The fashion industry’s dirty secret? It’s the second largest polluter in the world. A reported 92 million tons of solid waste are produced each year,1 with no signs of slowing down. Fueling this multi-trillion-dollar industry is the see-now-buy-now model of traditional fast-fashion retailers. However, fashion and sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive–in fact they shouldn’t.
For the past decade, Reformation has aimed to redefine the industry’s standards by building a clothing and accessories company with eco-friendly principles at its core. As VP of Sustainability and Operations for the LA-based brand, Kathleen Talbot is spearheading their efforts to create high-quality, sustainably-made pieces. We chatted with Talbot to learn all about her role, and her top tips for incorporating sustainable practices into your everyday life.
What is a Vice President of Operations and Sustainability?
As Reformation’s VP of Operations and Sustainability, my goal is to oversee our sustainable supply chain, and continue to develop new ways to incorporate sustainability into all of our business practices. I lead several different teams – everything from our Factory Operations, Logistics, Facilities & Retail Development, and Customer Love, to our Sustainability team, who works on programs that range from material sourcing, supply chain compliance, life cycle impact reporting, and operational efficiencies. At Reformation, sustainability is core to every single aspect of our brand, so I really help consult on everything! A true generalist.
What does your day-to-day responsibilities entail?
Each day looks different, which is definitely a fun aspect of work at Reformation. My main focus is leading my teams, so I spend a lot of time in touchbases and working meetings to ensure my Ops & Sustainability management team is set up for success. Beyond that it really depends on what’s hot and what opportunities are best to chase to make the most impact. Last week as an example, I met with packaging suppliers about more innovative materials, planned for holiday peak volumes in our fulfillment center, reviewed sustainability messaging for a major product launch, and did a construction site visit at one of our new stores. I have to do a lot of “code shifting” within the day.
How did you become interested in sustainability in the fashion industry? Why is it personally important for you that Reformation is ethical and eco-friendly on every possible level?
I joke that I fulfill every stereotype you may have of a Seattleite – I’ve been interested in sustainability my whole life, and knew early on that our future was dependent on changing how we view our relationship with people and the planet. I received my master’s degree in Sustainability and have worked in the industry my entire career. I started out working in academia, but when I met Yael (the CEO of Reformation), I was really inspired by her vision for Reformation. She genuinely cared about transforming an industry, and was willing to set new rules for how we did business. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and I knew I wanted to be involved in changing that.
Reformation refers to itself as “sustainable fast fashion” – what does that mean exactly?
Many people think that “sustainable fast fashion” is an oxymoron, but sustainability and some key elements of fast fashion can go hand-in-hand. We create high-quality, sustainably made limited collections weekly. That lets us be really responsive to what our customer wants to wear now, and it also means that our stock almost always sells out. The typical fast fashion model churns out mass quantities of low-quality, almost “disposable” clothing that leaves excess inventory that turns into waste. At Reformation we work fast, but produce limited quantities until we know what sells and what our customer wants – avoiding any of that typical excess and waste.
How do you quantify sustainability at Reformation?
We’ve created something called RefScale, which is a tool that tracks our environmental footprint by adding up the pounds of carbon dioxide we emit, gallons of water we use, and pounds of waste we generate. We then calculate how Reformation’s products help reduce these impacts compared with most clothing bought in the US. The whole equation follows the lifecycle of our clothes – everything from growing textile fibers and making fabric, dyeing, moving materials, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, garment care, and even recycling clothes when you’re done with them. We share this information on every product page, and have also added a personalized dashboard to each customer’s account page giving them the ability to track their RefScale, or their environmental savings, with every purchase. To keep ourselves accountable, we also release a detailed sustainability report each quarter, which highlights progress towards our sustainability goals and what is still a work in progress.
What has been the hardest part of making the entire process sustainable—from sourcing and manufacturing to selling in a physical retail store? Any big next steps?
Honestly, it was lonely when we started. Ref has been around for 10 years, and was founded with sustainability at its core. When I first started, our mill and manufacturing partners thought we were crazy – we were asking a million questions and pushing to our standards, and none of their other clients were doing that. We were told “no” a lot and hit a ton of dead ends because what we wanted didn’t exist yet, or wasn’t commercially available. I’m so energized by the progress the industry as a whole has made since then, and what that will open up when it comes to more circular, closed-loop fibers, zero waste packaging, or carbon positive operations. We’ll keep pushing for better at each opportunity.
Why do you think often other fashion brands overlook sustainability and ethical sourcing? Is it cost-based or lack of consumer demand?
Five to 10 years ago, I would have said there was a lack of consumer education and demand – but we’ve seen a major shift since then, so now it’s just a matter of brands catching up. There’s a common misconception that operating ethically and sustainably is significantly more expensive. That’s not necessarily the case–especially if it drives for efficiency, lower materiality, etc. And the shift to sustainable fashion will be a balance. Brands that invest in cleaner processes and fair wages will likely have to pass at least some of that cost on to their customers, as well as take the margin hit because it’s the right thing to do. I think that many brands – especially those that are larger and have been in business longer than us – find it most challenging and daunting to change up their supply chains and production practices. At Reformation our mission is in part to show that you can make sustainable fashion for everyone, and that you can do it to scale.
What’s one fact that would shock most people about the sustainability impact of their fashion choices?
It’s super important to be mindful of how you’re washing your clothes – believe it or not, up to 80% of the total environmental impact of a Ref purchase actually happens when you take it home! To be less impactful, air dry when possible, use cold water, and always run full loads.
Any quick tips for us to be more sustainable in our everyday life?
We always say there’s nothing more sustainable than buying vintage. That’s why we release vintage collections and run a one-of-a-kind Reformation Vintage shop on Melrose Ave. Our RefRecycling program allows customers to send back their old clothes for us to recycle, and we work with thredUP’s UpCycle program to let people send thredUP their old clothing in exchange for Reformation credit. And of course, we love memberships like Rent the Runway Unlimited, where you can opt to rent clothing on rotation instead of buying new. Our new Ref Jeans just launched on RTR, so you can shop for everyday staples, sustainably.
Browse Reformation Styles on Rent the Runway
1. Source: Sharecloth via Sourcing Journal