Affordable Sustainability

Romain Liot
8 min readDec 4, 2020

Sustainable fashion should not be aspirational — it should be accessible.

Good News. Bad News.

Last year, fashion searches of “sustainability” grew by 17%. Luxury brands are issuing bonds conditioned on meeting sustainability KPIs. Mind-blowing material innovations are being commercialized. Supply chains are getting cleaner. The number of ‘sustainable’ products is increasing.

That’s great news. Customers, brands, manufacturers, and every part of the retail world seem to be moving in the right direction.

But then, there’s the bad news.

The emissions of the Fashion industry are bad and are getting worse: according to a McKinsey study, the industry is missing the 1.5-degree target set by the Paris Agreement by 50%! Textile waste continues to increase. New problems like microplastic waste and the dangers of finishing chemicals are constantly being discovered.

source: McKinsey — Fashion on Climate

For all the talk about sustainability, we, as an industry, still have so far to go. There are plenty of brands like Veja, Patagonia, and Eileen Fisher doing incredible work, but their customer base still leans from the affluent to the very affluent. It’s crazy to think if we ignore the vast majority of consumers we can realize the needed change.

This must be a mass movement.

Mass is Beautiful

Let me first tell you more about our company, Adore Me. We’re a digitally native womenswear brand and were the first to let customers shop online for affordable lingerie. We are a DTC company that has millions of customers from every conceivable societal, racial, and geographic (within the US) background. We are a mass brand, and that is something we take great pride in.

We will also never pretend we started as a company focused on sustainability. But we’ve quietly taken on a number of actions over the past few years that can provide a unique approach and point of view within the industry. Adore Me believes that sustainability in fashion must move away from being a luxury good marketed towards a very specific demographic. The industry must collectively focus on bringing sustainable innovations into the more affordable realm. It can be done.

Sustainable fashion should no longer be aspirational. It should be accessible.

Remember the COGS

Within the entire conversation on sustainability and fashion, you almost never hear the word ‘cost’. This is all the more surprising as you hear the word COGS (the Cost of Goods Sold) nonstop in retail. Is this silence simply because incorporating new, sustainable materials will usually raise the production price?

This is why we don’t think the huge retail companies will be able to transform themselves. It might seem logical that a giant corporation could better absorb these increased costs, but there are so many competing stakeholders and interests that there is a natural corporate resistance to change. There is, however, a kind of sustainability “hack” now: throw a bit of recycled nylon into some leggings (which won’t impact your COGS too much), and launch a multi-million dollar marketing campaign behind it about you being more conscious. It will not do much for the planet but will help a legacy brand pretend they care. #greenwashing

This is why the conversation around sustainability remains so confusing in the fashion industry. This recent report from Remake contends that some of the perceived “most sustainable” brands out there still have numerous issues. How can the average consumer possibly navigate their way to responsible consumption?

This is our industry’s challenge — there has been so much greenwashing that there are still no agreed definitions and goals, and because “sustainable fashion” has marketed around exclusivity, it has been built in a way that overwhelms, outprices, and intimidates the everyday consumer.

Good doesn’t mean expensive

Every brand must look beyond the materials and manufacturing to every part of the value chain — the procurement, inventory management, the logistics. One of the over 40 internal sustainability initiatives launched over the past year at Adore Me was… putting some recycled nylon into our bras… (hey, every bit counts) but it’s just a tiny piece of a much more complicated and ambitious puzzle that requires us to entirely rethink our company.

We barely mentioned this recycled nylon upgrade to our customers. Instead, we pushed forward on a bottom-up effort to ask every teammate of ours, in every job function, to rethink the way they operate.

One of the biggest myths in fashion is that lessening your impact on the earth has to be expensive for the customers. Yes, the materials and manufacturing processes will most likely be more expensive, at least for now (hence the discussion on the COGS challenge), but that’s why the cost savings have to be realized at other levels of the supply chain.

Another McKinsey study shows how over half of the levers a brand can push to lessen their environmental impact can generate savings instead of costing money.

If companies make simple, but transformational changes in other parts of their business, and just run smarter, they can realize cost savings that allow them to keep prices relatively stable for sustainable goods. That’s our vision.

I’m not saying anyone should be selling dresses for $1. But we have to work as an industry to deliver sustainable products in a way that is inclusive of the average consumer.

Put simply, we are aiming for Affordable Sustainability, a much more ambitious revolution than the current trap of the “do nothing / greenwashing” and inaccessible sustainability landscape. We want to deliver affordable products at a price point accessible to most consumers. Until we reach the average consumer, we’ll never see the change needed to make a genuine impact.

Going Behind the Scenes

Critical to this will be true operational improvements — the ones that are usually boring and behind-the-scenes. Let me quickly walk you through how rethinking our operations, beyond the materials themselves, can make an impact.

Switching from air to sea shipping is one of those small things that can exponentially reduce your carbon footprint. It’s why we launched an initiative on Responsible Shipping (join us!). We are excited that even prestigious & cash-rich brands like Chanel are now taking a similar path.

But here’s the thing — sea shipping requires amazing inventory management because things will take longer to arrive. Your procurement systems, meaning the tools that help you plan how many things to buy, need to be near-perfect. This is why we built a specific AI for procurement, the SUP (SUstainable Planning) platform. Adore Me has shifted to over 90% sea shipping (we were on track to 100% until COVID hit).

Ordering the “right” number of things is incredibly complex, especially when sea shipping, so we’re incredibly proud of our 99.4% sell-through rate. You may have heard about brands burning their unsold goods. We will never do that for a simple reason: we sell (almost) every single item we’ve ever had manufactured (the 99.4%). And we donate the rest. This has both a positive impact on the planet and our bottom line. This small example illustrates that sustainability and healthy economics can go together. It’s not easy, but that’s where smarter Data & Tech are important.

If you’ve ordered one of our products recently, you might notice it came in a recycled polymailer bag — not a cardboard box. These can be more cost effective, and the lower weight is much better for your carbon footprint. Again, something simple that saves money and the planet.

None of these are as exciting as an expensive new vegan leather handbag, but at scale, this is where you can see an immediate impact. And more importantly, it’s where we see the cost savings that allow us to increase our usage of environmentally-friendly materials without raising the prices of those products for the final customers.

Adore Me did not start as a sustainability-first brand. We are transforming our company and strongly believe in leveraging technology, logistics, and creativity to make things more affordable. That has been our superpower and will be in this next, more critical, phase of our journey. We believe that technology can be a force for good when you apply it across the entirety of your business. This is why we’ve joined the Tech For Good initiative, an initiative bringing together the largest companies in the world with startups, to push the industry forward in the areas of environment, economic inclusivity, and more.

IN THIS TOGETHER

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all about the importance of a collective response in the face of a grave threat. The countries that have fared well are those where everyone felt empowered to respond. Simple, powerful, and collective changes like masks can make all the difference, but our worry is that too many of our consumers are being left behind in the sustainability revolution. That doesn’t help the cause.

I’m aware that our journey is not the most exciting part of the sustainability conversation. Logistics and inventory management are lines of code and spreadsheets. But they are incredibly important factors in making sustainability affordable and accessible.

We have built some cutting-edge tools in these areas (like our procurement platform) that we will be soon sharing with companies that share our vision. Because we have to do this together. The more our industry moves in the right direction, the more the costs of creating better products come down, and the more people can afford them. That’s how you drive systemic change.

In a nutshell:

  • Time is running out. Progress is being made, but the situation is becoming increasingly dire, and in aggregate, our industry is not moving fast enough.
  • The average consumer remains both confused by greenwashing practices, and left out of a sustainability conversation that presents itself as exclusive and aspirational.
  • We believe instead the future is to create affordable & sustainable products for the mass market, i.e. where most of the fashion industry’s impact exists. This will require transforming entire businesses and supply chains — not just launching a new sustainable capsule collection.
  • Adore Me will be here for it. We have and will continue to rebuild every piece of our business to offer great affordable & sustainable products.

Accessible and affordable, not exclusive and expensive. That is our vision for sustainability and it will take a company-wide transformation, and eventually, an industry-wide transformation as well, to realize. But we’re up for the challenge and ask you to join us!

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