Outerknown and Beyond
For those who have been reading KS’ interviews since leaving Quiksilver and paying attention to the Kering Group’s 4 year shift to achieve industry transforming sustainability standards, while also keeping a finger on the pulse of other designers who have socio-environmental goals at their core, the prices at Outerknown (OK) don’t seem that jaw dropping. Deep sustainability costs the consumer far more at the point of purchase than cheap clothing with very questionable ethical socio-environmental standards.
The fast-fashion epidemic that most of us have been raised within over the decades has become the second largest polluting industry in the world, second only to the oil industry. Our consumption practices, our demand for cheaper and cheaper goods–NOW–has facilitated this destructive paradigm in concert with free market deregulation and globalization.
Yes, it is appropriate to point out the 1%’s insane focus on making a profit regardless of the human and environmental costs at the manufacturing level, but it is also the average Global North consumer, with an entitled sense of want, that makes such practices possible. It is essential to remember that in a global context, we are the 1%.
“The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent.” (source)
Outerknown’s prices are higher than the rest of the surfy market, which continues to be largely unsustainable with the odd one-off pieces used strictly for greenwashing, but once you dig into the specialized fabrics that are being used and the partnerships between OK and Bluesign, Econyl, and the Fair Labor Association, and compare the company prices to non-surfy equivalents, Slater is pretty spot on. Doing sustainability has costs surfy folks are not yet used to absorbing on this side of the cash register because invisible others have been paying the costs for us.
“We’re not going to be a traditional surf brand. It’ll be on the higher end with a focus on making good clothing the right way.” –KS, Oct. 2014
I don’t agree that Global North consumers are entitled to cheap, sustainable clothing. There is a cost incurred for the years of unethical, toxic, deadly, and degrading manufacturing practices heralded by the soporific standards of fast-fashion, those embraced by the surf industry and so very rarely questioned by surfy pundits who wax on and on about the most grotesquely inane subjects in surfing, while ignoring our global impact. This is a result of the insistence that surfing, the surf industry, and our way of living is simply light-footed pleasure seeking and escapism.
In the sustainability equation, consumers must defer to and share space with the environment and the folks who make our products. And given the fact that over 80% of the world’s garment workers are women, and the fastest growing market and consumer base in the world (greater than China and India combined) is women, this conversation is especially important to me.
There are a multitude of intersecting oppressions to dissect in the sustainability/consumption conversation and the idea that a simple solution exists that can be scaled across business platforms, nations, and industries misunderstands how deeply entrenched and reliant we are in each others’ livelihoods and lives. There is no rewind button here.
That being said, buying second-hand, up-cycling, and re-using products continue to be the best practices if one must purchase things. It’s a trend I got into in high school (thanks, Grunge) and continue to practice. The more durable the products, the better able we are to practice a low cost, low impact mode of second-hand consuming.
“…sustainability is at the core of the Kering group. From the 1,500 different fabrics produced by their Material Innovation Lab, which designers including Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra select from each season, to the officers within each individual brand charged with managing the sustainability programs, the company revolves around the theme. This is never trumpeted and in fact, Mr. Pinault highlighted the eco-friendly philosophy of Kering stalwart Stella McCartney, as a blueprint for the company. ‘She was raised in this way, it is just who she is,’ he said. He shared his hopes that in a similar way, Kering’s sustainability footprint will eventually speak for itself.” (source)
The difference between, say, Quiksilver doing a single line of REPREVE trunks (“creating a reprieve for the planet”) and Outerknown’s own series of Econyl/recycled trunks (both priced at $125) is that OK’s core mission is built around sustainability, transparency, and an environmental P&L (sometimes called a triple bottom line to align with the three pillars of sustainability), while Quik’s mode has never centered around sustainability, but instead uses single clothing lines, like many other surfy brands, to obfuscate and deflect from a singular commitment to profit, regardless of the costs to workers or the environment.
Greenwashing is a mask faced toward consumers, a mask companies use to hide their bloody, toxic manufacturing practices behind in the hopes that consumers won’t look too closely. Case in point, those same REPREVE trunks by Quik also feature a 3M Scotchard Protector Repellent coating that is a fluorocarbon chemical (PFC) with highly suspect potential eco and bio risks. Greenpeace has taken such clothing use to task by calling on a strict ban across Europe.
“Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are widely-used water, grease and stain repellents. They’re found in carpets and on clothes, on fast-food wrappers, and on the inner lining of pet food bags. You might know them as Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex. They pollute water, are persistent in the environment, and remain in the human body for years.” (source)
The desire to feel like one is doing good while consuming/buying is a trend that greenwashers take advantage of, while centering and building a business around sustainability arises from the belief that business is the best mode through which to tackle environmental and social problems that by and large have been created by business and consumerism.
Debating the merits of business-led social change is certainly a good debate to have, and one I find myself in opposition to at its extreme (the belief that only deregulated business can change our destructive trajectory), but it is important to distinguish a company that is greenwashing (Quik) from a company that has been built upon a sustainability rubric (OK).
Why does OK cost more than Patagonia?
Besides the obvious fact that OK is explicitly targeting a higher end demographic that isn’t traditionally surfy, attempting to bridge the gap between sports and luxury (which Slater openly stated was his intent back in 2014), OK has focused on utilizing longer lasting, sustainable fabrics, like Pima cotton, which is substantially more durable than the more ubiquitous short-fiber cottons and tends to be 20%-40% more expensive. Some fabrics used, like the regenerated Italian wool and Econyl products, aim for an endlessly regenerative, closed-loop production cycle. Others, like the $400+ hoody that everyone seems to be really frothy about, is made with an alpaca blend that is not only more durable than its Cashmere equivalent, but has a (literally) lighter-footed environmental imprint, benefits Peruvian indigenous folks directly, requires far less water, and produces 16xs more wool.
Slater’s explicit goal is to make his entire supply chain transparent, pay manufacturers a fair wage, produce items that are meant to last (disrupting the fast-fashion paradigm), all while ensuring the chemicals, dyes, and processes used from beginning to end aren’t damaging to the environment or those making the clothing.
Both Patagonia and OK use Bluesign and the Fair Trade Association. There is additional cross-over between the companies with Shelly Gottschamer, previously of Patagonia, working as OK’s director of supply chain and sustainability.
The real difference between the costs of Patagonia’s gear and OK has to do with longevity and established vs. unestablished markets. Patagonia has far more products, is engaged in both climbing and surfing markets, has men’s, women’s, and children’s lines, and has established shops and distribution avenues around the globe. OK is a start-up and it is going to take some time for Slater, et al to develop their market, rather than simply slipping into an already existing market. There is plenty of risk here, but you better believe Slater knows the players in the surfy market. There is an underlying message here, even a challenge, one that I hope will be cemented through OK’s success.
The problem with sustainability.
The single greatest challenge the world faces is the insatiable appetite of the Global North and the rising consumer class in China and India. Conversations around the viability of “sustainability” within the current neoliberal, deregulated global market environment are rife with controversy. Inequalities are inbuilt into the current economic paradigm in such a way that even when sustainable business practices are instituted, the watershed tends to pool in the same privileged pockets.
Sustainable business practices often act as distractions behind which oppressions are not addressed, inequalities remain, and the overall problem (the economic system itself) remains undisturbed.
On one side of the sustainability argument, there are those who maintain that we must utilize the economic status quo in a more humane way to trickle more wealth down to those who do not have it:
“The consumer society has strong allure and carries with it many economic benefits, and it would be unfair to argue that the advantages gained by an earlier generation of consumers should not be shared by those who come later. Indeed, lack of attention to the needs of the poorest can result in greater insecurity for the prosperous and in increased spending on defensive measures. The need to spend billions of dollars on wars, border security, and peacekeeping arguably is linked to a disregard for the world’s pressing social and environmental problems.” (source)
The other opinion is that the view above does not go far enough. The argument proceeds that the trickling down of wealth, despite best intentions, tends to pool in the same locations, replicating the same old issues. This perspective targets the current structure of the global economy and demands that the landscape, the system itself be restructured, flattened, as it were.
The first option basically contends that we can consume our way out of the problems we have created by consuming in awareness, transparently. The idea here is that folks will make the right choices after weighing the true costs and then choose better. An example of this can be seen with the growth of the organic food market.
The second option insists that the idea that we can consume smarter and better is not enough, that the economic system we are currently stuck in will simply shift oppressions and inequalities if it is not reigned in and transformed utterly. Proponents of this option see sustainability as another distraction that doesn’t address the root of the problem. The idea of sustainability is itself a Global North ideal, constructed by the very people who have a stake in the profitability and comfort afforded them by the current economic status quo. Critics will rightly ask “Who defines these terms?”:
-Fair Wage/Living Wage
This is thorny territory and the fact that surfy social media was abuzz with these types of conversations because of the shockwaves instigated by the launch of a small clothing line by surfing’s most visible male surfer is not, in my opinion, a bad thing at all; it’s a huge opportunity.
An opportunity to really dig into and converse amongst ourselves about global issues that matter, that impact and are impacted by surfing… overtly political conversations instigated within a rabidly apolitical bubble by a $400 hoody.
Not a bad start to the Outerknown journey.
Highly recommend watching the mind-blowing documentary about current trends and their effects in fashion– True Cost –now streaming on Netflix.com.
Additional interesting bits for later…