A variety of modern fashion brands have enacted environmental initiatives that align with different definitions along this environmentally sustainable fashion spectrum. Certain companies have specifically moved towards more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, thus placing them in line with the first definition of environmental sustainability. One example of this kind of brand is Adidas. Adidas has been making environmentally productive strides in its manufacturing processes since the late ‘80s, when it started banning harmful chemicals from its production lines. The company was among the first to ban the use of Chlorofluorocarbons— a packaging chemical responsible for creating holes in the Ozone layer—and later made further strides by removing other harmful chemicals, like PVC, from the manufacturing process (Adidas, n.d.)
Another example of a brand making manufacturing-based environmental initiatives company is H&M. While it has faced criticism in the past for being a fast fashion brand that contributes to consumerism and environmental waste, H&M has recently redefined its supply chain to lessen its environmental footprint. They have set ambitious, “climate positive” goals for 2040 based on adjustments to their manufacturing process. They are currently using 96% renewable energy in their operations and hope to be at 100% by their target date. The brand also hopes to decrease their electricity use beyond the 2% decline they’ve already achieved in the past year (H&M, n.d.). The company additionally has additionally hired a new director of research, Christopher Wylie, whose role is specifically aimed at adapting supply chains to reduce waste caused by order surpluses (Scott, 2018). These kinds of manufacturing-focused actions certainly warrant Adidas and H&M consideration as environmentally conscious brands. However, these companies still only at the most basic level of environmental awareness on the spectrum. Their production lines may be more eco-friendly than others, however they have yet to truly define their brands based on the use of exclusively organic materials, or gone a step further to more holistically embody a commitment to environmental progress. Nonetheless, it is important not to invalidate the initiatives that H&M and Adidas have taken; even though these steps are more basic forms of environmental awareness, they are first steps in becoming a truly sustainable fashion line.
Other corporations have taken on more involved environmental initiatives through the use of exclusively sustainable materials in their products. These companies make environmental awareness an integral part of their brand, and they land on the second level of the spectrum of environmental sustainability. One example of this kind of brand is Allbirds, a sneaker company that creates shoes from materials like tree fiber and merino wool, using recycled plastic bottles to create laces, sugarcane to create shoe soles, and 90% recycled cardboard to create packaging (Allbirds, n.d.). Through this focus on natural materials, Allbirds makes environmental sustainability a key part of their brand identity. In an interview with The Guardian, the two founders mentioned that they wanted to steer away from the typical logo-covered nature of athletic shoes when designing the product; instead, they use a stripped-down design to let the shoes speak for themselves (Taylor, 2018). In this way, Allbirds puts their environmentally sustainable actions at the forefront of their brand: they use natural materials to create a product that sustainability in a minimalist, non-ostentatious design.
Another example of a brand falling in this intermediate level of the environmental sustainability spectrum is Stella McCartney. While most luxury brands regularly sacrifice environmentally friendly materials for the sake of high fashion, Stella McCartney finds a balance between the two. Her brand creates luxury products completely without the use of fur or animal products (Farra, 2017). Though initially doubted by other designers, her line has since skyrocketed to become a multi-billion dollar entity (Agnew, 2018). A focus specifically on sustainable materials is integral to the brand. Their mission statement emphasizes this, stating “Each decision we make is a symbol of our commitment to defining what the future of fashion looks like. From never using leather or fur and pioneering new alternative materials to utilizing cutting edge technologies” (Stella McCartney, n.d.). Thus, Stella McCartney clearly falls into the second definition of the environmental sustainability spectrum as well. The brand orients itself as environmentally conscious based on the kinds of natural materials they use and puts these eco-friendly fabrics at the center of their brand image.
While Allbirds and Stella McCartney certainly take sustainable fashion to a level beyond companies like H&M and Adidas, their environmental activism has yet to reach the ultimate level of sustainability on the spectrum. Ultimately, their environmental consciousness focuses exclusively inward, around the company itself. They do not take additional steps to influence others to make the world more environmentally conscious as well.
Companies embodying the ultimate, Kate Fletcher-like definition of sustainable fashion do take on these kinds of external. In addition to positioning themselves as entirely green companies, these brands also encourage consumers and other institutions to embody more sustainable practices. This represents the deepest commitment to environmentally sustainable fashion and there is only one fashion brand that currently embodies this holistic approach: Patagonia.
Patagonia principally works to ensure that their products are made entirely through sustainable manufacturing practices. In 2012 they launched an interactive online mapping of their supply chain, called “The Footprint Chronicles,” in order to provide customers with a more transparent view into where and how their clothing items are made. This interactive map provides full information on where the company’s factories are located, what each manufacturing plant produces, and how products in each facility are made (Kaye, 2012). Furthermore, the company actively makes an effort to reduce harmful emissions and byproducts in their supply chain practices. They developed a program, called the “Chemical and Environmental Impacts Program,” to establish environmentally friendly standards in chemical, water, and energy usage throughout their manufacturing lines. (Patagonia, n.d.).
Beyond this focus on manufacturing, the company additionally focuses on using environmentally-friendly materials to create their products. In the 1990s, after the company discovered that pesticides from cotton cultivation had a detrimental environmental impact, they switched to using entirely organic cotton (Cortese, 2005). Since then, the company has adopted the use of other environmentally-friendly materials such as hemp, recycled nylon, and lyocell— a fabric made from a combination of wood and recycled cotton (Patagonia, n.d.).
But what truly puts Patagonia on the most involved end of the environmentally sustainable spectrum is its focus on environmental initiatives beyond just the scope of their company. The broader focus of Patagonia’s environmental efforts is evident from their mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” (Patagonia, n.d.) Their environmental goals transcends beyond just Patagonia to encourage better initiatives throughout the world as a whole.
To start, the company has undertaken numerous efforts to generally help build an environmentally conscious world. They have enacted multiple campaigns to donate to environmentally-oriented organizations. For example, in 1985 the company adopted a “One Percent for the Planet” promise, in which it pledged to donate 1% of all sales to organizations that focus on local environmental initiatives. In the 34 years that have passed since, the company has donated more than $90 million to these kinds of organizations (Patagonia, n.d.). Additionally, in November of 2017, Patagonia launched another donation-oriented effort when they promised to give all $10 million of their Black Friday sales to local eco-friendly nonprofits (Schmidt, 2017). Most recently, the company responded to the Trump administration’s corporate tax cuts by pledging to donate the money saved to “groups committed to protecting air, land and water and finding solutions to the climate crisis” (Miller, 2018).
Beyond these donation-fueled efforts, the company has also worked to directly encourage other corporations and individuals to adopt environmentally healthy practices. The company recently launched a website called “Patagonia Action Works,” which aims to connect people with local environmental nonprofits. The site shows users nearby environmental organizations and events that they can support through donations or volunteer work, making it easier for them to get involved with environmental initiatives in their communities (Anders, 2018). Additionally, in perhaps their most notable act of atypical environmental activism, Patagonia encouraged buyers to reject consumerism with their shocking 2011 “Don’t Buy this Jacket” advertisement. In this campaign, Patagonia posted a picture of their apparel in national newspapers with the headline: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The message was intended to discourage buyers from overconsumption during the holiday season, even at the expense of the company’s own revenue (Allchin, 2013). Beyond this, Patagonia launched the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in 2010. This organization, made up of 49 apparel companies, was launched with the goal to create “an apparel industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities” (Patagonia, n.d.) Their current project involves creating a universal index that retailers and manufacturers can use to measure the environmental sustainability of their processes and products (The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, n.d.).
In these ways, Patagonia goes above and beyond as an environmentally sustainable fashion brand. They have not only adjusted their own practices to have a positive environmental impact, but also gone above and beyond to promote the well-being of the earth in other ways as well. They truly adopt the environmentally conscious “behavior, relationships, and ways of thinking” that Kate Fletcher argues makes for a wholly sustainable fashion brand. For these reasons, Patagonia is uniquely situated on the highest end of the spectrum of environmental sustainability, and their breadth of their pro-environmental actions are currently unmatched by any other fashion brand.