What Does It Take For a Brand To Become Environmentally Sustainable?

A case study with Mara Hoffman.
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Whitney Bauck
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A case study with Mara Hoffman.
Photo: Mara Hoffman

Photo: Mara Hoffman

It's been four years since the Rana Plaza factory collapse made headlines as the worst disaster in garment industry history and two years since Andrew Morgan's eye-opening documentary "The True Cost" premiered. More people than ever are aware of the impact the fashion industry can have on people and the planet. As one of the world's most polluting industries — second only to Big Oil, according to some sources — fashion has a lot to answer for. Subsequently, some of the most exciting up-and-coming brands are those that are thinking creatively about how to recycle textiles and use eco-friendly factories.

But what about those that started their labels a decade or two ago, before "eco-friendly" was a mainstream buzzword? Mara Hoffman is one such designer. When she started her eponymous label 17 years ago, sustainability wasn't on her radar. As a fresh-out-of-college designer, Hoffman was mostly concerned with being scrappy enough to keep her independent label up and running — and her ability to rack up celeb fans like Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian prove that those early efforts worked. But years of ominous headlines began to raise Hoffman's awareness and concern about the sustainability of her own company's practices.

Two years ago, she reached a breaking point. "The weight of the harm of the industry had started outweighing my desire to be a designer and have a brand," she recalls. "But the idea of shifting toward sustainability seemed so overwhelming. I went to my production director in a 'change-or-die' kind of space and was like, 'Do we close? Do we just stop doing this?'"

Hoffman's production director suggested that, rather than completely closing up shop, they look at what it would take to make the brand into something they could be proud of from an environmental angle. Since then, the label has undergone a major shift that has garnered praise both from design-focused and sustainability-focused media alike.

So what does it actually take to shift an already-established brand like Hoffman's toward genuine sustainability? Fashionista sat down with the designer to find out what steps she has taken — and learn what measures might work for other brands that want to move in a similar direction.

Start with fabrics

The first step Hoffman and her team took was to swap out one of the standard fabrics used in its popular swimwear line for a textile made of 78 percent recycled polyester. Making that first small jump gave Hoffman the morale boost she needed to believe that a more thorough overhaul wasn't completely out of reach. "I think having that first part work gave us the confidence to figure out how we could start thinking bigger about the ready-to-wear," she says.

Next, the brand moved from screen-printing to digital printing, which cuts down on water usage and reduces waste by allowing for more precise placement of prints. From there, the ratio of sustainable fabrications to unsustainable ones has gotten continuously better with every season. The brand soon switched to organic cotton and began relying on companies like Lenzing to source sustainable wood pulp-based fabrics like modal and rayon.

Check in with manufacturers

Because Hoffman had long been partnering with highly vetted factories, a portion of which are located in the U.S., her growing worries about the impact of her brand didn't include human rights concerns. Still, she began more closely investigating her factory partners to discover whether their environmental standards were as high as their social ones.

"Some places fell off because of what their outputs were on an environmental level in terms of energy and waste," she says. "We doubled down on some of our factories that were already going in a good direction or eager to move in it. And we let go of some." Finding sourcing agents who saw eye-to-eye with her vision for a more sustainably produced line was also a help, Hoffman said, as they could connect her with factories that would better align with her goals.

Find like-minded peers

Agents aren't the only ones who have made Hoffman's movement toward sustainability more possible. She's quick to assert that the resources shared by those in the eco-conscious community have been a huge help. "That's a really radical thing about the people that are working in this space," she says. "Other parts of the industry can be into this old-school way of thinking that everything is proprietary, like 'I worked too hard to get that source; I'm not gonna share.' But the philosophy of trying to make this shift for yourself is that your greatest hope is that others are doing it too. The goal is for there to be less harm across the board. So people share information."

Besides talking to friends like jeweler Pamela Love and natural dyer Audrey Louise Reynolds, Hoffman joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and credits brands like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia with setting a precedent she seeks to emulate. The internet, of course, is also an invaluable resource for learning about how to produce more consciously — something Hoffman didn't have access to when she was first getting started.

Communicate with customers

As Hoffman and her team have been making significant strides toward minimizing their negative impact, they're increasingly proud of what they're doing — but figuring out how to relate that narrative to customers has sometimes been tricky.

"When I knew that I really wanted to change, we had conversations like 'Well, do we change the name of the brand?' Because it's almost easier for people to embrace something new," she says. For Hoffman, the challenge was compounded by the fact that the new direction in terms of core values was paralleled by a new direction aesthetically. The shift in design was precipitated both by a desire on Hoffman's part to close the gap between what she likes to wear herself and what she designs, but also by the shift in the kinds of materials she relies on.

"We're using responsible fabrications now, but they also feel more refined and elevated to me," she notes. "They feel like things that I, as a person, want to wear. And I needed to bring the aesthetic back to who I am now, as opposed to where I was eight years ago." Still, Hoffman maintains that the true hallmarks of the brand — "joy, celebration, color, loving women" — have remained constant even as the aesthetic language used to express them has shifted.

Ultimately, even if communicating new values is tough, she doesn't think it should worry any designer too much. "You have to let the product speak for itself," she says. "If it's good, people are going to be drawn to it."

Count the cost

Though Hoffman asserts that she's much happier with what the brand is doing now as compared with the business three years ago, she wouldn't claim that the process has been easy — and from a brand perspective, it has meant preparing for what she calls a "contraction."

"We knew our prices were going to go up a little bit, and that was going to slow down our business for the first year or two of it," she says. "Some big buyers have told me that I'm walking away from money."

Hoffman's answer has been to split the increased costs that can accompany sustainability boosting initiatives between the customer and the brand, finding a balance so that both are "in the investment together." A less harmful industry, she reasons, won't come about if no one is willing to adjust their expectations.

Be honest

No matter how far the brand has come, Hoffman is quick to acknowledge ways it could still improve. "By no means have we reached sustainability, and we never will unless we close down or upcycle every single thing, and we're not doing that. We're still very much much in the process," says the designer. In being more open about her sourcing, she follows the lead of brands she admires, like Everlane, who emphasize transparency. 

Hoffman believes it's important to communicate with customers about what's really going on while also avoiding standard industry marketing tactics that equate consumption with happiness. "Clothing is a beautiful way to express yourself," she says. "That's why I'm here, to be a part of what it can do on an emotional level for somebody and bring them this feeling of confidence. But in the end, more stuff is not what will make you happy. It just isn't.”

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