How Carbon-Neutral Reformation Is Reforming The Notoriously Wasteful Fashion Industry

The fashion industry creates a lot of waste and harms the environment. In keeping up with new trends and fast-fashion consumer demands, fashion companies must constantly create new products for those consumers who will readily throw out older items in their wardrobe. Ethical fashion, however, is a growing movement responding to the increasing consumer and advocate pressures on businesses to center sustainability in their operations is leading some companies to find more environmentally friendly processes.

Reformation is a women’s clothing company that has been on the forefront of sustainable fashion. Since 2015, the company has been carbon neutral, and it has set the ambitious goal of going climate-positive by 2025. Kathleen Talbot, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP Operations at Reformation, says the company realizes, though, that the it’s actions alone will not be enough to turn the tide of climate change. To that end, the company plans to do something radical in today’s cutthroat economy: It plans to share its climate-positive strategies with other businesses.

“We’ve found it’s most effective to lead with education, and then start with easy-to-adopt, accessible climate actions,” says Talbot. “We introduced Carbon is Canceled in 2019, a program with some easy ways for consumers to reduce or offset their personal carbon footprints. We basically took solutions we use as a brand — purchasing offsets and renewable energy credits — and made them available for our customers.”

As part of my research on purposeful businesses, I spoke to Talbot about how Reformation is working to remake the wasteful industry through education and inspiration to one with a reduced, neutral, or even positive impact, along with the role employees are playing in moving the company and the industry forward.

Christopher Marquis: As brands look to lead on climate and carbon solutions, what can Reformation share? What have you learned for other brands to emulate in offering ways for customers to get involved in taking climate action?

Kathleen Talbot: We’ve been carbon, waste and water neutral since 2015 — but we realize neutral isn’t good enough. In December, we announced that we’ll be climate positive by 2025. Most carbon-neutral strategies are overly reliant on offsetting. With this commitment, we’re going further to actively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and invest in solutions that have a net-positive impact. 

We’ve seen many industry groups and leading brands make important climate commitments as well, but not with enough urgency or immediate action. The climate crisis can’t wait until 2040 or 2050 — accelerating progress is imperative in order to protect people and our planet. By setting a 2025 target, we’ll be one of the first brands to achieve climate positivity and hope to inspire others to join us in this critical move. We’re going to be making our climate-positive roadmap publicly available this year, and we’ll continue to report on our progress in our quarterly sustainability reports. 

We’ve found it’s most effective to lead with education, and then start with easy-to-adopt, accessible climate actions. We introduced Carbon is Canceled in 2019, a program with some easy ways for consumers to reduce or offset their personal carbon footprints. We basically took solutions we use as a brand — purchasing offsets and renewable energy credits — and made them available for our customers. 

On our website, customers can switch their electric bill to wind energy through Arcadia Power — a company designed to give everyone a simple, free way to choose renewable energy — in exchange for a $125 Reformation credit. Customers can also purchase Climate Credits on our website to support verified carbon-offset projects, such as renewable energy and forestry projects that actively reduce CO2 emissions. We offer five options, ranging from $60 to $400 and six to 12 months of carbon-offset coverage for individuals, families, and even weddings. 

Marquis: How do you approach integrating solutions throughout your operations? What guides your decisions, and what do you think some brands are missing with one-off sustainability initiatives?

Talbot: At Reformation, we infuse low-impact measures into every aspect of the business and consider the sustainability implications of all decisions. By building standards for better materials and manufacturing, businesses can then shift from a one-off sustainable product capsule, to a more integrated business model.

Up to two-thirds of the sustainability impact of fashion happens at the raw materials stage before the clothes have actually been made. Fiber selection also affects how you wash the garment and potentially recycle it one day — both important factors to consider when it comes to environmental impact. That’s why we source exclusively based on our Ref Fiber Standards, so we only approve those with better combined social and environmental impacts. We tried to make these standards as holistic as possible, taking into consideration water input, energy input, land use, eco-toxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, human toxicity, availability and price.

For more context, we created a completely sustainable apparel factory in Los Angeles. We use the most efficient, eco-friendly and pro-social technologies and practices we can find. We invest in green-building infrastructure to minimize our waste, water, and energy footprints throughout our supply chain, and we’re powered by renewable energy. Everything down to cleaning supplies and coffee must meet our environmental purchasing standards. We offset all carbon emissions associated with our shipping. Within our facilities, everything from the pens to the cleaning products and packaging is eco-friendly. 

We opened our factory to weekly tours in 2017, something that is unprecedented in the industry, offering the public an insider look at the factory and its sustainable practices. Due to COVID, our factory tours are on hold, but we’re looking forward to starting again once it’s safe. We walk customers through the factory floor, where we produce clothing from start to finish, including sampling, cutting, sewing, and packaging. 

In terms of larger sustainability strategies, the important thing is to not lose sight of the long-term goals. While it’s essential to devote resources to immediate survival, there is also an opportunity to rethink business models and what your business can be doing better or differently. Now is the time to shift strategies and larger business models versus just launching a program or capsule collection. In that way, COVID-19 and the market impacts may be a catalyst for more significant change and push the industry forward.

Marquis: What do you think is coming in the future that can make this kind of ethical fashion available to more people and that can bring ethical worker treatment to the fashion mainstream? Does policy have a role to play?

Talbot: In order to make ethical fashion available to more people, there needs to be wider awareness and more demand from consumers. We’ve already seen consumers demand better, more ethical operations, especially as it pertains to the way workers are treated, and that will only increase over time. As an industry, we need to continue to evolve with that in mind.

We have to work as an industry to invest and build scale behind the scenes, so sustainable fashion is more accessible and can be decoupled from higher cost. We’ve been hearing from our customers that they’d like to see more accessible price points, so that’s something we’re actively working on expanding. Our mission is to bring sustainable fashion to everyone, and now more than ever, it’s important for us to develop ways for that to ring true. Resale is another great option to accessibly shop sustainable goods. Our customers can currently shop for preloved Reformation through sites like ThredUp, and we’re working on some of our own initiatives to make it easier for consumers to shop lightly-used, more affordable Ref pieces.

When it comes to social responsibility, there is a general alignment on the basics and compliance, but it doesn’t go deep enough to truly improve the lives of workers. Genuine commitment from brands to support a living wage and ensure the dignity of the people behind clothing is still an emerging practice. Owning our factory allows us to incorporate ethical practices in our direct supply chain. At Reformation, we also invest in the people who make this revolution possible by paying 100% of our employees a living wage and providing on-the-job training and opportunities for growth. For outside partners, we have a rigorous screening process to make sure they share our values of sustainability, transparency, and accountability. 

We do our best to educate our customers on how to lead a more sustainable lifestyle through our quarterly sustainability reports, social media channels, our newsletters and our website in hopes that our efforts will inspire our customers to make informed choices when it comes to fashion. As a brand, we think our role is to educate and empower consumers with the information they need, offer real solutions, and let them decide how they want to shop. 

Policy and regulations will likely be required to make the changes we need at the pace necessary. This could help establish new standards of compliance and help drive decision-making for industry players when the financial investment or trade-offs are high, but the work is essential to meet climate commitments or other cross-industry goals.