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Converse's new Renew Chucks are composed of either canvas crafted from 100-per-cent recycled polyester made from discarded plastic bottles, upcycled denim or a composite yarn made from the company's cotton-canvas waste mixed with polyester.Handout

In July, Zara announced its new sustainability initiatives, including recycling packaging and creating a new eco-conscious line called Join Life. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the news. Eco-activists such as Livia Firth have railed against mega-brands such as Zara and H&M for adopting, or setting goals to adopt, sustainable measures when the ideal solution would be to not produce so many, or any, mass items at all.

But having access to more mindfully made clothing is better than not having it, so there is encouragement to be found in the sustainability decisions being made by large-scale brands, slow-moving as they may be.

Dr. Elizabeth C. Kurucz is an associate professor of leadership and organizational management in the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph who focuses on businesses implementing organizational changes toward more sustainable business practices. She says that for both businesses and consumers, more mindful practices were slow to be developed and adopted, and even more so, standardized and vetted.

In the early days of her doctoral research, in the late 1990s, Kurucz says, “There were certain companies that were trying to do well by doing good, but it wasn’t viewed broadly as a strategic business advantage for organizations; it was more a corporate social-responsibility viewpoint of, ‘We’ve got to do the right thing.’ But often those companies were just continuing to do their bad business practices while doing some nice sort of philanthropic things on the side.” Kurucz contrasts that with today, when “we’re looking at organizations who are reorienting their whole business strategy around sustainable-development goals or societal-level goals.”

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition was founded in 2012 after a meeting of minds at Patagonia and Walmart, and it has since launched a business toolkit, the Higg Index, which allows big brands to better understand the scope of their social and environmental impact. “Part of the issue is the tools weren’t there to be able to identify all of the multifaceted impacts, environmentally and socially, of the supply chain,” Kurucz says about one reason why sustainability has become a manufacturing approach – and a marketing focus.

Nina Marenzi, founder and director of the Sustainable Angle, an organization that provides advisory services and runs the Future Fabrics Expo in London, has seen an increase in eco-minded activity among larger mass brands. “We’ve certainly noticed quite a few differences in the last 12 to 18 months,” she says. “I think a lot of these companies that looked at [sustainability] and didn’t really move because they kept thinking ‘Oh, this might go away,’ or they didn’t have the resources or they struggled with convincing the board … all of a sudden, it really caught momentum and now they’re struggling to keep up.”

But there’s the matter of resources to contend with. “It does take a long time to change your supply chain, or to improve your supply chain, and there’s a lot of homework to do,” she says. “And if you haven’t done that by now, then you’re not going to have a product that is going to come out that is having a lower environmental impact for another year.”

Some might argue this is all too little, too late. It’s hard to be optimistic when you read current statistics about carbon emissions and how much plastic is in the sea. While Uniqlo currently has a sustainable denim initiative, there’s not one that addresses the myriad other product categories it produces. The “beach bottle” announced this spring by hair-care brand Herbal Essences and waste-management company TerraCycle is, at this point, made of only 25-per-cent recycled plastic. And H&M has committed to using 100-per-cent sustainable materials by the year 2030, but that’s 11 years away – which is the time cited at a recent UN General Assembly meeting that we have left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. All these ideas are the start of more sustainably minded production, yet they also shed light on how much more work is needed to move such large companies over to greener pastures.

Converse had a bunch of its employees come in with items to repurpose as a way to acknowledge the potential of reused materials. These sneakers were made from a repurposed dress.odessa parker /Handout

Converse, the Nike-owned brand that launched the much-loved Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker more than 100 years ago, announced its new Renew collection this summer. With three different approaches to more sustainable design and manufacturing, Renew’s Chucks are composed of either canvas crafted from 100-per-cent recycled polyester made from discarded plastic bottles, upcycled denim sourced in partnership with London-based vintage retailer Beyond Retro, or a composite yarn made from Converse’s own cotton-canvas waste mixed with polyester. Polyester, however, is a material that makes many environmentally minded people such as Marenzi cringe and the shoe brand says it’s exploring additional blends for the line. “I think from a materials perspective, we’ve already been making a lot of advances,” Converse’s director of materials, Jessica L’Abbe, says about Renew’s initial fabrications. “Even [our] standard canvas is sustainably sourced, so we were already really working to make a lot of our ingredients better.”

L’Abbe also addressed the use of materials such as glitter in the collaboration collection with fashion brand J.W. Anderson, since it’s been highlighted as a major eco-no-no. “[Even] when using non-renewable materials, there are always ways to make things better,” she says. “Following Nike Inc. and a lot of the processes that they already have set up, we’re always … building our library up to have better ingredients in it.”

The cabinetry in IKEA's Kungsbacka kitchen is made from recycled wood and covered with a plastic foil made from recycled PET bottles.Handout

This focus on better has long been championed by Swedish lifestyle giant IKEA. “[Sustainability] is not a new concept for us,” Melissa Mirowski, its Canadian sustainability specialist, says. “It’s always been at the heart of the business.” In addition to adopting more sustainable manufacturing processes – the company committed to using wood from 100-per-cent sustainable sources by 2020 and reached that goal in 2017 – the home-focused brand has developed products that allow consumers to lead more sustainably focused lives themselves. Mirowski cites IKEA’s Kungsbacka kitchen cabinetry as an example, which is made from recycled wood and covered with a plastic foil made from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. ��[At] end of life, you basically peel off the foil front and it’s fully recyclable,” she says.

Such a product journey is also a useful marketing angle, Nina Marenzi says: “These days, everyone talks about needing to have authentic value. Customers really want to associate themselves with the products and with what the brands stand for.”

Many behemoth brands have far to go as they launch environmentally and socially minded measures and prove they’re not just paying lip service, but shoppers also have to do their part when it comes to digging in to decision-making, using their purchase power to ultimately dictate what messages and companies they believe in – and want to buy into.

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