The fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global emissions, making it the second-biggest industrial polluter. Perhaps even more shockingly, though, is McKinsey’s 2020 report on the climate impact of fashion, which revealed that the trajectory of the industry as a whole had strayed up to 50% away from the agreed 1.5-degree pathway.
While much of this pollution comes from emissions created as products are moved across the supply chain and wasted garments rot in landfills, the way clothes are manufactured plays a big part, too. For example, water used in dyeing processes is responsible for up to 20% of clean water pollution, while denim retailer Levi Strauss projects that creating and wearing just one pair of 501 Levi’s uses 3,781 litres of water over the product’s lifetime.
In addition to the environmental impact, people who make clothes can suffer from the impact of hazardous chemicals and unsafe working environments, particularly in countries such as Bangladesh.
But, in recent years, consumers have shifted from wanting cheap items fast to well-made clothing from a clean, ethical supply chain. Fashion houses and textile manufacturers have, surprisingly, listened.
Annie Nyborg is the Sustainability Director at Peak Design. In her role, she oversees all of Peak Design's social and environmental efforts.
“I took a somewhat circuitous route to Peak Design and the sustainability field,” says Nyborg. “I did undergrad at Stanford for International Relations and then received my Master’s in Latin American Studies at UCSD. After that, I worked primarily in policy research and programme evaluation.”
But Nyborg didn't want to be in the evaluation field forever. She’s been passionate about photography since high school and planned to transition to a full-time freelance career in photography.
Through a few chance encounters, however, she ended up meeting with Design Peak's CEO, Peter Dering.
“We hit it off,” she says. “He offered me a position initially in business development, but I was hesitant to join a product company because of its environmental impact. I realised that it actually posed a wonderful opportunity to create change within the corporate sector, which I think is imperative to successfully tackle some of our biggest environmental and social challenges.”
Nyborg accepted the position and, within a year of being there, was asked if she could focus entirely on Peak Design’s corporate social responsibility work.
“I liked Peak Design's products, but the company had done nothing to address its environmental or social impact, so I felt there was a great opportunity there,” explains Nyborg. “There weren’t a lot of academic tracks or degree programmes in sustainability back when I was in school, but my training as an evaluator helped me ask the right questions and figure out where and how Peak Design could have the biggest impact. Fortunately, the whole team has always been super supportive of the proposed environmental work that makes my job easy.”
Now, Peak Design is manufacturing more sustainable products because the company wants to keep designing and selling great gear in perpetuity.
“If we destroy our planet, it'll be pretty tough to do business,” says Nyborg wryly.
Manufacturing sustainable products
Peak Design’s primary design work is completed in San Francisco, but the company works closely with its partners in both Vietnam and China on sample iteration.
“Prior to COVID-19, our team would be out working with our international manufacturing partners multiple times a year, and we're slowly getting back into that routine,” says Nyborg. “Our primary soft goods factory is located in Vietnam, and our primary hard goods factory is in China. Really cleaning up a supply chain is one of the greatest challenges a product brand has because of the complexity of the chain.”
Peak Design has invested significant resources into its ‘Tier One’ facilities to ensure compliance of its high social and environmental standards.
“Our goal is to continue working through our supply chain tiers to implement these standards throughout, but it is going to take time and significant resources.”
As a certified B Corp, Peak Design’s Fair Trade process was relatively low lift, due to having a strong and engaged partner in Vietnam.
“Our partner had been subcontracting out factory space to manufacture our products and because they didn't have full control over those factories, the audit findings consistently came back very bad,” explains Nyborg. “We attempted to support those factories and invested in capacity building to bring them up to our standards, but were unsuccessful.”
Operating consistently out of factories that failed to meet Peak Design’s environmental and social standards wasn't going to work for Nyborg, so the company’s Vietnam partner proposed building a brand new factory that Peak Design would manage directly and see to it that its standards were met.
“That factory construction was completed about three years ago,” says Nyborg. “When we engaged with Fair Trade to certify the factory, our partners were able to relatively quickly implement the necessary changes to meet Fair Trade standards.”
Environmental and social standards in the supply chain
During her time at the company, Nyborg has navigated several big challenges at Peak Design.
“I'm not sure if there is any single greatest challenge,” she says. “In terms of nuts and bolts challenges, ensuring our supply chain meets our environmental and social standards is probably the most challenging. But otherwise, our challenges often lie in a more conceptual realm of how a small product design company can have the greatest possible environmental and social impact.”
Peak Design tries to look at root causes and question how it might tackle those, as opposed to putting a plaster on symptoms. Setting a good example for responsible business is important, and can be achieved via the use of Fair Trade Certified factories.
“Being a small business, we aren't vastly moving the dial by that alone,” she says. “I personally keep pondering business' role in policy development and government affairs. Many say that business should stay out of politics – and I certainly would love to stay out of politics; that said, there is big business money being used to push legislation that is antithetical to the work that we do. Unfortunately, I think the only way to address some of these critical root causes in the timeframe that will make a difference is through policy.”
Throughout her role at Peak Design, Nyborg has learned some big lessons.
“Don't worry about messing up,” she says. “Take everything as a learning opportunity and be transparent. Above all, don't let perfection be the enemy of progress.
Her last piece of advice is one that many worldwide brands in fashion and beyond could do with taking notice of, as it’s particularly damaging to ongoing environmental efforts.
“Oh – and don't greenwash. Just don't. It significantly hinders the good work we're all trying to do.”