Bikinis made from recycled plastic. Sneakers made from bamboo. Jackets made from discarded outerwear. As consumers become increasingly aware of the devastating impact that fashion has on the environment, brands are racing to replace highly polluting materials with more eco-friendly ones.
While many fashion labels narrowly focus their sustainability efforts (and marketing of the same) on a single material or item, Theory has chosen to taken a more complex approach. Its newest initiative, called Theory For Good, tackles three of the signature materials that Theory uses in its clothes—wool, cotton, and linen—and considers their environmental footprint, workers’ rights, and animal welfare. It’s an approach that’s harder to communicate to customers, but one that Wendy Waugh, Theory’s head of sustainability and raw materials, says is more impactful. “When you think of the sustainability of a single fiber, like wool, it has to do with everything from the land to the animal welfare to the energy usage in the factories,” says Waugh. “The way I look at it, sustainability is about making every aspect of this better. And we’re trying to chip away at all of it.”
Over the past three years, Theory has gone deep into the recesses of its supply chain to find the most ethical suppliers for these signature materials. It is currently working with its partner mills to trace each fabric all the way back to its raw materials. Today, it unveils a new labeling system for its clothes. Products with tags that say Good Wool, Good Linen, and Good Cotton mean that the material in them is traceable all the way back to their origins. Currently, it’s working towards increasing the number of clothes that can carry the tag, but by 2025, 100% of its signature fabrics will be traceable. Waugh explains that it is a very complex process for each supplier to identify the sources of each material, but Theory is nearly there. “We’re chipping away at the problem,” says Waugh.
For the time being, Theory is not tackling the issue of recycling or the afterlife of its clothes, which is something other brands are doing. (Brands like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher now collect used garments to repair them, and Levi’s is beginning to design collections that will more easily recycle.) Recyclability is something that Theory hopes to take on further down the line. “We try to make incremental improvements with each season,” Waugh says
Siddhartha Shukla, Theory’s chief brand officer, explains that the brand was founded on material innovation, which all depends on thoughtful sourcing. The brand debuted nearly two decades ago when the founders found a mill that incorporated stretch into wool. They used this material in suits, making it more comfortable and less prone to wrinkling than traditional wool. Over the years, using so-called technical fabrics in suiting has become the norm, but Theory has tried to stay ahead of the pack by continuing to invest in high-quality wearable materials. “Sourcing the best materials is part of our DNA,” Shukla says. “So this was the lens through which we considered sustainability.”
While it seems like it should be fairly easy to trace the origins of a fabric, it’s actually a nearly impossible challenge. The fashion industry relies on a massive global supply chain, with many, many middlemen along the way. Raw materials such as cotton, wool, and cashmere are produced in countries around the world, then bundled together and sold on global commodities markets and auctions. Mills then buy these raw materials and turn them into fabrics. Then factories buy the fabrics and turn them into garments. Many brands are only familiar with the last few steps in this process, like the mills and the factories it works with. This means they have little insight into the environmental impact and treatment of workers and animals earlier in the process.
This is one reason that the fashion industry’s impact on the planet and on human rights has gone unchecked for so long. Consumers, and even fashion brands, often have no idea about the slavery and pollution that went into clothes, which means they can’t hold the industry into account. The truth is that many fashion labels have no idea what their carbon footprint is or how many chemicals went into cultivating a particular plant since they can’t trace their products all the way through the supply chain.
Waugh explains that Theory partnered with its suppliers as it undertook this process. Theory has asked each of its factories and mills to provide documentation about the source of its raw materials, and in many cases, Waugh and her team actually visit the farms where the raw wool, cotton, and linen come from. She says it’s much easier for a large company to make such demands because it has some market power. “We’re a very large consumer of wool,” says Waugh. “This gives us the leverage to ask suppliers to do the work of looking into their sourcing. But we think this is good for the industry as a whole, since its raising the bar when it comes to traceability.”
Throughout the process, Waugh and her team weigh the various ethical considerations. When it comes to its Good Wool, for instance, it works with sheep farms in Tasmania and South America that can prove that their animals are well provided for and free from discomfort and harm. The wool is then shipped to the Tollegno 1900 mill in Italy, which uses solar panels and water turbines powered by the river that runs along its walls. The water used in the dyeing and finishing of the wool is purified and returned to its source, and on top of that, 40% of the water is reused, to reduce the mill’s overall consumption.
Theory’s Good Cotton and Good Linen labels designate similar practices and precautions, and Waugh says they’re still striving to do better. “We consider Theory For Good to be a work in progress,” says Waugh. “We’re continuing to work to improve the sustainability of every material we use.”
Theory’s approach to sustainability is wide-reaching and continually improving, but the downside is that it can be hard to explain it to customers. After all, it’s pretty straightforward to explain that a jacket was made with 20 water bottles or that a sneaker is carbon-neutral; it’s another matter to explain that wool is traceable and ethically sourced. That’s why the labeling system is so useful. “We’ve created this system to signal to our customers that this particular material is ethically sourced,” Shukla says. “Soon, this will be true of every fabric we sell.”