Following the launch of their first UK store, Reformation’s VP of Operations & Sustainability Kathleen Talbot opens up to Eco-Age about the evolution of the cult sustainable fashion brand within an ever-changing industry.
What inspired the launch of Reformation?
Reformation is about changing the world’s view on the fashion industry and educating consumers about the powerful effect we can all have on the environment. Yael Aflalo started Reformation ten years ago as an attempt to break the cycle of unsustainable fashion industry practices. After a trip to China where she got to see first-hand the devastating amount of pollution there from textile and garment manufacturing, she knew that she had to make a change and stop operating in the status quo.
You launched 10 years ago – how has the industry evolved since then?
The conversations around sustainable fashion have changed dramatically and the consumer perspective is very different today from when Reformation launched in 2009. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and as this is finally becoming more of a mainstream understanding brands and consumers alike are taking action.
As a 100% carbon neutral company, our goal is to use our platform to lead and inspire other brands to make environmental and social impact a priority. It’s great to see that over the past few years the industry has been taking note, and more brands are starting to make changes in how they source, manufacture, and report their work.
How does sustainability manifest itself in your business approach?
Sustainability is at the core of everything we do. In addition to ensuring the use of sustainable materials and production processes, we have invested in green building infrastructure to minimize our waste, water, and energy footprints throughout the supply chain.
We want to be a part of the solution to clean up the industry, whether that’s helping to develop new closed-loop fibers, ensuring living wages for our factory, or innovating more-efficient dye practices. We see opportunity in collaborating with like-minded brands and our suppliers to push for better and create innovative solutions. We’re really excited about the future of sustainability and the technology that comes along with it. Our long view is that we will be the go-to lifestyle brand for all things sustainability.
What are Reformation’s sustainable priorities as a business?
At Reformation, we’re committed to oversharing. Sharing the behind the scenes into our sustainability practices, sourcing, and manufacturing is an important practice for us. In recent years, we’ve taken a more formalised approach to transparency through initiatives like RefScale, factory tours and sustainability reports, educating consumers about the impacts of fashion.
We want to focus on efforts that have the biggest impact, so we created our first Sustainability at Reformation framework that we will use to set our goals and priorities for the next five years (2019-2023). High level, we want to keep investing in better and cleaner materials, publish our supply chain traceability efforts with our customers, and go deeper into circularity initiatives.
Reformation has been carbon neutral since 2015. It’s one of the easiest things we do to be sustainable and we have introduced programs that make it super easy for everyone to reduce their footprint. As a 100% carbon neutral company, spreading awareness of climate change and potential solutions also continues to be a priority. We recently launched “Carbon Is Canceled” – a series of programs that provide easier ways for everyone to connect to solutions. Now on our website, consumers can switch their electric bill to wind energy through Arcadia Power and purchase Climate Credits that NativeEnergy will direct towards verified carbon offset projects.
How has Reformation’s sustainability strategy developed as you have grown?
We started Reformation with sustainability at our core. But when we were in true start-up mode, we were a smaller team (and budget!) and had to tackle issues one at a time, so our strategy has really been expanding each year. We started with better materials, and really let it build from there. Up to two thirds of the sustainability impact of fashion happens at the raw materials stage. Fibre selection also affects how you wash the garment, and potentially recycle it one day.
We just updated our Ref Fiber Standards – grouping fibres into different classifications based on their combined social and environmental impact. We tried to make these standards as holistic as possible, taking into consideration water input, energy input, land use, eco-toxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, human toxicity, availability and price. At the end of 2018, about 67% of our fabric purchases were our A & B rated fibres, and we are continuing to develop new fabrications and design into these highest impact materials like TENCEL, linen, and recycled cotton or wool. We’ve always believed in mapping what actions will have the biggest impact for the resources we invest — we’re still big proponents of “smart” sustainability programming and doing more with less.
How challenging has it been to maintain your eco principles as you have grown and what have been the main prohibitors?
As we’ve grown over the years, we’ve made it a priority to maintain the same production standards across the supply chain. We opened the first sustainable sewing factory in the U.S. where we designed and manufactured the majority of our collections, allowing us to incorporate green practices directly. To keep up with demand, we’ve expanded to other manufacturing partners in the U.S. and abroad, and developed standards and programs to ensure they meet the same sustainable standards and materials.
For any Reformation product produced outside of our factory in Los Angeles, we have a rigorous screening process to make sure the partners we work with share our values of sustainability, transparency and accountability. We require all our direct cut, sew and finish manufacturing partners to adhere to our Code of Conduct (which represents international standards for fair labor practices and safe working conditions), and to be monitored for compliance and continuous improvement.
As we have scaled, the initial prohibitors we experienced when we were getting started — cost, minimums, supplier leverage — have been greatly reduced and give us an even stronger platform to influence change at each tier of our supply chain.
Do you feel pressure from your customers to be more eco?
With the rise of ecommerce, consumers have become more aware of the ethical impact that their decisions have on their environment. They are more empowered with information than ever before and can choose for themselves what they want to buy and from where. Our brand was built on sustainability and we want our customers to become educated and take steps in leading a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s about having a platform to engage hundreds or thousands of people through your products, and doing something meaningful with it. We get really touching “thank yous” and encouragement from our customers, but also very important feedback on how we can keep pushing for better. For example, our customers’ feedback was the main force behind us developing extended sizing. And when they email us asking us for specifics on our RefScale calculations, or how we ensure fair labor practices, it is a boost. It means they care and will help keep us accountable! We love those questions, and make sure to engage personally.
What can consumers do to be more eco-friendly?
Affecting change on global issues like climate change can feel overwhelming. This stuff is complex, and it is sometimes hard to find the hope and inspiration to get involved. The success of our sustainability initiatives is determined by how effortless they are to adopt. We start with small digestible solutions that people can incorporate into their daily lives to make an impact and highlight how those changes can affect the big picture. We know we can’t change consumer behaviour overnight, but if we can make it easy for people to make more informed purchases, then we’ve made an impact. In the fashion industry, it’s also very much training people to think about how much things cost — not just to their wallet, but to the environment.
For example, there’s nothing more sustainable than buying vintage, and a great way to support circularity in fashion is to donate or recycle your garments when you no longer want or need them. Be mindful of how you’re washing clothes since up to 80% of the total environmental impact of a Ref purchase happens after you take it home: air dry when possible, use cold water, always run full loads when washing, make sure you are using a green dry cleaner who skips perc and other toxic chemicals.
You’ve recently opened your first UK store in London, what’s next for Reformation?
For us, London was the natural next step in what’s been an exciting year for us of expanding outside of the U.S. About 17% of our sales are international and with our updated international ecommerce experience and new stores in Canada and the UK, we’re excited to continue bringing sustainable fashion to more people around the world. Stay tuned.