Gabriela Hearst joined Eugenia de la Torriente of Vogue Spain and Stella McCartney to discuss how the pandemic is bringing the fashion industry’s sustainability into sharp focus.
Gabriela, what’s your definition of sustainability?
For me sustainability is a practice. As in any practice, it starts with something challenging but achievable then that promotes reassurance and confidence for the next challenge.
It's also a mind set because of how I was raised in a remote ranch in Uruguay, South America. I grew up sustainable from a utilitarian perspective. My family has been in the same place for six generations and my mother still lives off the grid. Things were made well so they could last as we where exposed to the elements and the force of nature. So quality was also learned from this utilitarian perspective. Few but good was how we consumed and lived.
It's also learning how to work with constraints and delimitations. Which in my opinion is great for creativity as it focuses it and strengthens it. Understanding that we don’t live in an endless cornucopia of natural resources is key.
It's also waste management in every sense of the word. Waste is a design flaw as it doesn’t exist in nature. We need a balance between production and consumption. Think of any environmental problem and the chances are that it's connected to waste. 1/3 of all food globally is wasted at a cost of 1 Trillion dollars. The crisis is bringing an opportunity to understand and reset.
Economically speaking it makes sense for every company no matter what size to adopt a less wasteful approach.
I think it's also important to understand that sustainability and social responsibility are two factors of the same. There is one side, raw materials and in the other the social component of who is making your clothes. These are two core ingredients to making a product that not only looks good but feels good for a reason. A way to achieve this is working on transparency, letting the client know how the product is being made and by who.
We are going to get out of this global crisis with a higher empathy level as we have all been affected by it. If you cared before, you probably care even more now about where, how and who is making your product. What is your environmental and social impact? Also, I do want to point out that none of this can happen if the product is not great in every sense as no one will buy it for just the good intentions alone.
Gabriela, can you give us some concrete examples of how your own sustainability initiatives have positioned your business for the future?
I think the two values that shaped ourselves (which are long term views and sustainability) have helped us build before the current crisis and will continue to do so.
We had the opportunity to double the size of our business with our handbags but we choose not to. If we would have wholesaled them, it meant double the amount of natural resources to make the same amount of profit. So we didn’t do it because it didn’t fit into our sustainable value and the other reason to do it would be to grow the brand awareness fast but that doesn’t fit our long term view. So slow and steady we are building our business around it. We choose quality over quantity. Maybe because I come from Uruguay and we are only three million people and that’s our only angle.
So we choose a healthy pace of growth, that is strategic. We have only 75 wholesale points of distribution with close relationships with partners that we view as long term. We've been careful not to over distribute and over expose. That gave us the opportunity to create our own retail stores, sustainably built (we have only two and a concession).
So being very careful of not over saturating and growing organically kept us lean and nimble. Which is an easier state to move in this current "quick sand" like terrain.
We are also so used to working with the limitations and parameters of creating the least impact possible product without compromising desirability, quality and craftsmanship, so constraints is something we have some advantage practice on.
Another concrete example is that I've been trying for over a year to move our supply chain by year 2021 to 80% non virgin materials. So we've been working hard securing high quality existing materials. Hunting and gathering. We have gathered for resort and spring 60% of existent material.
We have implemented this spring what we call the “Garment Journey” where our product comes with a QR Code on the label, which tells you exactly where the materials were sourced, the mill and the manufacturer. We make choices such as “x" natural fiber (we only work with natural materials) is better choice than “y" because it absorbs less water for example and has no use of pesticides. We choose the top quality mills in Italy for how they source energy, what is their water waste management and finally who makes the product. Some of our suppliers are women owned and lead businesses, multi generational family businesses. If you choose quality it's pretty guaranteed there is passion behind it. If there is passion there is care and pride to create something the right way. I think it's important that our clients know why we make the choices we make.
Gabriela, apart from the infinite VC we are all experiencing, how has this crisis impacted the way you approach your daily work?
My actual mentality hasn’t changed the way I think or behave because I've been focused for years now on the parallel climate crisis. So my mind was set already on a M.O of how are we going to be able to do business in a restrained environment with limited resources. So in that way I felt we had been preparing, as we have been working mindfully on the real parameters of a distressed environment.
The specific challenges to the limited physical access you have with one another you find creative ways to work. For example, remotely working with new technology such as 3D fittings, while it's not the same especially if you are a tactile person but it serves an efficient function.
Another adapting measure was when our goal shifted pretty quickly once we had the realization that the budget numbers were going to change. My approach was our most important asset it's our team, let's protect and make sure that we strengthen it. So our main goal as company is too come out of this stronger as a team. More focus, efficient, creative and healthy.
On a personal note, I am latin from a gaucho background, in my culture we kiss everyone we meet, we even drink mate with strangers from the same "bombilla" metal straw. So social distancing is counter nature. Also, being creative and how to still be in close connection with others. I think it's important to be grateful, living in the present and focusing on the future. I'm working on keeping a happy emotional state for my children, my family, team and others.