Thr3efold is all about connection. Launched by founder Jessica Kelly in 2021, the platform provides a resource database to help brands connect the dots and build strategies to help them meet their sustainability goals. Last month it staged Propel at the Arlo Hotel in downtown Manhattan, its first in-person event since the pandemic started, which connected a roomful of industry professionals, some working within big corporations, others who’ve founded their own brands, all seeking to make a difference. Swapping strategies, expertise and experience to limit the impact of the fashion industry on people and planet was the order of business. Here are FashionUnited's 5 key takeaways from the event for those seeking to move the needle of sustainability.
The importance of buy-in
Even the best sustainability proposals fail when there isn’t buy-in from all parties. “In order to push an initiative through you need to communicate with all your stakeholders,” said Lisa Diegel, Director of Global Sustainability at Faherty. “From the CEO down through management, production, to all levels, even interns. Everybody needs to be on the same path or you will continue to run into roadblocks.” Diegel has worked for brands as diverse as Arizia, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, and Supreme, specializing in sustainability for the latter two but, whether convincing the powers-that-be within a luxury conglomerate or a small team at a cult skatewear brand, the takeaway is the same. You must eliminate the friction by convincing everyone that the proposal is a winning one.
Lean into mistakes and let your failures go public
Cancel culture makes brands reluctant to talk about what they’re working on in case it doesn’t work out. But progress only happens when brands are willing to try and fail, even at the risk of being called out. “We’re innovators, driven by trial and error,” said Camen Gama, Director of Circular Design at Eileen Fisher, who prefers the word evolution over the word failure.
Ganni and Patagonia are examples of brands whose marketing has leaned into the contradiction of bring product-based companies that also want to address overconsumption and environmentalism. Sustainability is not about being perfect. When brands present what they are doing and are transparent about their commitments, there is no shame in stumbling along the way to meeting those commitments. We should almost view imperfection as the opposite of greenwashing.
Diegel gives the following advice to brands that are paralyzed by fear of making the wrong move: “Be honest. Think really carefully about what you say. Is it the truth, and can it be accredited or backed up with a certificate from a reputable organization?”
The Higg Index is not obsolete
Since the non-profit organization Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched the Higg Index in 2012 it had become a valuable support for brands to accurately measure and score a company or product's sustainability performance. That is, until it came under scrutiny this summer for containing misleading information. Now brands are left wondering where to look for trustworthy sustainability tracking data. But Diegel says the criticism does not negate the Higg's value.
“Higg has a lot of great tools and the criticism of its MSI (Material Sustainability Index) was due to lack of good, comparable data, and the Higg has to correct that,” said Diegel. "It’s good for these organizations to come under scrutiny and face criticism. They should be called out on weaknesses and any good organization will use the opportunity to correct itself, move on and become better. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Connecting and networking are the most important skills in the sustainability field and transparency fuels both. At Eileen Fisher, Gama provides tours to industry professionals who want to see how the company operates. "People are going to help you and you can’t do this alone,” said Gama. “We are here to share whatever we know."
An interesting proposal for companies to ensure all staff are equally invested in the vision for a more sustainable industry could be to build sustainability goals into the annual employee KPI (Key Performance Indicators) reviews. Promotions and pay raises are often tied to these reviews so it is in everyone's immediate interest to demonstrate that they are meeting these goals as part of their professional development. Even in a company as known for it as Eileen Fisher, there isn’t a team dedicated to sustainability. “It is ingrained in each of us," said Gama. “But even then, it’s difficult to convince everybody.”
Research like your life, and the planet’s, depend on it
Gama considers herself an instigator whose job it is to try to push as many ideas as possible, even if some of them have taken as long as four years to come to fruition. Sustainability is not an area for those interested in instant gratification. Gama offered the following advice for designers, product developers, managers or anyone else working within a company who is determined to make a difference but finding the road difficult. “I go do my research and, by the time I present, I have already talked to half the industry, found out who my partners are, if this idea is possible, how to do it, who internally will be my partner… Then when I have all that, I go to leadership and start being the annoying person who is like a broken record. That’s the approach I normally take because even at a sustainability-driven company it has to work, and we must make ends meet.”