Talkin' Shop: Miki Utnehmer & The Big Bad "S" Word

 Miki Utnehmer

Miki Utnehmer

In this week's Insights we are "Talkin' Shop" with Miki Utnehmer. Miki is an experienced retail product manager and more recently a graduate of a Masters in Sustainability Leadership from Arizona State University. We discuss what sustainability means in retail, who is getting it right, the future of sustainability, and how you can get started.       

You’ve had a pretty traditional career in retail, what was it about sustainability that peaked your interest? 

I worked for a big box retailer when the fast fashion craze was just starting up. Everyone wanted to be the next Forever 21 and deliver fashion faster and cheaper. When the cotton shortage crisis hit in 2008 and retailers were forced to look at how to keep their costs down, many turned to synthetic fibers such as polyester, acrylic and nylon or chemically treated plant based fibers such as rayon. It made me realize, we were literally producing clothing that wouldn’t make it a year in someone’s closet.   

How do you define sustainability as it pertains to the retail industry today? 

Right now we are in a linear model where we take, make, and then we dispose. We throw everything away and it ends up in a landfill. A circular economy designs out the waste so in apparel you would design things that are either biodegradable or thinking about what you can do with it after the lifecycle is over. In the actual making of the garment you want to think about quality versus quantity - which is what the market is right now. It’s all about speed and quantity and then what do you do at the end of the lifecycle.

The retail industry needs to make a radical change and move away from its current linear economy where we take-make-dispose and embrace a circular economy.

Do we have the technology today to get to that point? 

There are some retailers who are on board and others who aren’t. There are some technologies being used but if they aren’t used by everyone, then it becomes costly. An example would be a 3D fit rendering. You can fit garments on a computer so the tech designer can go back and forth with the supplier until they are satisfied with the fit versus shipping samples 5 or 6 times, back and forth, before they agree on the final pattern. So you can save there but if both parties don’t have the technology it is not going to work and for a company to invest in that technology – its not worth investing in that technology unless all your suppliers are on board with it so then some people walk away from it. If you are big enough, you can dictate it, but if you are smaller, you can’t so then you are stuck with going the traditional route and throwing out samples after every fitting, which then end up either in a landfill or people recycle. Even if people recycle it, most fit garments are slashed and they are likely going to be used for housing insulation, which is good for a time, but when you think about it eventually somebody is going to remodel or demolish the home so again there is going to be waste.

Does the retail industry have the capabilities today to make recycled goods in the true sense of the word?

We do! It’s going back to the beginning and how did we start making garments. Most of that was all-natural fibers until we started leaning on things, like rayon, that won’t break down.

If we go back to the origin of how we started making apparel, those garments can go back into the ground and can become part of the Earth again without any harm.

Who is getting it right and how did they get their start?

Patagonia

For them, I don’t think they intended to start that way. They started out creating pitons and the initial ones they created were actually leaving dents and holes in the mountain and eventually they started moving towards sustainability, when they decided that isn’t what they wanted to do to the Earth. They came up with the pitons that won’t harm the mountains that they are climbing. I feel like even for them it was one thing that got them started and now they are the leader, pioneer of sustainability that everybody looks to in the apparel industry. Even they took one step at a time and each day they are taking it a little further.

Nike

Nike, back in 1992, Harper’s Bazaar had published an article about their labor force in China, calling them sweatshops. So Nike realized they had to make a change. To do so, they decided that they were going to be transparent with their customers. Through that transparency is where their sustainability efforts came into play, becoming transparent and showing their customers that they are being responsible. That was one of the things that shot them into a sustainability type environment. Now with technology and innovation, it is a part of what they do. Round table forums, better cotton initiative, Nike is always involved, so Nike is conscious about what needs to happen.

Nike is big enough where they are able to make an impact. If you go on their website, you know who their suppliers are, what they are held accountable to, and every year they challenge them to improve year over year. It’s not just the corporation - it's their Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 suppliers, as well. A lot of retailers may only keep our eye on Tier 1 and that’s it. Nike is doing a good job of looking further down the line, making sure their supply chain is doing a good job as well. 

What are the biggest misconceptions about sustainability that retailers need to get “righted” on?

Many organizations think ‘sustainability’ is the big bad “S” word and feel if they preach too much, they will alienate customers. These organizations need to realize their customers want transparency. If they aren’t comfortable being transparent about how their garments are made, they need to take look at why and fix it. 

What is moving transparency and sustainability forward? 

Millennials are a big catalyst in transparency. I think my generation was okay with green washing but Millennials will call out people who are just making a green statement, or just adding “eco” in front of their statement -  if it doesn’t mean anything, Millenials will go as far as not buying their product. I think supporting the cause is really important to them too. They will go out of their way to pay a little bit more to buy a brand that’s supporting a cause versus one that isn't really doing anything. I think in that aspect, you are being transparent as well.

How does a retailer get start tackling sustainability and what it means to their business and brand?

The important thing to remember is, you don’t need to boil the ocean and tackle everything. It is important to be authentic and not ‘green wash’. Start by supporting a cause that matters to the brand and invite your customers to join you. 

What do you think the evolution of sustainability looks like in retail over the next year, 5 years, 10 years? Where will we get to? What are customers looking for?

People like H&M are making an effort with their eco line and they do promote when you are done wearing their apparel, actually they’ll take back any brand to recycle in their stores. I think that people will see more of those things become common, recycling clothing in stores.

I hope that 10 years from now there is more technology, such as waterless dying. The textile industry is a huge polluter of water and we do have waterless dye technology. I would hope that we are making strides in preventing that and I know that people like Adidas are researching waterless dyes. Levi’s will put labels on their website of which styles are done with waterless dying. I’m hoping that some of those things big industry leaders are doing will trickle down to the smaller brands that can’t do it, or can't afford to do it, on their own right now.

As the Millennials grow up they are going to be demanding more sustainable products so there is going to be a need for people who aren’t doing anything sustainability related, it will force them to really look at their development process and their manufacturing partners and choose wisely.

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