Athleta, Nisolo CEOs Outline the Upsides of Putting Sustainability First

In a world ravaged by COVID-19, transparency, focus, collaboration and customer-centricity should be core operating values for businesses — particularly fashion firms.

For companies like Athleta and Nisolo, both B Corp-certified and centered around sustainability, the pandemic brought the need for these values into even sharper focus.

Through the health crisis, “We learned how important it is to pay attention to all of our stakeholders — shareholders, employees, customers and to respond to them with compassion,” said Mary Beth Laughton, president and chief executive officer of Gap Inc.’s Athleta division, speaking at WWD Culture Conference: Sustainability and the Human Element. “Transparency and being open with employees, explaining decisions, such as why we were closing stores and why we were reopening stores, is important. And we learned the customer has to be at the center of all of our decision-making.”

It has been a balancing act for most retailers reopening stores, as they have to navigate consumers’ new concerns about retail spaces and still cater to customers who can’t yet be convinced to return to live shopping.

“Customers were a little bit hesitant to come to stores at the beginning of the pandemic, so our store associates stepped up by welcoming them, making them feel part of the community and connected, while also feeling safe,” Laughton said. And to attend to its remote shoppers, Athleta launched a virtual styling service, enabling store associates to provide personal service by phone to customers who avoided stores.

In line with its efforts to address the new world of retail, Athleta is finding ways to embrace sustainability.

Laughton emphasized sharing ideas and working with other Gap Inc. divisions has created “impact at scale,” citing sustainable packaging as an all-brand initiative at the company. Online shoppers can have a single cart from Gap, Banana Republic or Old Navy, generating a single order. “It’s about how we have less orders being generated and less packages being delivered, and how we fold garments in bags so they weigh less.”

On the social impact side, which is a critical component in a sustainability story, Laughton said Athleta’s Pace program has provided life and career skills for more than 16,000 women, which overwhelmingly make up its workforce.

“We are balancing people, profit and planet at all times,” she said.

For Patrick Woodyard, founder and ceo of Nisolo, a Nashville-based shoe and accessory company with Peruvian roots and sourcing, fashion still has a lot to do when it comes to social impact.

“There are over 100 million people on the bottom of the supply chain of the industry, mostly women garment workers between the ages of 19 and 25. It’s estimated only 2 percent of them are even earning a living wage covering their most basic needs,” he said. “If every person in the industry received a living wage, those 100 million and their direct dependents, perhaps 200 or 300 million (in all) — get lifted out of poverty. If every brand in the industry at least offset their emissions…we’d be talking about billions of dollars invested in clean energy and projects that can really put a dent on climate change.”

Fashion ranks among the top-five polluting industries in the world, making up 10 percent of the world’s carbon footprint, Woodyard noted. “I don’t think there is another industry in the world that can have a bigger impact on people and the planet than fashion, if we could turn this tide.”

And it may be starting to turn.

In recent years, sustainability has risen to the forefront of fashion’s conversations, and more brands are embracing efforts to go green. Others, on the other hand, are doing little more than greenwashing.

“You see massive brands with very poor track records of social and environmental justice launching great new green initiatives with new lines of product that perhaps make up less than 1 percent of their overall of product offering – and suddenly people view them as leaders in the sustainability space,” Woodyard said. But Nisolo’s wage report, he said, “cuts through the noise, levels the playing field and allows us to know the actual state of brands.…This level of transparency engages the consumer, rebuilds that trust and makes sure they very much have to be part of the solution.…True transparency helps us understand who is really all in. The state of the industry is only worth changing, only if it completely transforms.”

At Nisolo’s factory in Peru and other factories the company works with, Woodyard said: “100 percent of the workers receive a living wage, and 100 percent of the carbon emissions are offset within our supply chain, whether we sell one product made by one person or sell hundreds of thousands made by tens of thousands of people.”

This year, Nisolo launched an “ethical marketplace” on its website with 25 brands offering products and information related to home, travel and sustainability, among other areas. “The end goal is recognizing that to change the industry, we got to do it all together,” Woodyard said.

With the impact of COVID-19, “More entrepreneurs and new businesses are needed now since they really push the industry towards innovation,” he said. “Bake your social and environmental impact into your business model, specifically for times like this.”

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