How Cool-Girl Clothing Brand Reformation Is Leading Fashion's Shift Toward Sustainability

We asked Reformation’s VP of operations and sustainability to share her insights on why we need to start thinking sustainably, like right. now.

Kathleen Talbot, Reformation’s VP of operations and sustainability (Photo: Courtesy Reformation)

Fashion is one of the world’s top five worst polluters—though it’s hard to know exactly how bad the industry is for the environment, since numbers are scarce—but in the past decade, brands big and small have slowly started to take notice of that impact.

H&M, for example, has the Conscious Collection, a recycling program and has pledged to close the loop, using only recycled fabrics throughout the entire brand by 2030. Closer to home, Canadian labels like KOTN, Laura Siegel, Peggy Sue Collection, Nicole Bridger and Triarchy are all making the case for well-designed, sustainable clothing.

But the one brand these retailers often look to when designing their green-focussed businesses? That would be Reformation. Launched in 2009 by Yael Aflalo, an entrepreneur and former model, the LA-based label was cool girl clothing first, but always done sustainably.

“You have to really take into account the labour and social impacts. It’s [about] the human element and how we make clothes around the world,” Reformation’s Kathleen Talbot said recently when asked what sustainable fashion means to the brand. “Our responsibility is to really understand the resources and the demands we have on environmental systems as a brand, minimize those, and focus on restoring our impact.”

Talbot, who is the brand’s VP of operations and sustainability, was in Toronto this November to speak at Fashion Takes Action’s WEAR (World Ethical Apparel Roundtable) conference. An alum of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, she oversees the day-to-day operations of their Los Angeles factory, as well as building the business, heading up customer service and, perhaps most importantly, seeing that each area meets the brand’s eco ethos. Those practices include using vintage and deadstock fabric (fabric that was otherwise headed to the landfill), as well as recycled wools, cottons, and nylons, and working with Tencel, flax or hemp fabric.

The brand also helps offset their CO2 emissions by working with conservation projects to help clean up and restore waterways in the U.S.A. In the name of transparency, they publish the RefScale report online so consumers can see how the brand is working from the inside, as well as the impact each garment they purchase has on the planet.

Since joining Reformation almost four years ago, Talbot has seen a shift in the status quo in fashion. “I am excited at the prospect and the landscape shift, that we are not alone at the front anymore,” she said. But, that’s not to say there isn’t a lot more work to do. “It sometimes feels a little naive to say it’s on the consumer. I think we need to make more change faster than the consumer is necessarily going to require of us as brands,” she said when asked if big companies and government have a role to play in the sustainable fashion game.

Talbot admits that some established labels may have a hard time pivoting their brand, but it’s not impossible. “A lot of the things we are talking about [at the conference] are just better practices and in some cases, things you can plug into your existing operations,” she said. “You don’t necessarily need to reengineer your entire value chain. You are just plugging in different types of materials, sourcing different standards for some of those partners. And you’ve made it 70 per cent of the way there.”

The way forward, and part of Reformation’s modus operandi, is one of inclusion—helping other brands reach their eco potential, while imploring big business to use their research and development dollars to figure out new sustainable technologies. Because as Talbot noted during her keynote address at WEAR, “if you want to start a revolution, you have to invite everybody.”

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