Responsible Impact Podcast: 103 – The Circular Fashion Pledge and Spotting Greenwashing with Adam Siegel

Posted: July 29, 2020

If like us, you’ve wondered how to tell between greenwashing and responsible brands, or about circular fashion, this is the episode for you.

Guest Adam Siegel founded the 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge after years spent working with various brands and facets of the fashion industry. Now with over 130 brands signed on to the initiative, he’s helping shape the responsible approach we need as climate burdens and fashion increasingly must align.


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Natalie (10s):
This is “Responsible Impact,” the show where we discuss all things sustainability and e-commerce, and it’s a production of MagicLinks. If you haven’t heard of MagicLinks, we connect influencers and brands in e-commerce. And since we couldn’t help but see that our industry was a big player and environmental conversations, we decided to launch this show. We can’t get to zero impact, but we can be as responsible about sustainability goals as possible. This episode you get to hear from Adam Siegel, the founder of the 2020 circular fashion pledge.

Natalie (40s):
Sustainability can be defined in many different ways. Adam views it in a thorough and holistic way though, which includes not just materials and fuel, but also human rights issues, trackable metrics and accountability from third parties. He advocates for a circular economy, which we are actually starting to see some companies implement, and he offers very thoughtful advice on how to screen for greenwashing when shopping. After the episode had over to 2020 circular to see the brands who’ve signed on and learn more about the commitments they’re making or check out their Instagram under the handle @2020circularfashion.

Natalie (1m 12s):
Now, without further ado, I present to you, Adam Siegel,

Adam Siegel (1m 21s):
I’ve spent now over a decade in sustainable retailing and ethical production. Specifically eight of those 10 years was at a trade association that represented the largest retailers and brands. And so I got to work with the senior-most folks that led corporate sustainability efforts, corporate social responsibility, ethical production, and other related business practices. And through that, got a great sense of the industry, but also the sustainability challenges associated with it. So I had the chance to visit factories in China, Vietnam, elsewhere in Southeast Asia;

Adam Siegel (1m 56s):
I’ve led industry-wide collaborations on issues from conflict minerals, to human rights, energy recycling, renewable energy procurement, and a host of other things. And now I, earlier this year launched a program called the 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge, which was meant for brands who are leading the charge in sustainability to commit to doing one new circular program in 2020. And I think we’ll talk a little bit more about what circular economy means.

Natalie (2m 30s):
Sustainability obviously means some very specific things in execution. Can you talk us through that?

Adam Siegel (2m 35s):
Yeah, well, you know, the interesting thing now is that it feels like sustainability is becoming more commonplace in the business world and especially amongst retailers and consumer brands. You know, I tend to see a lot of companies talking about how sustainable they are or using organic cotton or other green practices, reducing their chemical usage and stuff like that has kind become one of the main marketing points for a lot of brands. But the thing is with sustainability is it can be defined in so many different ways.

Adam Siegel (3m 9s):
I tend to think about it as the most holistic or most complete definition. When you think about a business or in particular, if you think about a consumer brand that produces products and markets those and sells those, there’s a number of things that would fit within the broader definition of sustainability and that’s everything from addressing that company’s direct operations, the energy and fuel, it consumes materials that it uses waste that it generates and how much of that is recycled or repurposed or reuse.

Adam Siegel (3m 43s):
And that’s – all of that – of course, is just on the environmental side, but also within the broadest definition of sustainability, we should consider the social issues. Do you pay your workers enough? Do you provide them with working conditions that improve their quality of life and the quality of life of their families? And do you have systems in place to make sure that there aren’t any, that issues don’t arise? Those are the raw issues. But then, like I said, there’s also corporate mechanisms or governance structures like ensuring that the senior leadership are discussing issues around sustainability, maybe at the board level, at least at the executive level, that there’s a sustainability strategy in place and specific metrics so that the company can define progress towards being more sustainable.

Adam Siegel (4m 31s):
And then the final thing is the business thinking about and actively building circular systems. So to me, circularity is kind of the, the leading edge of sustainability in the corporate world. And it’s not necessarily easy to define what circularity means, but the short of it is that all of the materials and resources that are used to produce products are used in perpetuity. So “live on forever.” And how can imagine that in practice is a, if you buy something, maybe a nice dress and you wear it a few times through one season, but at the end of the season, you realize it’s not your fit or style anymore, a circular system would find a new use for that item rather than it going to landfill.

Adam Siegel (5m 17s):
So that can be reselling the item through a third-party platform like Poshmark or eBay, or maybe a take-back program. So that the brand who sold it to you will take it back and sell it to someone else, or at least recycle the fabric. And there’s a number of companies now that are building more circular systems directly into their business models.

Natalie (5m 37s):
When you talk about circularity in that way, I wonder, because so much of our fashion is set up to be based on seasons and sort of an evolution of a look. Do you think that there’s some cultural pushback on the idea of circularity and what do you say to folks who maybe have that view?

Adam Siegel (5m 53s):
Yeah, I think the way I see it is that we’re trending to an all-of the above future. If you want to think about it that way, there will certainly continue to be a segment of consumers that want to be up with the latest fashion trends. And so they’ll only wear the latest seasons, but I am seeing a growing cohort, especially amongst younger consumers that care about sustainability and also care about affordability that don’t necessarily need that same seasonal trends, you know, in the future. I think there’s going to be a wide diversity of consumption styles and this consuming through circular systems will, will still be one of them.

Natalie (6m 31s):
For instance, waste, which I know is driven a lot by fast fashion. We’ve seen the way that they have crammed seasons into a single calendar year and how they have sort of really accelerated their supply chains to be able to execute on that — Waste. Tell me more about it.

Adam Siegel (6m 47s):
Well, if we’re talking fashion, there’s certainly a whole lot of industries that are wasteful in this world, but fashion might very well take the cake. I’m sure listeners have seen the statistics about the fashion industry and how much does go to waste. It’s in large part because the traditional system of buying for seasons is so delayed. A lot of companies actually take many months ahead of the season in order to design and produce items. And they really have no idea how much of that is going to sell.

Adam Siegel (7m 18s):
Of course, what that results in is a whole lot of excess inventory that leads to significant sales, outlet stores, discounting, and a whole bunch of other industry practices. I’m sure you’ve also seen, and this still does happen, especially with luxury brands, that excess merchandise actually gets burned because they just don’t want it out there in the market,

Natalie (7m 40s):
Which is nauseating.

Adam Siegel (7m 42s):
Yeah. It’s really crazy. What we’ve seen over the past several decades is that the number of wears of any particular item that you purchased has gone down significantly. So we’re buying more, we’re wearing it less. We waste it, it doesn’t go back into the system so that others can use it. Donating items, frankly, as is not necessarily a great solution because it often just ends up on the shores of developing countries. And they’re overloaded with our stuff that frankly does not have that much value and depresses their own garment production industries.

Adam Siegel (8m 17s):
It’s a very wasteful industry and there’s certainly opportunities to turn the tide by investing in more quality items, wearing your items longer but then also thinking about engaging in these new circular business models like rental, so that you can wear an item when you want, but you don’t necessarily need to own that item so others can enjoy it as well or buying second hand or reselling goods that you’re no longer wearing.

Natalie (8m 44s):
And then I think that touches very much on the idea of a circular economy that you were talking about earlier. Can you expand on that and tell me what you’re seeing that’s working or could good actors in that space?

Adam Siegel (8m 54s):
Of course. Well, this is one thing that I’ve loved about the circular economy. It was more of an academic exercise ten or even five years ago, but now we’re really seeing the circular economy living and breathing. And I have a feeling that a number of folks in your audience have engaged with the circular economy already though. They might not have known the term for it. Some examples are rental. Rental is a great circular economy model. You can use an item when you want to, but you don’t necessarily need to own it. So fewer items need to be produced, but the same number of people can enjoy it.

Adam Siegel (9m 27s):
Another is resale and that’s of course, pretty straight forward, but companies like eBay and more recently Poshmark and ThreadUp and the RealReal pioneered the growth of resale. And I think they’ve actually made it really cool. An item that’s gone through its first life with, with its first customer can then go back into circulation and be enjoyed by another customer. And presumably if the items of high enough quality and it’s durable and can last a long time, then it can have multiple owners before it needs to be downcycled.

Adam Siegel (9m 60s):
Other examples are a product take back. You can imagine that if you’ve purchased an item from a brand, you might wear it or use it for a certain period of time, but maybe at the end of that life, you, you don’t want to wear it or use it anymore. You can imagine that that company then asks if you’d be interested in a gift certificate or maybe a cash payout to give the item back to them. And of course it’s in their best interest to find a new use for it and resell it or use it for parts or recycle the fibers to create something new.

Adam Siegel (10m 39s):
So those are just a few examples of circular economy business models that are becoming more prominent. Now,

Natalie (10m 46s):
There are many fast fashion garments I have laid my hands on that, you know, you wear it two, three times, it goes through a couple of tumble dries and it is really unfit for any future use. It’s falling apart at the seams. So the idea of take-backs really is predicated, it sounds like, on the idea of quality goods in the first place.

Adam Siegel (11m 4s):
Yeah. I’d say that’s the case and even more so with any circular business model, because at the end of the day, you want to make sure that the garment is of high enough quality, that it will last for a long time with any model, whether it’s rental resale take back or anything else you would want to buy the highest quality items. So the great thing about the circular economy business model is that it incentivizes businesses to produce higher quality items from the get-go.

Natalie (11m 37s):
There are businesses who I’m going to presume – and I might be wrong -but there are businesses I presume who feel a kind of competitive pressure from folks who are undercutting them by making things so much cheaper, although they have baked into them, these design flaws that will cause them to fall apart and need to be replaced faster. If, if there’s not a groundswell change, particularly in fashion, to move towards quality. How are companies who are behaving responsibly going to sort of hold their breath and outlast these undercutting cheaper competitors?

Adam Siegel (12m 9s):
Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, I wish I had the answer or I wish the more ethical companies had the silver bullet that could change the industry and our consumption patterns. But at the end of the day, I really think it comes down to us as consumers and influencers. If we are pushing the best and highest quality products and brands, it’ll just become the norm for customers to look for that.

Adam Siegel (12m 39s):
And when customers look for it, then brands respond and, and maybe, maybe that’s even the most critical point is that brands respond primarily to one thing more than anything else and that’s consumer demand. And so if we’re comfortable buying low-quality stuff that doesn’t last through more than a couple of spin cycles, that’s where the industry is going to go. But if we recognize that quality is important to us, ownership might be less important to us affordability, but also sustainability, well, that’s where the industry will go.

Adam Siegel (13m 12s):
We need to be thinking about what sort of products can we be promoting. And the buying that lead the industry in the direction that we want it to go.

Natalie (13m 21s):
I feel like this is a really good time to introduce the fashion pledge and the three components to it. I mean, I could read them off verbatim, but I think it might be more interesting if you take us on a tour. You want to dive in?

Adam Siegel (13m 32s):
Sure. Yeah, I’d be happy to. So I mentioned earlier, the 2020 circular fashion pledge is a program that I started earlier this year. And I actually started it with several colleagues who have been working in this field for a while now, experts in their own right. We were having conversations with small and medium-sized brands towards the beginning of this year. It was around that time that we realized COVID was going to significantly change our whole future. And certainly their, their business.

Adam Siegel (14m 2s):
Being reflective, we were just very proud of the progress that these brands have been making towards a more circular future, but we were afraid that COVID was going to disrupt that progress; that the movement toward circularity would stall. And so we just came up with this idea. It was really simple. We wanted to get as many brands as possible to pledge to do one more circular program in 2020. We’re targeting small and medium-sized brands. Initially, our plan was to launch with about 20 brands at the end of April.

Adam Siegel (14m 36s):
It ended up being more than 60 brands and joined as founding brands at the beginning. And now we’re up to over 120 actually I think we’re 130 as of earlier this week. So yeah, it’s, you know, it’s a, it’s a very good sign, of course, those brands need to fulfill their commitment. It’s one thing to commit. It’s another thing to actually fulfill it. But to me, it’s a very positive signal that even despite the business challenges that COVID has brought, they’re still in it for the long term and they want to make positive change.

Natalie (15m 8s):
In the first episode this season I discussed what’s going on with deforestation, tropical deforestation. And it turns out that a number of the industry and trade associations involved in deforestation had all signed a pledge a number of years ago, saying that by 2020, they would be, you know, ringing this brass bell. And needless to say, not a one of them has come even close at all. So, but this is exciting because there’s a feedback loop going on here. So the three parts of the pledge, the first is to enable takebacks or resale, right, which you’ve kind of talked about already and then increasing recycled content.

Natalie (15m 40s):
So talk about that from the brand’s point of view.

Adam Siegel (15m 43s):
Well, recycled content right now, there’s just not a great market out there for recycled content. And so what that means is that there’s really no incentive for recycling infrastructure to develop, to collect all of our products and materials. What we’re asking brands to do is increase the amount of recycled content that they use in their top-selling product. And the rationale is that if more brands are using recycled content, there’s more demand for it.

Adam Siegel (16m 14s):
And if there’s more demand for it, then there’s going to be more businesses, small and large that develop infrastructure to collect that sort of material and to become suppliers then to become suppliers. Exactly. So what we’re trying to do here is create one side of a market that could then be a virtuous cycle to create a complete recycling infrastructure, which is ultimately what we need.

Natalie (16m 41s):
Yeah. Would it be fair for somebody to say now that part of the reason recycled goods are not more present in manufacturing to begin with is because they are so difficult to source a supply chain items? Anything that’s already been used is treated as being closer to waste than a supply?

Adam Siegel (16m 57s):
Yeah. Yeah. There’s probably several factors. So if we’re thinking about clothing in particular, the quality of recycled fibers is not as good as virgin fiber because most fiber recycling today is mechanical recycling that basically shreds garments and rips fibers into shorter chain. So that’s just, that’s lower quality. It means that it’s going to be a rougher material. You know, a lot of brands have been reluctant to use any significant amount of recycled material, but that’s starting to change because there’s innovations in material and blends as well.

Adam Siegel (17m 36s):
So you can have some virgin fiber with some recycled fibers and that produces a higher quality garment. And then also there’s innovations in recycling fibers, specifically chemical recycling, where you can, there’s certain chemical processes that can take garments and turn them back into the raw fibers while keeping the original fiber length. And so in that case, you can create a garment that almost as good quality as a brand new item.

Natalie (18m 4s):
While you’ve been talking, I keep thinking about meat glue. Have you heard of meat glue? It’s a really inelegant name, but essentially, it’s an enzyme that you can use to – it’s how a lot of deli meat is made – you can take bits and bobs and ends of meat and if you sort of put this meat glue, this enzyme in there, it will sort of make a lump of meat out of it. It’s illegal in some countries, of course, because there’s foodborne, illness, risk and stuff that comes with it. But all I can think is that surely if there’s a will, there’s a way.

Natalie (18m 34s):
And if in the year 2020, we have meat glue, there has got to be a cotton, rayon or you know, merino wool glue.

Adam Siegel (18m 41s):
On the horizon. Yeah, that’s right. Humanity can do this. Meat glue to sounds to me like the absolutely least appetizing thing I’ve ever heard of in my life, but you’re right. It’s the power of human ingenuity and innovation. And I am seeing that applied to the fashion industry. There is a whole lot of innovation and a whole lot of investment dollars, both from big brands, as well as nonprofits and, and venture funds that recognize that there’s opportunity for change and innovation in this space.

Adam Siegel (19m 16s):
And so they’re, they’re throwing the money at different innovations and just like any market, some will succeed and some won’t. But to me, it’s interesting that this ecosystem of fiber innovations and more broadly material and fashion innovators even exists.

Natalie (19m 33s):
My next set of questions, I think are two sides of the same coin. So one is that obviously the industry is not widely doing this because of some existing barrier to adoption, even if it’s just something between people’s two ears. And then the other side of that is, you know, what are the incentives to participate in this, besides that you feel good and that, you know, in the long term, you’re doing something positive for everyone

Adam Siegel (19m 53s):
Around you, you know, with, with anything, change is difficult. And what we’re talking about here is transforming an industry. That’s not insignificant. There’s, there’s a lot of historical inertia and that’s everything from corporate strategies to the seasonal cycles that we talked about earlier to business relationships, to physical infrastructure, like farming production and all of that needs to change.

Adam Siegel (20m 24s):
So what we’re talking about is just very significant. Also fashion generally has not been perceived as a particularly innovative industry. Yeah. They innovate in terms of fashion trends each season, but in terms of their business structure or marketing structure or operations, they’re not a particularly innovative industry. I think we can all agree on that. But the interesting thing, I certainly wouldn’t call it great, but maybe silver lining to COVID is that it’s forced the industry to think differently.

Adam Siegel (20m 56s):
Of course, a lot of them closed to their stores, at least for several months in the second quarter and even third quarter of this year that had a significant disruption on their businesses. A lot of the older brands that were less willing to innovate and change with the times are frankly, under significant financial pressure. And so, you know, if they’re even around in the next two years is to be determined, but it’s also created a sort of crisis or forcing function for executives in the industry to start looking beyond how they’ve been doing things in the past.

Adam Siegel (21m 32s):
And so I, I think that actually will have significantly positive indications for the future.

Natalie (21m 38s):
The other really important thing that I went into to pick your brain about was how to screen for greenwashing, because that’s something that a lot of folks including myself, are worried that maybe we’re feeding into. There are a number of well-known brands who have sort of had some reckoning in the last couple of months, even just as we’re recording this, who had been representing their supply chains and their company culture as one thing, and it’s turned out, it was not that way. What do you look for?

Adam Siegel (22m 8s):
Well, I think what I benefit from is having worked with a whole bunch of brands over the last decade. And so I have a sense for what programs are more sophisticated and what programs are more basic. And I’ll also start by saying that I’m actually glad that so many companies are talking about sustainability in one form or another. To me, that’s also very positive because I think they see that there’s a changing tide with consumers and consumers now care about this more than ever.

Adam Siegel (22m 41s):
And that’s why they’re responding with marketing messages and other sorts of communications that, that talk about their green or sustainability efforts. But you’re right. Not all of it is genuine. A lot of it does feel like marketing fluff without really any substance behind it. What I tend to look for, there’s probably several categories that trigger my spidey sense. One is overly extreme or sensational claims. I still see this. And I cringe every time I do. When you see a company say that we have the most sustainable product out there, or it’s a hundred percent sustainable, I hate to break it to you.

Adam Siegel (23m 19s):
There’s probably nothing out there that you can buy today. That is a hundred percent sustainable. So if you’re being sold that it’s probably not accurate, another category would be claims that aren’t substantiated. You know, they could say that they have an ethical supply chain, but if there’s nothing behind that, if you can’t click in and see more details, maybe reports from inspectors that have visited their information about where those factories are or where the materials come from, or even what’s in their products, you have to be a little concerned.

Adam Siegel (23m 54s):
It’s easy to write a headline, harder to substantiate it. At the end of the day, you can’t know with any certainty, whether or not that headline is accurate, unless there’s some data behind it.

Natalie (24m 6s):
You say data, I say receipts.

Adam Siegel (24m 7s):
Even better, third party receipts, because it’s, again, it’s one thing to hear it directly from the brand, from the company. And, you know, you can read into it and let your gut decide how accurate that is. But the leading practice is to get third parties to verify for you. And there are tons of certifications out there. Now, some are more credible than others, but generally, if you have a third party indicator, then you can be more comfortable with those claims than if you heard it only directly from the company.

Adam Siegel (24m 39s):
So that’s the other. And then the final one. I had a gory of what I would consider to be greenwashing would be claims that are one dimensional. How I define sustainability before was in a more holistic vein. So thinking about energy, water, waste materials, recycling on the environmental side, and then the human rights issues on the social side. If you hear a company talking about how sustainable they are, because they source organic cotton and that’s it, I think they’re missing the point because that alone is not sustainable.

Adam Siegel (25m 13s):
That’s slightly better than not sourcing organic cotton, but that alone is not sustainable. What are they doing about fuel that’s consumed in the transportation of their good, or are they using chemicals to dye their products? What happens at the end of the product’s life? Are they high-quality items? So that they’ll last long and can have multiple lives. Are they using any recycled content? There’s a whole bunch of other questions that you really need to dive into to understand if the company is sustainable.

Adam Siegel (25m 46s):
And if you see a one-dimensional claim with nothing else, then you just can’t be confident that they’re thinking it through in any sort of holistic way.

Natalie (25m 56s):
Definitely a lot of good stuff to think about. Credits this episode, go to Hazel, shin, Brian Nickerson, the informative Adam Siegel and you, for joining us. Please tell your friends, rate the show and subscribe to catch the latest conversations. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. Plus you can always see a transcript: head over to I’m Natalie and I’m out, but take care until next time, gang.

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