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Ben Hedlund: “Greenwashing rightly leaves a bitter taste in many people’s mouths.”

NEW YORK —  Sustainability is top of mind in the modern luxury space today, so much so that the Financial Times noted over the weekend that “The eco has landed”, reporting on the growing importance of green ideas for luxury brands.

Sustainability has sparked lively conversations in the Lean Luxe Slack channel among members, and those debates seem to arise from a suspicion of the true motives of brands that embrace the green movement.

The problem. A running sentiment is that many companies treat sustainability as a marketing gimmick, or a superficial box to check — all the while avoiding the responsibility of attempting to enact any true environmental changes. The way the FT article frames the issue encapsulates this very problem: “sustainability gets stylish”, the author wrote. Case in point.

The term ‘greenwashing’ has been around for a while, and, rightfully, it leaves a bitter taste in many people’s mouths. But there’s an opportunity to broaden our thinking on the definition of sustainability, the effect it can have, and how we approach it, both as consumers, and as producers.

But some companies do get it right. Some companies take a sincere, and intelligent, approach to sustainability, but haven’t gotten any credit for doing so. Mattia Donadi, the VP of Production at R13 Denim makes a conscious decision to source fabrics from, and produce, nearly all of their products in Italy. By approaching production from this perspective, R13 is able to reduce its carbon footprint significantly, while saving money on shipping and shortening their production calendar.

There’s also Kjetil Aas, the Creative Director of Armoire Officielle, who chose to source it Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton t-shirts from India, rather than from Europe, because the quality, cost, and durability was an improvement on local options.

We can also look at Gap — while late to the game, the brand is taking a considered approach to sustainability. (Disclosure: My wife Natalie Nelson is part of Gap’s sustainability initiatives for its 1969 Denim line.) The point is this: When companies the size of Gap start creating processes to reduce their water usage, the savings are immense. The last time I checked, Gap had saved around 8-9 million liters of water in the denim category alone. And that’s increasing each season. The positive effects of an initiative like this can’t be emphasized enough.

It’s critical to look at sustainability through the lens of innovation. How, for example, can brands innovate on their sourcing, fabric developments, and chemical processes? How can brands become more cognizant of the full stack of impacts? What processes can be tracked better, so that they can operate and innovate from a known baseline?

When those kinds of steps are taken — and when stakeholders have a vested interest in positive environmental, social, and financial outcomes — then good things can, and do, happen.

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