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The Brands That Have Been Sustainable Since Before It Was Buzzy

Sure, every company wants to seem environmentally conscious now — but these are the ones that have been green since before it was cool.

At the CFDA's first-ever "Fashion Future" graduate showcase this spring, there was one theme that surfaced again and again in the top student work on display: sustainability. The next generation of fashion designers, it seems, believes that aesthetic innovation ought to be paired with environmental consciousness. And it's not just fresh-out-of-school designers who think so. New indie labels with a focus on doing right by the planet seem to be popping up everyday, while some established brands are making major pivots in how they operate in order to minimize their carbon footprints.

But the sustainability conversation isn't entirely new in fashion. Sure, there may be more buzz around it over the past few years, but in fact, there are brands that have been making environmental responsibility a priority for decades.

Eileen Fisher is perhaps one of the best-recognized brands that can make this claim. The label collaborated with the CFDA in 2016 on the Social Innovators Project, a yearlong residency for recent fashion school grads that emphasized environmental and social responsibility, and this year, Fisher herself was honored at Parson's annual benefit for her sustainability leadership in the industry. Recently, the label committed to an ambitious initiative called Vision2020, with the goal of hitting a number of important benchmarks by the year 2020 that include becoming carbon positive and using 100 percent organic cotton and linen.

But the brand has actually been incorporating sustainable practices since 2000, when it introduced its first organic yoga pant. Social responsibility became a priority even earlier, as addressing human rights issues within the supply chain became paramount to Eileen Fisher in the '90s. 

"Not many fashion companies were adopting a leadership role on sustainability, so we recognized there was a void where we could have real impact," Shona Quinn, sustainability leader at Eileen Fisher, told Fashionista via email. "Outdoor brands were some of the first to explore sustainability, but there wasn't much happening amongst fashion companies."

Alternative Apparel is another long-established label whose founder remembers outdoor brands like Patagonia for being outspoken about the environmental impact of clothing production early on. Evan Toporek is the CEO of two-decades-old Alternative, a label known for its soft, simple wardrobe staples like T-shirts and joggers made of eco-friendly materials. While ethically made basics might not seem like a revolutionary concept now, Toporek says there weren't any major players in the space when Alternative first started getting serious about going eco-friendly in the early 2000s.

"Before eco-friendly was a buzzword, we were using organic cotton and recycled polyester and low-impact dyes. We were really careful with how we were manufacturing," says Toporek. "In the early 2000s we broke down our supply chain and tried to find every little place that we could make a difference."

At first, the brand created a separate collection called Alternative Earth showcasing those efforts, but eventually the eco-friendly fabrics crept into such a large portion of Alternative's offerings that it didn't make sense to separate them out. Today, 80 percent of the pieces in Alternative's line are made with eco-friendly methods.

"It wasn't about capitalizing on a market opportunity," Toporek said. "It just felt like the right thing for us to do." 

John Hardy, founder of the eponymous luxury jewelry brand, embedded environmentally and socially conscious practices into the company's way of operating for similar reasons. Current CEO of the company Robert Hanson calls Hardy a "wizard" for the way he foresaw the importance of sustainability when founding the company in 1975, before it was a commonplace value in mainstream fashion.

"There wasn't a clear return associated with responsible business practices, particularly around artisan communities and sustainability," says Hanson. "We work in an industry that hasn't led with a strong point of view around this issue... But John Hardy is a man who thinks before his time."

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Today, the brand's efforts toward sustainability are manifest in everything from the raw materials in its jewelry (reclaimed metals and ethically sourced stones) to its workshop (constructed of sustainable materials) to its bamboo-planting initiative (which will plant its one millionth seedling this summer).

Although sustainability has been intrinsic to the brand's operations from its founding, Hanson says that he sees an increasing need to communicate that clearly to customers. 

"We believe we're at a critical juncture, if not a tipping point, where if businesses don't figure out a way to create a virtuous circle of business practices that recognize the impact they have in the world on these issues, that clients will start to vote with their pocketbook," Hanson says. For a brand that's already proud of its "virtuous cycle," the challenge is to communicate that to customers who are newly interested in the responsibility aspect.

Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko, president and CEO of Finland-based design house Marimekko, agrees that there's been a shift in consumer attitudes in recent years. Though Marimekko has been around since the '50s and has proudly kept key aspects of its production — like fabric printing — in-house in order to better control production ethics and long-lasting quality, it has recently begun putting more effort into educating store personnel about the sustainable origins of its clothing.

"I think there's a shift in consumers' understanding of their own responsibility to make sustainable choices," says Alahuhta-Kasko. "We get that feedback on a day to day basis when we interview our people who are working at the stores. The consumers are much more eager and interested in knowing who made their clothes and how were they made."

Properly educating their customers about what sustainability actually means, particularly in the context of their own label, is a challenge all the brand leaders interviewed mentioned. 

"It takes time for an in-depth understanding of the full journey of a product's lifecycle or the ins and outs of a company's initiatives [to develop]," notes Quinn.

So what does it feel like to be one of the OG sustainable brands and watch fast fashion chains make dubious claims about their own green initiatives, or see startups getting all the buzz when it comes to ethical fashion? For Quinn, the growing popularity of so-called sustainable fashion can be a "mixed bag," as it sometimes leads to greenwashing initiatives that use clever marketing to make brands seem more green than they really are. And Toporek notes that many corner-cutting companies can still get ahead because customers don't always put into practice their claims about valuing ethical production over low prices. 

Still, there are reasons to remain hopeful. "Progressive movement within the industry will not just come from those companies that were built on the pillars of sustainability," says Toporek. "It will be when every company begins to incorporate and implement sustainable practices into their organizations."

Luckily, the industry has brands like these setting an example of what it means to be committed to sustainability for the long haul.

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