The TAG Toolset: Why our DTC fashion brand built our own sustainability measurement tools
If someone tells you they are building their own tools to measure how sustainable their company is, you might scream “greenwashing! and assume they are just trying to pass off false credentials to their customers.
At Adore Me we’ve built our own measurement toolset — covering our products, our suppliers, and our operations — but we didn’t do it to try to pretend we’re amazing.
We did it to understand how bad we’re doing.
How do you sustainably transform a brand?
Adore Me did not start as a fashion brand with sustainability at its core. We readily (and not proudly) admit this.
But on September 19th, 2019, we made a call to our entire team that we would sustainably transform every part of our organization. We pledged then to get every single team member, no matter their function, involved and excited.
Adore Me wants to prove that even brands that did not start out near-perfect like Patagonia or Stella McCartney can still make a very positive impact on the planet.
As with every bold proclamation, the logical question was “what’s next?” We called in a consultant. We studied the great brands. We began researching all the certifications and measurement tools. We talked about hiring a Head of Sustainability. We did all the things you’re supposed to.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure”
What we quickly realized — most certifications and sustainability measurement tools try to answer “whether something is sustainable or not” — but fail to tell “how sustainable” a product or organization is. The systems were set up to either help you proudly proclaim yourself as a “sustainable brand” or to help you sell specific products.
But our goal was to guide our company in improving ourselves in a clear way that our entire team could understand. We wanted everyone on our team involved, and to not feel intimidated in participating in this transformation effort. And we wanted a simple way to let our customers join us in becoming more sustainable shoppers.
The current way of helping brands push for sustainability misses three key things:
- There is a perfection bias: Things are built from the perspective of brands that are already doing well. This is a subtle, but critical point. The tools aren’t built to help brands start from zero create a simple language to help them understand where they are in their journey.
- Detached from your team: The typical process outlined involved external consultants and processes taking place in very short-term, limited ways. For us, this was a process about empowering our teammates and to make themselves confident in changing their own individual job functions, not filling out a questionnaire, and then moving on.
- Detached from your product: A common saying at Adore Me is “Bras are hard”. With 20–40 components on average, they represent unique design, procurement, marketing, and customer fit challenges. This extends to sustainability efforts. Organic cotton PJ’s are relatively easy. A bralette is a bit harder. An underwire bra, with metal wiring and plastic clamps, gets even harder. A corset is our white whale! We quickly realized given how different every product and every category is for us, we couldn’t find anything to help us understand and improve our impact across this diversity of products.
Adore Me has always loved building our own technology, infrastructure, and tools where possible. That’s why, even as a mid-sized brand, we took the decision to build a set of measurement tools to help guide us in understanding the impact of our products, suppliers, and internal operations.
The TAG Framework
I’ll start this section with a disclaimer — our team likes acronyms 😀. This is a quick overview of the system we built to measure ourselves. In a series of follow-up posts, I’ll cover specifically how they work and how they’ve already helped the team.
The TAG Toolset takes inspiration from a number of different tools and companies, but we’ve tailored it very specifically to cover our own value chain and products (remember, bras are hard!). It consists of three measurement tools:
TOP: Transparency in Operational Processes
This is how we understand our own company operations.
- Data like ‘how well do we sell through our inventory’, how do we manage end of life, what % of recycled packaging do we use, what % of goods are air-shipped from manufacturers, what is our % of renewable energy in our own managed facilities.
- For the first phase, we honed in on a number of key areas we could readily measure and clearly engage our employees and partners at every level.
AIM: The Adore Me Impact Matrix
This is how we measure the environmental impact in the design and manufacturing of our products. This is the type of data that most consumers are likely thinking about.
- We answer questions like — what is the raw material used? How can we design products to last longer? What is the water consumption of the product? Are we using recycled fabrics, and if so, what percentage and what type?
- This has been driving the most company-wide conversation. We regularly refer to products in terms of their AIM score, and speak in seasons, product categories, and even our company as a whole in average AIM scores.
GAME: Green Adore Me Manufacturer Evaluation
This is how we engage with our suppliers to
- Some of the questions included what sources of energy are used at the factories? How do they handle waste? What environmentally-friendly techniques are they introducing?
- A major focus of this evaluation is around worker conditions and treatment.
- Finally, we strongly believe the future of the supply chain is in deeper partnerships, and GAME has already helped us begin much more in-depth conversations with our suppliers around their own plans and futures.
I started this post by writing we built the TAG toolset to “understand how bad we’re doing.” I’ll dig into our AIM scoring system in a later post, but very quickly, we grade all our products from 0 to 5 across four categories and then refer to the average score out of 5 as the AIM score.
Okay, here goes. This hurts a bit to write, but we’re still proud of our progress.
Our average AIM score across all our products is 0.32. That is not a score we hire a famous celebrity ambassador to advertise, but, it gives a guidepost. And most importantly, it analyzes our entire organization in a clear way that everyone, whether they’re in design, marketing, supply chain, or software engineering can understand.
On September 19th, 2019, when we started this, we went back and our average AIM score was 0.015. Progress!
We consider a product baseline ‘sustainable’ if it crosses a 1 out of 5 (this more than meets a number of industry-standard certifications which we will get into). With AIM, instead of just getting a “yes/no” answer to the question “is this sustainable?” it helps us all understand “how sustainable is this?”
Out of products we label as sustainable, they average a 1.75/5. We’ve had a few 4.0’s just launched, and we’re deeply researching how to get a 5.0 very soon! This is how our teammates are already speaking — and it gives us all hope for a genuine transformation of the company.
I want to end this with a point very important to us. We believe the way sustainable fashion has developed is in a highly exclusionary way. The messaging, the marketing, the price points, and even the visuals cater to a very specific customer.
Our mission is to make shopping more sustainably more inclusive.
Every consumer should feel included in the sustainable fashion conversation and find shopping better more accessible.
But that accessibility should extend beyond just the way we approach customers.
Every teammate at our company, at any level, in any function, should be fully engaged with this transformation process.
Every company should be encouraged to work to transform themselves because to achieve the impact our industry needs, we have to get every brand that didn’t necessarily start as sustainable rapidly improving the way they do business.
We have to move past the world where sustainable fashion is an exclusionary club. To make the impact we need to, we have to create ways to bring forward the brands that didn’t start perfectly.
We will be making the TAG Toolset open-source. We hope that other brands that didn’t start from a place of perfection can use it to push their own companies forward as we have already seen in the past 1.5 years. TAG is not an endpoint. It is a continuous assessment to help guide your organization to help transform.
We’re speaking with other brands and industry partners to keep improving TAG, and if you are interested, we’d love to connect with you. The Adore Me team strongly believes our entire industry needs to change and to make the necessary impact for our planet, we need more consumers shopping sustainably. The Adore Me team hopes the TAG toolset can play a part in pushing this mission forward.