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Sustainability 101: Put Some Metrics Where Your Mouth Is

Andie Smith
September 9, 2020
eCommerce

Greta Thunberg and the global pandemic have one thing in common when it comes to fashion eCommerce: holding people accountable. 

No one is a stranger to the current tumultuous climate of the apparel eCommerce industry. Rent the Runway announced its store closures because every bride-to-be is cancelling their big day, COVID-19-wary consumers have turned to online shopping, and major fashion higher-ups are being called out for leadership corruption and failure towards inclusivity. Among climate concerns, social issues, and evolving business models molded to the new Coronavirus-norm, apparel eCommerce is moving at such a rapid pace the shopping mall is an extinct dinosaur of the past. 

The “sustainability” buzzword in brands and D2C companies is as common and overworked as the word “innovation” on the tech front. No one is denying the necessity of a sustainable future for our fashion industry, or world at large. Yet, skepticism has entered the chat now that every loungewear or bikini Shopify site boasts a commitment to sustainability. It’s a groupthink effect: how can consumers hold brands accountable for being sustainable if every brand is slapping that label on their “About Us” page? 


Brand Transparency is the Modern Relationship Trust Issue

Brand transparency is more prevalent than ever. Consumers gravitate towards a loungewear set that offsets each purchase with a planting of a mangrove tree (Pangaia) to boost their own eco-footprint conscience. While COVID-19 may be cutting consumer interests, the environmental detriments undone by the fashion industry at large will not vanish for the sake of a global pandemic. Buyers are drawn to brands with strict, moral values that are transparent, and so are employees.

The founder Jordan Nadarse of Boyish Jeans, a line of sustainable denim, says “Brands who are honest about their supply chain are not afraid of others copying them, not afraid of being called greenwashers, and certainly not afraid of making mistakes.” 

H&M or Zara are examples of DTC brands with a strong following and community that were exposed for not being fully transparent about their supply chain. When a seemingly reliable brand breaks that bond of transparency, it can lead to a huge loss in consumers and faithful customers; a relationship red flag.

In the next few years, it is difficult to imagine an industry that foregoes a brand that does not transcend their product into something greater like commitment to sustainability or social responsibility. Even established brands like Eileen Fisher have taken rebranding initiatives towards sustainability. Their Renew Collection allows customers to buy new garments and then return after their preferred length of use, allowing for the top form of sustainability: simply reusing.  

Like Boyish Jeans founder Jordan states, the DTC can’t be afraid of being called out for greenwashing  if they are being completely transparent about their supply chain, but how can that be better communicated to customers? 


Pulling Back the Green Curtain

The concerning phenomenon of greenwashing needs a solution, and quick. The root of the problem lies in the ambiguous term of sustainability. Does this signify environmental concerns, or more? Think of Patagonia’s 2015 scandal, when their supply chain was revealed for having flagrant practices and workers chained by debt bondage. And this came from the chief of sustainability in outerwear. Clearly, an adoption of an evolving definition is necessary in order to accurately rate and track sustainable practices within a company, whether they be environmental concerns or wholly moral. 

The way brands define their sustainability mission is far from standardized. While some companies offset climate change with each production of a product, others distinguish their sustainability by sourcing their materials from sustainable areas, reducing their packaging waste and production waste, or cutting their carbon emissions...somehow? These metrics are all qualitative, and oh so easy to misconstrue or manipulate once they are in the hands of a good copywriter. 

Green brands like Everlane or Grana dedicate entire sections on their sites to describing their sustainability mission or organic supply chains. Their commitment is informative and thorough. Yet, across the board, there is a failure to attribute data and real-time numbers to the qualitative reports. 

Business of Fashion discusses building a sustainable brand with four, core steps. The first three are necessary and essential: “Establishing Core Values”, “Holding the Company Accountable”, and “Emphasizing Long-term over Short-term.” It isn’t until the fourth step that we witness “Defining Metrics for Success.” 


Environmental Metrics: The Most Valuable Untapped Resource

When a company analyzes their supply chain, just as Boyish Jeans evaluates the ins and outs of denim production and manufacturing, there are innumerable factors to consider. 

The first step is identifying and sourcing sustainable resources, and then the company must consider how those resources will be transported to a production facility (i.e. trucks, gas, etc.) Then comes the factory’s carbon emissions, and then the packaging. Is the box recyclable or not? What materials will end up in a landfill once the product has arrived at its destination? There is also human time and money to track: what time and cost does it take for workers to produce the product? 

While there are many steps to review on a supply chain, putting any two of those metrics together does not warrant useful data. Correlation between miles the material is transported with the number of items in each load does not merit an applicable story. How are we defining what metrics are valuable? 


Sustainability: Recycling Information and Resources

Sustainability and the work at Yaguara have more in common than at first glance. Recycling information in order to operate better is integral to Yaguara’s platform, so why can’t metrics be placed under the foundation of sustainable or unsustainable manufacturing? 

In order to understand the impact of the entire supply chain on the environment, the whole picture is necessary, and only specific metrics should be paired. The platform Green Story is already getting at this problem. The software service offers DTC companies the opportunity to track environmental metrics with their platform with the intention of sharing this information from company to consumer. However, the platform still has its shortcomings. Green Story falls short of integrating the data with actual irrigation systems in cotton fields, or factory warehouses to show real-time data. With our climate and environment shifting a mile a minute, how can quantitative data reveal actual performance if it’s not in real time or integrated with the supply chain itself? 

And yet, Green Story is a success in that it’s doing what no software service has attempted yet: to help brands tell their sustainability story better. I’m sure that the organization Re/make, a platform dedicated to uplifting sustainable brands, is accurate and thorough. But standardizing the rat race in being green would be a whole lot easier with some numbers to back up sustainable claims.


A Solution Lies in Data

The Earth Institute at Columbia University has called for an improved system of measurement and management tools in their annual Sustainability Policy Reports. If consumers want to truly hold brands accountable, how will the DTC prove themselves beyond qualitative reports? It’s essential to decide on which factors to track and report. By focusing on critical metrics that are measured by performance and data rather than disclosure, brands can drive towards sustainability, and ultimately transparency. 

Just as Yaguara has solved this problem of measuring and tracking data for goal-setting, a data solution for sustainability must be on the horizon. Organizing and assimilating data is essential to creating a collaborative work environment, where key objectives are standardized and transparent across all departments. If this pain has been addressed in the DTC world, we can use data to address the same problems in the environment. Brands can be held accountable by the numbers, and sustainability will earn the value of legitimacy. 


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