Business growth · 5 min read

A Pair of Truths: Sustainability vs. Responsibility

When everyone starts jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, it's time – as buyers and business owners – to start asking critical questions about what exactly is sustainable, and is it responsible?

When my brother, sister and I took our brand Triarchy offline in 2017, we had one goal: Find a better way to make jeans. We gave ourselves 6 months; instead, we took 18-months collectively learning about all sorts of sustainable practices, tools and rigours we could apply to our brand. And that’s what we did. We relaunched Triarchy and set it off in a shiny, new, sustainable direction. 

Fashion has always had seasons. And just like fast fashion that hits store shelves as quickly as it does landfills, the word sustainability became the ‘must-have’ accessory of the season. It turns out that the actual sustainability work Triarchy and other independently-owned fashion brands were doing ended up being lost in the pile. “Sustainability” was losing its integrity just as we were pivoting to our mission of responsibly and ethically made denim.

From rituals of self-care to limiting food waste, the pandemic made it clear that responsible consumption is here to stay. You’ve likely felt it yourself, especially when your customer asks about the origins of what you’re selling. Brands responded — either by doubling down on making their businesses better or by amplifying minimal efforts to look like sustainability is their entire ethos. 

 

Reveal the camouflaging of greenwashing by asking questions

Greenwashing happens easily because it’s labour-intensive to put a lens on every brand. It’s like seeing the ‘low-sugar’ sticker on a box of cereal — maybe it is! But unless you’re going to read the nutritional label, a lot of people, as well as the people making supply chain decisions, are going to take these claims as “facts” at face value. These get passed on to the buyers, and how we spend our dollars end up perpetuating this cycle by giving these brands a pass. We need to be asking harder questions.

If something is too good to be true, it probably is. I realized that by not asking tough questions. If I don’t know the truth behind what I’m passing along to our customers, then I can’t operate a business. With that revelation, I discovered that Triarchy’s entire sustainability journey would be a tasting menu to the regular buyer, but it’d be up to me to define it, shape it and tell that story. 

 

 

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Give your buyers a crash course in your responsible practices

There are few governing bodies or certified labels and certifications out there that buyers can rely on to do the hard work and measure a brand’s commitment to sustainability. Sadly, vendors often misrepresent themselves and tell designers one thing, which can lead to splashy marketing campaigns that attract a customer’s eye. Once someone sees this plastered all over their website or bricks-and-mortar store, the common thought is, “hey, this is amazing!” But we want to be pushing them to think: “that’s interesting, I want to know more.” 

For example, when you see a claim that a fabric’s stretch comes from recycled water bottles, that’s great. But what’s added to it to give it a new life? Is the process still producing microplastics in our water? Is recycled plastic just making new garbage from old garbage? At its end of life, will this sit in a landfill for 200 years, just like regular plastic?

Why ask these questions? Well, I bought into the recycled water bottle stretch story at one point, but I knew something didn't feel right. I needed to do the critical work and suss out whether this technology I claim to be responsible and sustainable is actually responsible and sustainable! If I don’t, I risk damaging Triarchy’s brand, as well as my own commitment to being a responsible, professional and personal citizen.

 

The responsible work.

The most sustainable thing you can do, as a small business, is hire a third party auditor. We work with Greenstory and Retraced to do just this. Greenstory investigates our manufacturing practices and Retraced, our supply chain. Businesses like theirs can vet your practices and your products and then report back to you how sustainable you really are. This does a couple things: 

  1. It puts your money where your mouth is when discussing sustainability
  2. It provides a framework to work within that highlights where you can be better, giving you a clear understanding on how to improve your practices. 

Seeing actual metrics for every product Triarchy makes in real time is inspiring to us and easy to understand for customers. It’s a win, win for everybody, even when you don’t like the report, because that’s the only way to make the report better. To me, that is running a business responsibly. 

 

 

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Think responsibly. Think sustainably.

As small business owners, we have to work harder to maintain the integrity of the word, sustainability. At Triarchy, we did a simple exercise. We took the definition of “sustainability” (“Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”) and applied it to what we were doing. We took stock of our industry — a lot of brands were leaning into sustainability but all with very different comprehension of the word. This is where greenwashing comes into play. It’s also where we saw an opportunity to forge a new path — instead of touting our sustainability, we were leaning into our responsibility

If we’re going to throw the word sustainability around, then we need to start thinking about its intended meaning. Start asking questions. And start acting responsibly. Responsibility is a word I want to stand behind because it offers a framework to operate a brand within when trying to make jeans better, and therefore, better jeans.


Adam is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Triarchy, a sustainable denim brand whose mission is to conserve the planet's most important resource by reducing the massive water consumption of the planet's most beloved piece of clothing, jeans. Learn more about Adam and Triarchy here.

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