Sustainability
Branding

Making an Impact

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Remember when an image of a green leaf on a product told the story of sustainability? Or the mention of bluesign certification defined a brand’s eco cred? Even if you missed out on those early days of eco-friendly messaging it’s obvious that the industry has entered a new era of sustainability communication. With seemingly every brand under the sun pushing planet-positive initiatives and corporate carbon reduction goals, making an impact is no longer a single shade of green. 

The rise of social media, and with it, a greater need for industry transparency, has prompted companies to take it upon themselves to champion environmental actions and values. These paradigm shifts provided a pathway for today’s sustainability storytelling. “It is more table stakes these days that you have to have some sort of sustainability message in your narrative. It’s almost if you are not talking about it you’re conspicuous,” comments Jim Hauptman, managing partner, Blaze Partners, Falmouth, ME. 

He explains that brands are always looking for ways to create loyalty among their customers. And more trust. “That transparency is so prevalent, because of the internet and social media, you can see anything and (brands) get called out on everything.” Hauptman continues, “It forces everyone to play at a higher level, and brands need to be consistent and deliberate in their actions.” 

However, in the chase to be “green,” sustainability has become ubiquitous. “Beyond climate, when you take a step back, the word that seems to have lost all meaning, is sustainability,” remarks Rick Rusch of R2 Branding based in Colorado. “In my opinion, climate branding or sustainability or eco-friendly or green, they are overused and empty terms, and then a negative in my opinion for textile brands to use — without the right context.” 

Indeed, context is key. Rusch says, and others agree, that climate-friendly claims are meaningless unless they can be quantified, qualified or put in context. “Now when it comes to selling sustainability you need to back it up,” says Allison Ross, founder and creative director of Yesterday.rip, an independent brand/design consultancy based in Brooklyn, NY. “You need to connect the dots to make the message stick.” For example, greenwashing was easy when brands said things like, “we are un-polluting the water.” To be effective Ross suggests creating a direct link to a specific water pollution issue that is culturally relevant. 

At Recover Brands, process and product are on equal footing. Company founder Bill Johnston shares, “Sustainability is so much more than just the materials used. We get into the where, the how and the what of carbon footprint reduction.” 

Connecting the Dots in Storytelling

Sustainability has had a slower on ramp in textiles than other industries, like food or hybrid vehicles that have clear benefits to the customer whether that be toxic-free vegetables or savings on gasoline. With textiles sustainability is less straightforward, according to Ross, who believes that textile brands go narrow and deep to communicate their sustainability stance, versus a scattershot approach, in a manner that stays true to brand identity and uses cultural context to connect with its audience. 

Ross’ background includes work with a range of companies both large and small and both within active/outdoor and textiles as well as other industries. Years ago, Ross worked on creative direction with Nau, an innovative startup in the outdoor space with a big goal: let’s make everything sustainable! “But a focus on the supply chain helped define that message,” recalls Ross.

Client Kodiak Cakes is a current example of how to brand effectively. Ross states, “In a world filled with doom and gloom, it’s refreshing when a company presents a serious topic in a light playful way that stays on brand yet pushes the message. A good example is Kodiak Cakes’ video on wildlife conservation and protecting Kodiak bears. 

“You want messaging that gets talked about,” says Ross. “There’s nothing better than to hear about your brand through someone else.”  

Rusch gives a shout out to the hunt and fishing category as doing climate branding well. He elaborates that these brands can connect directly to planet positive causes like river restorations, habit improvements and/ or building nesting pods for raptors. He offers Simms as an example of a brand “doing good without being politically charged or preachy.”

According to Rusch, in the hunt/fish sectors there’s the advantage of focus. Something textile makers are not likely to have. States Rusch, “Most mills make products for virtually every sector so it’s harder to zero in on their sweet spot. As a result they pivot to more vague concepts like green or sustainability.”   

Rusch learned early on in his career when working in textiles at Land’s End that there are multiple steps within every product, so one little opportunity to improve one little step can make a difference. 

That’s where the textile industry is challenged today: to connect the dots between the technology and the marketing and/or context and why that’s a better thing, and importantly, how it benefits the consumer. 

Execs agree that if textile makers can make that connection and engage consumers, then consumers may pay a higher price because the product is meaningful to them. 

Staying On Brand & Off Cliche 

The average t-shirt travels 17,000 miles from raw material to finished product. In comparison, the average Recover Brands t-shirt travels 250 miles from raw material to finished product. A recent Recover Brands promotion, the “Local Supply Cycle” makes a compelling case showing – not just telling – how hyper local manufacturing can make an impact on reducing carbon footprint. Recover Brands founder and president Bill Johnston along with a handful of others, biked the company’s 250-mile Carolina supply chain in a day, a route that took the cyclists, and film crew, from Yadkinville to Recover headquarters in Charlotte, with pit stops along the way at partner factories. 

The Local Supply Cycle featured on Recover Brands podcast, allowing the business to reach a broader audience with their sustainability story. The podcast, which just recorded its 10th episode, invites organizations and Recover Brands’ partners to be guests on the broadcast and share perspectives on environmental programs and initiatives.  An episode with the Catawba River Keepers offered listeners tips on sustainability. 

Recover Brands was founded 12 years ago with a mission and passion to educate and protect the environment. “This is our DNA, our being, and at the core what we do,” Johnston adds. “We are in constant pursuit to do things better. And make sustainability relatable and appealing to the masses.”  

Recover Brands recently launched its Closed Loop program, a user-friendly, take back initiative. “People throw away 81 pounds of textile waste annually,” states Johnston. “We want people to understand the problem, and encourage buying quality product so they reduce consumption.” 

  Recover Brands’ authenticity approach rings true with Hauptman: “If you pursue sustainability for genuine reasons, not for marketing, and it’s not for sales, then it’s making an impact. When you try to chase things, it becomes just “the flavor of the day.” 

In 2017 Hauptman’s firm helped establish Maine Outdoor Brands, an alliance of outdoor experience companies and nonprofits that share a common mission of growing the outdoor recreation industry. Recently Blaze Partners achieved BCorp status. Hauptman advocates for other companies to follow that path as it proves helpful to fully understand a corporate framework and its impact.   

Asked whether climate branding generates sales, or builds trust and good will, Hauptman responds, “Let’s be real here, you are going to give up some dollars but hopefully you are going to gain some trust. That said, you can’t rest on climate alone, you have to make a damn good product.”

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Sep 30, 2022

 Newsletter

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2022

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Circularity Rolls
Transformative Thinking
It’s a Bag World
Through the Looking Glass
A Movement Afoot