Going ‘Beyond Green’ with fashion brand Reformation

Sustainability and circularity are buzzwords that only mean something if you give them meaning. If not, it’s just blah blah… And cutting through that noise, is what Circle Economy’s annual event Beyond Green 2017, recently held in Amsterdam, was all about.

Kathleen Talbot, Vice President Operations & Sustainability at the sustainable fast fashion brand Reformation, was one of the event’s keynote speakers and agreed to an interview. The big question is: Is Reformation really going beyond green?

In #changemakers we tell stories about fashion designers and entrepreneurs who actively try to reform the fashion industry and have a vision on the industry’s future.

Interview with Kathleen Talbot

VP Operations and Sustainability at Reformation

Kathleen on stage at Beyond Green 2017, held at the head office of Dutch retail company HEMA. Photo: Nina Albada Jelgersma

Reformation is a US based fashion brand ‘born’ in 2009 and an exception to the norm: fast, fashionable and frontrunner in the area of sustainability. On top of that: Reformation’s limited collections are affordable for a large audience and immensely popular among millennials and celebrities. Not the things you may associate sustainable fashion with. But inspired by Tesla motors, they are pulling it off.

Growth is good

“Our goal is to bring sustainable fashion to everyone”, said Kathleen in the opening line of her speech. She’s petite, young, but on the big stage she speaks with natural confidence. “This means we have ambitions to expand; probably at the end of 2018 and the beginning 2019, we’ll set foot in Europe.”

Apart from international shipping orders, Reformation is still very much a local US based brand. They have eight stores in the bigger cities across the country. London may be the first European city where they may open a store.

During one of the event’s Q&A sessions, it was asked: ‘Isn’t growth the enemy of ethical fashion’. “I think we’re too far away from offering sustainable fashion solutions to consumers to worry about growth”, Kathleen explains later during the interview. “Sustainable fashion is still a niche. And I think we’re at this point that sustainable fashion brands, not just Reformation, but also other brands in other countries, need to scale up if we want more people to wear sustainable fashion.”

“We’re too far away from offering sustainable fashion solutions to consumers to worry about growth”

Fabric is the magic, as stated by Reformation. They make their pieces from sustainable materials, rescued deadstock fabrics, and repurposed vintage clothing. And as they grow, their goal is to push harder to create more sustainable fabric options. Find more information on the brand’s website #ourstuff

Sustainable and fast

One disruptive element in their business model is that they can have a garment from drawing table to retail shop in about 42 days, which makes them a fast fashion brand. A term that isn’t associated with being green, but with pollution, poor labour conditions and other bad things. “We don’t see fast as something bad or not sustainable. For us it means that we are realistic about the world we live in and the needs of people. Most of them want things fast and easy.”

Reformation shows that fast and sustainable can go hand in hand as long as sustainability is at the core of a company’s strategy. “There’s a lot of waste in the fashion industry, from the energy we use, to how we buy our materials, produce and forecast. What we try and do at Reformation, is to look for ways fast fashion can bring us advantages as a company, while designing out the waste across our supply chain.”

And they ‘design out’ with success. Measured by the RefScale, compared to most clothes bought in the U.S, they’ve saved on 53% waste, 77% water and 61% CO2e in the third quarter of 2017..

“Based on a data driven feedback loop, we decide which styles will be produced more”

Data driven

The philosophy to design out waste, made ‘girlboss’ and founder of Reformation, Yael Aflalo, turn to data. Common in most industries, less in fashion.

Kathleen explains: “Many fast fashion companies produce cheaply in bulk. Given that they are producing anywhere from 6-18 months ahead of time, they often get stuck with a lot of inventory, and offer discounts. We start with small orders for each garment. We then closely monitor what people buy, whether we provided the right fit, and we have a team dedicated to monitoring customers’ feedback. Based on this data driven feedback loop, we decide which styles will be produced more and which not.”

This approach not only leads to close to 100% sales of items, but also to less waste. Just in the Netherlands, an estimated 1.23 million brand new clothes are destroyed each year, of which half is incinerated.

One of the reasons that Reformation can produce and deliver fast, is because of their own factory in Los Angeles. Around seventy percent of their production is done there and thirty percent is outsourced to partners, whom they have carefully selected and have long term relationships with.

The majority of Reformation’s woven fabric is made of viscose, a man-made fiber made from renewable plant material. A viscose blouse requires approximately half of the energy than a cotton top to produce. Still, it has a lot of the same issues as synthetic fabrics. So, it’s not their ‘forever fabric’. Find more information on the brand’s website #ourstuff

Hotspots that need solving

One of the areas they have identified as the next rock to turnover are dyes, tells Kathleen. “We have clear standards for fabric fibres, but we found it really hard to create dye specific standards. We now require certifications, like bluesign and OEKO-TEX. And just as all other brands, we have a restricted substance list. We’re working to enforce that in a more robust way.”

But the ‘fun stuff’, as she calls it: “Is that we’re now working with some of our mills to get bluesign certifications, as we really think bluesign is a leader in this space. We sometimes use natural dyes, but generally they are not consistent enough to use on a larger scale. And we’re currently testing with digital printing and waterless processes.”

A second area they want to improve in is recycling, and she mentions their ‘RefRecycle’ take-back programme. In general, programmes that collect worn clothes to recycle them into new ones come with lots of logistical challenges. Best practice businesses in this area, like Patagonia, have complete business units to manage this. For a relatively small company like Reformation, this isn’t quite realistic. Still, Kathleen mentions that the RefRecycle programme is not yet rigorous enough and should be improved.

“We’ve managed to reduce our impact significantly at the design phase – where they say about 80% of your product sustainability is determined, and we reduced our impact during the manufacturing process. So, really the hotspot to reduce our impact even more is after customers have bought our products.”

If you cannot wait for Reformation to open their first shop in your country, they do have international shipping. Go to their webshop.

Kathleen Talbot, VP Operations and Sustainability at Reformation

“We’re designing out the waste across our supply chain”

About Circle Economy’s textile programme

Circle Economy is a social enterprise that aims to accelerate the transition to circularity. One of their programmes is the Circle Textile Programme. Together with an ecosystem of brands, collectors, sorters and recyclers, the programme produces the critical data, tools, and pilot projects that are building the new foundation for a circular textiles industry.

Beyond Green is Circle Economy’s annual event co-hosted with the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, one of the Dutch fashion academies and in the top 20 fashion schools as published by online platform Business of Fashion. At the event stakeholders come together, listen to keynote speeches of frontrunners and brainstorm about new solutions contributing to a fashion industry that is circular. This year’s theme was #beyondblahblah, addressing the long-standing ‘blah blah’ surrounding sustainability in the fashion industry.

Workshop Reformation at Beyond Green

At the Beyond Green event, various workshops were initiated, in which brands could brainstorm solutions for sustainability issues with fashion students and professionals. Reformation had two workshops, one focusing on recycling of clothes and the other on the ‘RefRecycle’ take-back programme. As soon as the outcomes are made publicly available by Circle Economy we will share them in OW. Magazine.

On stage Q&A at the Beyond Green event. Photo: Nina Albada Jelgersma

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