concrete action but at the very least, the conversation is being instigated by a fashion luxury conglomerate. And by partnering with LCF, a new generation of creative thinkers will be nurtured to bring forth change, something that I remember Orsola de Castro talking about. “This a generation who are thinking that if something isn’t done soon, it might come to the point where there isn’t a fashion industry at all.”
Stella McCartney pre-fall 2014 collection featuring certified sustainable wool from Patagonia, produced specifically in accordance to new sustainability standards and developed by the internationally renowned conservation organisation, The Nature Conservancy with their local partner Ovis XXI
Stella McCartney’s Green Carpet collection to be sold in November exclusively on Net-a-Porter and Stella McCartney.Com
In the end, it doesn’t really matter who makes a song and dance about it and how they go about it. What matters is that there’s someone up there with the bang and the buck to change things. And maybe, just maybe, they might… make the world a better place.