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About Brands and Sustainability

Questions for Derek Sabori, Sustainability expert, advisor, and educator.

By Alexandra De la Torre
Estimated time of reading: 12 minutes

I have had this question in my head for a while: “Why do brands suddenly care about the environment?” as I found odd to see brands like Nike, Quiksilver, Vans so involved with this. 

We went looking for Derek Sabori to answer these questions. Derek is a professional that comes from the world of sport-inspired brands and now leads the way through an innovative angle towards all of this, thanks to his vast involvement in sustainability for more than a decade. He provides educational guidance to consumers and also to companies that have the intention of really playing a part in this game. Learn more about Derek Sabori’s work and sustainability courses at https://www.theunderswell.com/

The first question I made to Derek was related to the “why”.  Why are these young-minded brands so invested in this now? His explanation resonates completely with the core of these brands and their reason to be: passion. The world of brands, specially sport-inspired brands, is mostly born from a special story that resonates not with everyone but for whom it does, it reaches deep levels of connection. This way these brands gather people of passion.

People of passion that stayed awake, observant, and humble to its surroundings. This is how they noticed that something was off in the way business was being done. And once they started exploring that path, they realized that some things just needed to change.

The way products where designed, made, distributed, and pushed in terms of marketing was no longer aligned to the world that we live in. And for some of these brands, this challenge for change already implies a decade or more of effort. These brands have been brave enough to initiate the journey and smart enough to understand that it will be an ongoing adventure.

After getting familiar with that concept I continued asking more about it. Let’s go through a few of those following questions:

What are brands in the apparel and footwear industry doing about sustainability?

A lot of brands are doing great things like C&A, H&M, Levis, Patagonia, Nike, Puma, etc.  All those big brands are doing the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, brands like Volcom, Billabong, Quiksilver are still in their earliest days of sustainability.

All those big brands that are doing all the heavy lifting have 20, 40, 150 people working on sustainability or responsibility. The surf brands or the sports brands that we might be familiar with might have one person or two people. That’s why the end result is different.

Are these brands alone in this journey?

No. There are sustainable apparel commissions driving things forward. Organizations like the Ellen McCarther Foundation, “Green Peace”, etc. are putting positive pressure on the apparel industry in general.

Are the efforts being done enough?

Not yet. There’s been a bit of a push towards organic materials in general, but the big movement requires a systemic change all throughout and it inquires attention on multiple factors like climate, biodiversity, living wages, hazardous chemicals, and the list goes on and on. It has to go to every stage of your value chain, from raw material extraction to consumer use and end of life. It’s important to point out that there are some good things happening and that there is a hunger for it.

How do you help brands that seek to get involved?

As a consultant and as a teacher I go in and help brands through workshops and try to get them educated. My passion, and my specialty, is educating them and empowering them with knowledge.

And what does it take for a company to do or have in order to really get involved in this?

You have to have a commitment from leadership and committed resources, which means people and financial resources. You have to have a strategy, with targets in place. And then you have to have communication in all ways. Top to bottom, all stakeholders. Everybody needs to know that this is something that you are doing. And then lastly you have to have traceability in your supply chain. You just have to.

Was this new course of action from sports brands born from self-initiative or has the consumer been pushing their brands to get involved?

I think it’s a little bit of both, but I think the responsibility falls on the brand. The consumer will always respond to the survey and say: “Yes, of course! I will pay more and be responsible. I want them to be fair. I support climate action” but then it’s on the brand to internalize those efforts and those costs because sustainability will cost more.

It just does, it’s better attention, it’s slower, it’s verified, it’s certified. It’s more hands on it. So then, when push comes to shove, they don’t necessarily want in. And I don’t blame them. That’s just our human nature.

Do you see a way of this pivoting in a positive way?

The system is kind of broken the way it’s set up, where brands are incentivized to get their prices and their costs as low as possible, at any expense. So, that’s the wrong way because ideally, we should be rewarding brands who do look after biodiversity, who do focus on regenerating agriculture, who do have traceable supply chains, and who do support climate action and renewable energy.

Those things that potentially could cost more we should reward them and perhaps cast the polluters more. My point is that the brands need to be incentivized but the responsibility falls on them. Everybody has to do their part: brands, legislators, non-profits, retailers, and consumers. Everybody has to be informed, engaged, and pushing this forward.

So, about that change of mindset for consumers on a bigger scale; whose responsibility is it to educate consumers? Is this responsibility on themselves, on the brands?

I’d start by mentioning the responsibility of the educational system because I see it in my own experience. I spend two and a half years doing an engineering degree, finished up as an art degree, and then went back to school for my MBA and nobody ever talked to me about this. Then, I spent 10 years in business before anyone would talk to me about social responsibility, triple bottom line, economics and social impacts, traceability. None of that came up and so when I finally did hear about this mid-career I just remember going: “This is crazy, how does this not come up before?”.

That’s one of the things I work on as a mission today and that’s what my company does now. But it takes a lot of self-initiative too and I see it in my students. I teach a three-semester “Sustainable Fashion Program” at Orange Coast College and this is a certificate program where a lot of the students that come are people that just want to learn more about sustainability.

So, for this to work everyone should know about sustainability, regardless of their career path?

In my opinion, this general notion has to be built into every curriculum so no matter what degree path you are on, there’s sustainability talking so people become familiar with concepts like: regeneration, biodiversity, climate impact, ecosystems.

I start my classes with: “Let’s talk about national capitalism, ecosystems, ecosystems services and biodiversity” and people are like “Wow… but isn’t this about fashion?” and I go “Exactly, we have to go backwards and learn about science again to understand sustainability”.

There’s this assumption that the public will just understand it all and there actually is a lot of education to do. So, I think it falls under the brands, the school system, and on us individuals to empower ourselves and read the stuff that is out there.

In terms of the focus companies give to the topic, do you sense that they see this as a new business strategy or just a marketing campaign?

It’s both. The brands that are really deep in it know that this is a way of protecting their brand’s reputation, a way of avoiding risk in their supply chain, they are preparing for the new economy that is coming. They know that younger consumers will grow up kind of demanding that their brands operate that way, so I think that is why they’re investing so much in it.

And of course, eliminating waste, being more efficient, running on cleaner energy, having safer and more productive workspaces; those are all good things for business, so I think it’s both.

We got to learn who is really doing good, really meaningful work and who is only painting a picture with their new recycled plastic bottle swimmer program and claiming it as a sustainability program.

Finally, how do you envision the following 10 years of business for brands that have been genuinely involved with sustainable business models such as: Patagonia, Nike, and others?

I look forward in 10 years to where the work of Nike that has been doing since the '90s will pay off and become the new normal. And Patagonia too, Patagonia is the platinum standard for what a platform should look like and those leaders I think deserve so much credit because they have shown their persistence and they’ve never gone backward. They just keep moving forward and with that, they are pulling the rest of the industry to meet up with them.  

There’s always the risk that more brands come along and become multibillionaire brands by doing nothing related to sustainability. In a way, it’s sort of a coin toss where maybe will be having the same conversation like the one we are having today, where organic cotton is still 1% of the marketplace or it is proven that this focus on sustainable business actually works. I think today there are too many pressures for environmental care on society’s behalf that it can be no longer ignored.

The UN’s sustainable development goals have been a good thing too and they’ve started to work their way through brands’ strategy. The Paris Agreement also, all of these things seem to be converging into this nice space so I think there’s a tipping point happening where I guess for me in 10 years I just want to look back and be like “Gosh, that tipping point actually happened”.

As a personal takeaway, I left this conversation wanting to pay more attention to the current world we live in. We cannot continue our life consumption habits as if nothing has changed. It’s true, businesses play a big role in the impact of many things but the final decision of what sells, what’s good, what stays in market is ours as consumers. So, let’s start getting informed, let’s go slower and notice how we can downsize what we take from mother nature. And of course, acknowledging the value that brands involved in this deserve.