Approaches vary among fashion and footwear brands looking to reduce their environmental footprint. Some launch sustainable lines within their broader ranges, while others put out collections of more sustainable items, or develop sustainable materials for use in a limited range of products. But these efforts, while valuable, may not be the best starting place for brands looking to make an actual impact.
A July 23 panel discussion held by the trade group Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) offered some clear, common-sense guidance for companies looking to solve for sustainability. (Which, many still need to: A recent FDRA survey of 120 footwear professionals found that just one in three had a sustainability program in place at their company.) The suggestions also offer potential bottom-line benefits, particularly as businesses ready themselves for a future when shoppers increasingly use sustainability to decide which brands they will or won’t buy.
It may be tempting for brands to broadcast their focus on sustainability by launching a flashy new product, but that’s a temptation worth resisting. “If you are a brand that has an iconic product, start there,” said Anders Bergstrom, general manager at Teva. “Kick over the big rock first and fix the thing that people know you most for.”
Bergstrom’s suggestion is that getting sustainability right on a core product is likely to have a larger positive impact than adding a new sustainable line. Brands can still work on innovative solutions and new ideas, he noted, but it’s important they don’t do so at the expense of ensuring the materials and processes behind the brand’s mainstay are as good as they can be.
Companies that ignore this guidance run the risk of bumping into image issues. If they haven’t made sustainability part of the foundation of their brand, Bergstrom explained, they could inadvertently devalue their core products when they start releasing new items with all the sustainability bells and whistles. Basically, the more sustainable the new stuff looks, the less sustainable the old stuff will look.
Labels may think they need to reinvent a product to make it more sustainable, but they don’t. “Durability is something that brands overlook very often,” said Xavier Vital, a global service manager at environmental consultancy SGS. “It’s something where you can have the same product, just connect sustainability with quality, and make this product last longer.”
The longer a product lasts, the longer a consumer can go without buying a new one and discarding the old one. The net result is fewer resources used and less waste produced. Of course, consumers have to be willing to use the product until it’s worn out for this equation to work, and that doesn’t always happen.
Still, brands need to focus on what they can control, and increasing a product’s longevity is an achievable start. “By doing this, without having to invest a lot of money and without thinking about recyclability or biodegradability—that could be a next step,” Vital said. “Durability is a very good way to reduce the environmental footprint of a product very quickly.”
Brands worried that the sustainable version of their product will cost shoppers more shouldn’t just focus on price, said Beth Goldstein, executive director and industry analyst for footwear and accessories at NPD Group, a market research firm. What matters more is value, meaning what a consumer is getting in return for their money, and sustainability is actually a great way to enhance it.
“As function is being added, versatility, we see consumers willing to pay more for that,” she said. “A lot of what is coming out of sustainable materials is better product.” Many of these products have added benefits such as being moisture-wicking, cooling, longer-lasting, or more comfortable. Brands that can offer a better product are more easily able to convince shoppers that a product is worth their money, and of course they can mention the sustainability benefits as well. Goldstein noted that consumers in NPD’s surveys say they are willing to pay slightly more for sustainability, and other research has backed the finding.
The only way to determine how to reduce a product’s environmental footprint is to know what that footprint is, or as Vital put it: “To improve, you need to first measure.”
Once a brand has done that, it can identify where it needs to do better, and those weak points may include inefficiencies that the brand can fix to save resources, such as energy and water, as well as money.
“The biggest thing that we can all do as an industry to further the cause of sustainability is to stop making so much junk,” Bergstrom said. “There is so much product out there in the world that is unnecessary or that is frankly not part of your brand.”
Bergstrom’s point was that brands have a tendency to chase money by making products they see other brands having success with, even if they have no particular competency in the category or connection to it. The result is a lot of bad design that will probably wind up in a landfill or being destroyed.
This practice isn’t only wasteful, it also tends to be poor business. Bergstrom said Teva recognizes it will never beat its competitor Birkenstock by trying to make a better Birkenstock. It’s only going to do it by making a better Teva.