Why Apparel Brands Should Work Together To Build A Sustainable Future

By Fashion Revolution

6 years ago

By Mark Walker, CEO of Outerknown

I recently spent time in Copenhagen for the Sustainable Fashion Summit. There were a lot of statistics thrown around but there is one that I can’t get out of my head. 50 million tons of clothes are produced every year and 87% of them will end up incinerated or in a landfill. And our industry is expected to double. That math is 87 million tons per year burned or tossed!

Those are staggering numbers created by people who probably don’t do these things on purpose or with any mal intent. Most people are just trying to get through their daily lives. Human beings are in a constant race to move faster and never slow down. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to realize the amount of waste or impact we are having.

Why is that? I think it boils down to education. There is not enough visibility on how our daily choices impact People and Planet. The word sustainability has become like the word “natural.” It means something different to everyone and it means nothing at the same time. People are intimidated by all the definitions, jargon and incorrect information that is out there. We view being sustainable as a sacrifice.

Interestingly, over the past decade people have been obsessing over what they put IN their bodies. Now we are seeing people shift that same obsession to what they put ON their bodies. Most millennials say that they want clothing that stands for something or is made in a less harmful way, but they won’t sacrifice style. And for this and many other reasons, sustainability is making its way into our fashion vernacular and it is starting, slowly, to take hold.

Full disclosure, this isn’t something I always cared about. I am a convert from the other side. Up until this point in my career I worked in corporate cultures where “Type A” behavior was rewarded. Selling more than you did the previous year at a lower cost to produce and higher margin was the key metric for success. That wasn’t who I was at home, but work was work.

Last year I got the call to be the CEO of Outerknown, a brand founded by Kelly Slater that intended to be sustainable from the ground up. To be honest, I was skeptical. I didn’t see how a company could simultaneously hold “doing it right” in the same esteem as hitting the financial targets. Making sustainable clothing and making a profit just didn’t seem possible.

One year in, I can tell you that it is. I can also tell you that it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really hard. Making sustainable clothing is a constant struggle ─ even for an industry veteran ─ but I truly believe that if I can make this change, anyone can.

One of the reasons that this is so difficult is that while we have a strong ethical compass, we are in uncharted territory. There is no archetype to follow. The traditional benchmarks do not apply. But we have had to forge ahead when sometimes it didn’t look like there was a road to forge ahead on.

When I met Kelly for the first time he told me that he didn’t start the brand so that he could own a clothing company. He started it so that he could fundamentally change how the fashion industry does business. It has never been enough to develop a sustainable brand. Real advocacy means real transparency.

So this week we are releasing our Sustainability Roadmap: an open source guide to building and growing an ethical clothing brand. This is the three-year plan that was developed by our Chief Sustainability Officer, Shelly Gottschamer. Yes, we are giving proprietary knowledge to all of our competitors. It may seem crazy but in the fight for a cleaner planet and fair working conditions, it is a fact that a rising tide lifts all ships.

We are not sharing this to try to be heroes, and not to get credit for our transparency. We are sharing this to encourage as much collaboration as humanly possible in the Fashion Industry.

Sharing our knowledge and supporting each other is the only way that we have a shot at changing anything.

Our hope is that when a young designer decides that they want to start a line, that they have signposts to guide the way. Our hope is that when one of the many brands I spoke to this week wants to take a step into sustainability but they don’t know where to start, that they now have a set of benchmarks.

Moving the needle on that 100 million tons of clothes will take real partnership and radical collaboration. As an industry we need to interact, connect, collaborate and most importantly we need to not just commit to change but act upon what we commit to. If we get aligned, pool our resources around education and impact, share our progress and struggles and truly use open sourcing, the fashion industry can deliver meaningful change for both People and Planet.

After reading Walker´s Op-ed, here at Fashion Revolution USA we wanted to know more about Outerknown´s sustainability framework so we interviewed him to have a better understanding of their roadmap to be part of a more sustainable and transparent fashion industry. Here´s what he had to say:

Why now for the roadmap?

We wanted to release it in conjunction with the Pulse of Fashion report that was released in May.  The roadmap is an ongoing project that is ever evolving.  Outerknown had a three-year sustainability roadmap before the first good was ever sold.  Similar to personal goals, the only way to make sure they stay front of mind and are accomplished is to have a clear path with milestone dates to keep it on track.

It’s clear this is a great resource for up and coming designers. What has been the feedback from more established brands? Has its release prompted any new collaborations?


The feedback has been all positive.  The answer to making real change is getting the larger, more established brands to participate.  We are more nimble, and have sustainability at the center of every conversation as part of our DNA.  Other brands are appreciative of our learnings and open sourcing approach.  It’s prompted more partnerships than collaborations.  We have created multiple new partnerships around tackling some of the larger initiatives that exist.  It’s nice to share resources and learnings.

On what platforms will the roadmap be shared?

We have placed it on our website, Outerknown.com.  For us, this is the best place to share it.  It’s a store that never closes and we can update as the strategy evolves.

About Mark Walker

Entrepreneurial, visionary executive with success in building brand equity and driving revenue growth for international iconic brands, including Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Ru La La and JackThreads. Most recently Walker joined the Outerknown team as CEO in March 2017. Walker’s career is marked by leveraging creative talent and insight into consumer and market trends to develop profitable merchandise strategies. He possesses a customer centric focus with an innate ability to identify market niches, formulate distinct and enticing positioning strategies to maximize and extend brand equity through consistent execution.