As we wrap up 2021, we speak to Derek Sabori, a long time friend at Green Story, a veteran in the apparel industry, and a sustainability expert in the space. We talk about the meaning of sustainability, where brands can start, and the future of the industry.
Among all the things Derek has developed and worked on, he notably worked at the lifestyle brand Volcom for 19 years, 5 of those under Kering’s sustainability guidance.
What does it mean to be a sustainable brand? Do you still feel there’s room for that word?
First and foremost, to approach the idea of being a “sustainable brand” you need to be a brand that understands what we’re talking about when we say “sustainable.” And so yes, I do think there’s room for that word.
Here’s why. I believe that sustainability is an aspiration more so than an accurate description of our activities. We should always be striving for, and moving closer to sustainability, but I don’t believe that many of us will actually get there; there’s too much to consider and the bar is set too high. Nature is sustainable. Without our intervention, it can keep going on its own; completely self-sufficient, thriving without waste, doing what’s best for its future state. We can and should learn from nature, but can our brand truly mimic it?
That said – and to the second part of your question – I don’t think that there’s really any other word or phrase that encapsulates all that we need to consider when we’re talking about sustainability: that is, both social and environmental impacts (of which we all know there are many – and I mean many), all along, and at every stage of the value chain. I’m sure we could assign one, but for now, “sustainability” the word, is what we have.
To me, it’s sort of like thinking of the SDGs: sure, at first glance there are just 17 – seems easy enough. But tackling each of them, and even the targets that are behind them (all 169 of them) becomes quite daunting if not impossible when we are considering any particular action or decision; let alone our entire value chain, and then our brand as a whole.
Many companies struggle to understand where to start, while many others that do get started, fear communicating their efforts. What’s your advice to them?
The short answer: start learning. And I mean really diving in and learning. Learning the language, the concepts, the history, the innovations, the organizations, the people, etc. Start learning and then don’t ever stop. Most of us didn’t learn about sustainability and/or climate impacts through our education or our career path, so we’ve got work to do.
The longer answer: For those that haven’t started – that’s exactly what you have to do. Start somewhere, start anywhere, just start! The river is running by you and it’s not going to stop. It might ebb and flow, but it will continue to move forward and most likely at a more rapid pace as every day, week, and year that goes by. So you have to just put your raft down and jump in! The longer you stand there on the river banks, the more water that’s passing you by.
There are better places than others to start – places that have more impact, are foundational, etc., but really, just get started. Things will fall into place.
And if you’re not feeling confident enough to communicate your efforts, my advice is this: be authentic, truthful, transparent, explanatory, and humble. Don’t worry about trying to boast about your credentials (especially if you don’t understand them yourself), just share with your stakeholders what you know, what you’ve learned, what you’re learning, and perhaps even what you still don’t know (Patagonia has been shedding light on this path for years!).
Your customers want you to be honest, and more and more, they are becoming savvy enough to spot greenwashing from a mile away. Greenwashing is misleading or false claims – so, stay true, stay humble, be genuine, and share your story (no matter what stage it’s at), and you’ll stay in the clear, and it will be appreciated and likely rewarded.
Where do you see the industry going in the next 5 years? Will all brands be sustainable by then? Or will we still just be talking about sustainability?
Unfortunately, sustainability pivots move more slowly than we (as a global community) can afford. We need to amplify our efforts swiftly. Five years from now, we’ll be knocking on our 2030 deadline, right? Science says we need to reduce our emissions in half compared to what they’ve been. For most brands in the apparel industry, and many other industries as well, you might already be planning your 2023 product range. Have you baked into them all the sustainability and climate-related initiatives that we’ll need to ensure emissions are cut in half compared to what they are today? Essentially, we need to be reducing by upwards of 10% per year even if our business is growing. Are you on track for that, or are you saving up the entire effort for the couple of years before we hit 2030?
So, because of this I think it will be a mixed bag in 2027. On one hand, I think there will be continued advancements in various components of “sustainability” like: post-consumer recycling, recommerce, alternative plant-based materials, cleaner & safer chemistry, smarter packaging, traceability through fiber-tracing, and the likes.
On the other hand, I think there will still be lots of work to do when it comes to powering our entire supply chains (including transportation), globally, with clean, renewable energy, building our products in transparent, safe & efficient, workplaces where all humans are safe, fairly paid, and respected, and ensuring that consumers shift their mindsets to fully appreciate the materials that were used in their goods, and the work that is being done by brands who are doing the heavy lifting.
So, in summary, I think by 2027 we’ll have made lots of progress, but we’ll still be talking – perhaps even more seriously then – about the impacts we’re creating, and how much more work still needs to be done. And I’m quite sure the answer to “will all brands be “sustainable”? will be a resolute, No. Until we start taxing/penalizing/disincentivizing (call it what you’d like) those who are polluting, destroying, harming, etc. in their pursuit of a profit, there will always be those who are willing to cut the corners for short term gain outside of the “sustainability and climate-responsible” playing field and get away with it for as long as we’ll let them.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for brands that embark on a sustainability or climate action journey?
A two-part answer:
First, one of the most difficult things is sticking to the commitment, and ingraining it in the culture of the organization – it needs to be part of your brand’s purpose so that as you ideate, design, produce, sell, and engage with your stakeholders, it’s right there at the center of the conversation. The easiest thing to do is to make it a fringe department and say that you’ve “got a team on it”…that won’t work. It needs to be baked in from the top down, and the bottom up. I call this the Grilled Cheese Effect (success – aka a great sandwich! – will rely on a steady and even application of heat from all sides). Make every leadership position, every design, every sales position, etc. a sustainability-focused position. IMO, that’s not that crazy of an ask…
Part two of this answer: costs. Sustainability, because of the way we currently incentivize markets and companies, isn’t often the lower priced way. Whether it’s scale, standards and certifications, safety, wages, or other, it’s just not. So, if we don’t have part one (purpose, and an ingrained approach) in order then we will continue to keep sustainability and climate action on the sidelines as a “when we can afford it” initiative, rather than a “we will always make room for it” approach.
If it’s part of your purpose, you will find a way.
How urgent is it that brands begin to address sustainability and climate if they’re not already?
It’s more urgent than ever (see previous responses) and will only become more and more urgent. Here are three other reasons why:
- Your brand’s future reputation relies on you getting started (in a meaningful way) as soon as possible. As new generations come into the marketplace, will you be well-positioned to serve them and meet their expectations?
- Keep risk at bay – sustainability is not only the right thing to do, it’s a way to help keep your brand out of crisis mode (no one wants to be caught up in a human rights, deforestation, water-pollution crisis, right!?)
- Get ahead of policy – Whether extended producer responsibility laws, emissions reduction laws, wage laws, safety laws…the writing seems to be on the wall. Get your house in order if you’re not already doing so.
What is the intent behind The Underswell Learning Movement?
It’s just that – a movement towards more learning when it comes to sustainability, climate, and the products we make and the way we consume and use them. The work I’ve done with students and brands has been fascinating because I’m watching people (people who have worked in the industry for years, and at world class brands) get through my teaching/learning process and ask the same question I asked myself 12 years ago: “Why did I not already know this!?”
Today, you can read countless articles on the state of the industry, including what needs to be done, and – especially – how damaging the industry is. Often though, one might read through what might feel like noise and only get the surface picture, or a sliver of the context. That’s because (no fault of their own) they had a design, engineering, marketing, communications, or finance background, and had very little introduction into the words and concepts that are being used. Sure – you eventually start to piece it all together, but in fragments right? Yet, somehow we’re all supposed to know this, tackle it, and ultimately solve it; all while we’re buried in our day jobs! It’s complex and fluid, and can be overwhelming. So I wanted to make something that would help.
I wanted a learning approach that tackles it the way I learned: I went down a lot of rabbit holes because I wanted to know: Wait, who’s this person? Wait, how was that organization started? Wait, what book did they reference? Wait, who’s this new innovation and what are they trying to solve? And what does that mean? And so on. I start with the foundational concepts, look back at history, identify the milestones, breakdown the vocab, and more. And then, I walk through as many of the big landmark publications that occurred from 2017 onward, and try to tie it all together.
Ultimately, I explain it in a way that helps you build a solid foundation for future learning. That’s what I want, an industry that is rooted in sustainability and climate understanding, and is always evolving, always learning, always moving forward.
Brands can work with me in two ways:
Brand Cohorts – For brands that want to build sustainability confidence amongst your team, this 12-week instructor-led, team-building and strategy curriculum arms your team members with the tools and competence to strengthen and accelerate your sustainability programs. Learn more at theunderswell.com/cohort. Green Story readers will receive a free virtual, 1hr all-employee mini-master class workshop when 10 or more brand learners enrolled. Just mention: Green Story. Learn more at theunderswell.com/cohort.
Learning Movement – A monthly membership community featuring sustainability & climate-focused course material, resources, live sessions and more for individuals or group packages. Green Story readers have access to a 15 day free trial period. Then, $49 per month/per user for early birds, $69 per month regular price. Learn more at theunderswell.com/community.