Global warming is arguably one of the most pressing problems our country and world faces today. In a panel discussion during the Women in Retail Leadership Days event last month, Diana Kapp, author of “Girls Who Run the World,” sat down with four pioneering women who are at the cutting edge of bringing sustainability to retail.
The panelists included Saskia van Gendt, head of sustainability, Rothy’s; Caroline Danehy, co-founder and chief creative officer, Fair Harbor; Jane Ewing, senior vice president of sustainability, Walmart; and Kristy Caylor, CEO and co-founder, For Days.
Here are some of the highlights from the conversation.
Why They Decided to Work in Sustainability
Kristy Caylor: “I was working on pretty big businesses for The Gap, and was living in Japan for Banana Republic for a year. At that moment I spent a lot of time in our supply chain, and I think I had never really been exposed to the magnitude of the impact we’re having on people on the planet. [I realized] we’re not connecting the dots on who is making our clothes and how we’re making our clothes. And we’re making so many of them. So, it just got me started on a path where I really started to connect the dots on efficiency, sustainability and mindful choices around materials.”
The Role Apparel Plays in Environmental Damage
Saskia van Gendt: “Because apparel is a global industry, it has vast supply chains. It has one of the largest footprints of any sector. And there are three areas that really stand out.
“The first is the carbon footprint of apparel from material production through manufacturing and transportation. There’s a relatively new McKinsey study that estimates that apparel is responsible for about 4 percent of global emissions, and other reports say it’s closer to 10 percent. Either way, it’s a huge responsibility when it comes to the carbon footprint and global carbon prices.
“Apparel is responsible for an enormous amount of waste. Only about 1 percent of apparel is being recycled, and the industry itself is using vast amounts of nonrenewable resources every year — approximately 100 million tons of nonrenewable resources. There’s also waste coming off the back end of apparel, and 15 million tons being landfilled or burned each year.
“Lastly, I think it’s important to touch on the social footprint. There’s about 300 million people that are employed by apparel globally. So there’s also this potential positive or negative impact on the livelihoods of all those people around the world.”
Why it’s Been Tough for Retail to Make Sustainability Progress
Jane Ewing: “I think it’s around consumer behavior and education. We can put products in front of people, but we can’t necessarily make them buy them, right? So, we’ve got to have compelling ways of educating customers to understand what they’re buying and the implications of what they’re buying so that we drive the behavior change. We can do this in many different ways. It could be labelling or packaging. It can be information. It can be online or in-store. But there’s so much room for improvement in the space.”
Pivoting Marketing as a Result of COVID-19
Caroline Danehy: “Men’s swimwear was the No. 4 declining e-commerce industry. We really had to pivot our marketing message to show the versatility and comfort of our products. And having five years of just focusing on our product, our story and our brand, it gave us the platform to really focus on the importance of our product. Sustainability is why we started our company, and all of our products are made from recycled plastic bottles. But ultimately, it’s not why people buy our products. People buy our products because of the comfort and the versatility. And then we support that message and bring our community together based on the sustainability. I think we’re at this time where the consumer mind-set is really shifting. People want something more than just a product. There has to be something more that a company stands behind than just fast fashion.”