Completing the Circle in Fashion’s New Economy

Fashion hasn’t achieved sustainability — yet  —  but the spectrum of people working hard to complete the circle is encouraging. 

Big-name brands and investors are buying into the circular economy in a big way, including Colleen Vien, sustainability director at VF Corp.’s Timberland brand, and Caroline Brown, managing director at Closed Loop Partners. 

In a digital conversation with James Fallon, WWD’s editorial director, the pair talked about how change is coming from within and without — with companies looking to become more sustainable and customers increasingly insisting on it.

And this layer — the need for sustainable practices and processes — comes on top of all the usual consumer concerns. 

Timberland’s Vien said: “When you think about consumer demand and what drives them to purchase products, it’s certainly always, first and foremost, ‘Does it do what I want it to do? Does it look the way I want it to look? Is it the price point that I’m willing to pay?’ But I think there’s this new variable in the consumers’ minds. We’re no longer interested in that consumer society that was born in the Fifties and continued to thrive for decades after.”

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Timberland also doesn’t want to fill up the landfills. 

The brand started to move early on sustainability, adding some recycled elements two decades ago, and Vien said this fall it would go further and introduce boots made with recycled leather. 

And as Timberland moves ahead, it’s looking to not just lead, but to use its size to help spur a more sustainable industry in its wake. 

“With regenerative leather supply, we’re creating supply and demand that didn’t exist before,” Vien said. “We’re connecting large-scale tanneries with small ranching communities, that connection never happened before. So we’re creating it and we’re going to prove the model out first and showing that it can grow in scale — and not just across Timberland, but within VF — and once we’re able to show that it is scalable to that level, then it’s time for the industry to open-arms welcome that opportunity for themselves as well.”

But this kind of reworking, especially at a brand as large as Timberland, takes time and requires a lot of TLC.

“There are instances where we’ve nurtured ideas for a long period of time,” Vien said. “The key question is how much investment is needed, how long is it going to take to be at scale and how much scale can it really get to. All of those things play into the return [on] investment equation. We really want to focus on big wins where we can have the most impact.”

It’s an eco system that has a lot of players — and seemingly more every day. 

Caroline Brown, managing director at Closed Loop Partners. Courtesy Image

Brown at Closed Loop, which invests in businesses working in the circular economy, said the coronavirus pandemic has given people time to think. 

“Corporations large and small are looking for ways that they can inspire customers in a new way when they get to the other side of this challenge,” Brown said.

It’s a case of the more the merrier since there are so many niches to be filed and, as Brown noted, “the whole circle has to work” for the circular economy to succeed.

That includes brands and merchants, but also companies working on the Internet of Things, blockchain technologies and digging unused looks out of people’s closets. 

“The entire area of collection — if this product is made to be recycled, it doesn’t happen unless it gets out of that person’s closet and to the right place where that can be executed,” Brown said. “And so there’s this very sort of down-and-dirty area about, let’s get this product moved from one location to another to enable circularity, which isn’t the most glamorous piece of the business, but it’s clearly critical in execution, in closing the loop.”

Fashion still might be a ways off from completing the circle, but Brown said other players need to see the continuing push as part of a larger process. 

“Companies need to really look at this on a scale of, ‘We can’t do everything on Day One,’” Brown said. “’What can we do as benchmarks?’ ‘What are the stepping stones on the path to get us to where we need to go and to celebrate those along the way.’”

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