Heritage Brands Could Have Biggest Sustainability Impact If They Do It Right

Kellie Ell
·4 min read

Retailers, both big and small, continue to plant their flags on fashion’s sustainability landscape. But no one stands to make a bigger impact than heritage brands, which have massive platforms to dispense information, the benefit of a lengthy legacy, years of consumer research, lifelong fans and in the digital era, sizable social media followings.

“As a big brand, you have an impact almost everywhere,” Esther Verburg, executive vice president of sustainable business and innovation at Tommy Hilfiger Global, said during the Fairchild Media Group Sustainability Summit earlier this month. “You really only realize your very biggest impact when you start integrating it into the business.”

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At brands like Tommy Hilfiger, which is owned by PVH Corp., and Levi Strauss & Co., the formula includes influencing both the hearts and minds of consumers, as well as introducing science into the production process.

At Levi’s, for example, some of the technical processes employed include working to conserve water during production and creating products that last longer, like cottonized hemp.

“We’ve got that two-horse test on the back of every pair of jeans. That’s a promise that two horses can’t pull these jeans apart,” Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., said during the virtual summit. “It was really about making a promise of durability to the consumer. And we’ve been trying to live up to that for the 168 years of the brand.”

Likewise, Dillinger said larger companies and brands can use their scale to educate consumers to shop in a more eco-friendly manner.

“There’s a very large impact in the home laundry stage, the consumer-use stage, and our ability to use soft influence to try to change consumer behavior to care for their clothes better, to shop more responsibly and conscientiously, to own longer, or give away or donate after use,” he said. “Those are important tools that the larger brands with larger marketing spends have. They can influence the way consumers shop and use [products] and return or recycle.”

Verburg added that consumers increasingly expect companies and brands to use sustainable business practices and offer environmentally friendly products.

“Especially in the younger generation; [they] feel they have a chance to vote with their money,” she said. “They’re looking for brands they can really buy into. We see it also in the sales figures for sustainable products. That consumer is becoming way more relevant and way more involved. That’s a real big change [compared with] five to 10 years ago.”

But getting companies and brands to agree to the sustainable mind-set isn’t always easy, especially when the price of sustainability seems higher, at least in the short term.

“With every request you get to disrupt the system, you have to educate and build enthusiasm,” Dillinger said. “It takes a lot of discipline and cross-functional buy-in to get everyone who is involved in touching that product to buy into the idea that we’re going to get rid of polyester [for example] on that one jean and talk them through the reason for getting rid of that polyester when they fully understand the reason for having it there. Socializing the technical challenge so you get the buy-in from your cross-functional; it’s a pretty big puzzle and a dance. So you have to educate and create emotional buy-in. And then, on the other side, there’s a ton of technical work to understand the problem and come up with the right technical solutions.”

But even smaller brands with limited resources can participate. For one, brands can use research and learnings from larger companies and brands to inform and educate themselves.

“The impact of making a pair of jeans is going to be fairly consistent from brand to brand to brand,” Dillinger said. “But not everyone can go make these large investments in building that science-based evidence and knowledge. So you can go and borrow our information and use that as a stand-in to represent your own.”

There’s also resources such as MSI, or the Materials Sustainability Index, from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which compares things like materials used and origins and various processes employed by companies.

“If you work in a small brand you don’t always have the luxury of your own sustainability person, let alone a whole department,” Verburg said. “[But] many of the brands publish things online. That kind of information is invaluable.”

In addition, Verburg advises to “move within industry systems.” Or, simply put, don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

“Go for industry systems, go for industry measurement ways, industry standards and use that [to inform the path forward],” she said. “It also helps to drive standardization through the industry. Because if people have their own standards for establishing if something is sustainable or not, it becomes confusing to the consumer in the end.”

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