Esprit Ecollection Clothing: Ahead of Their Time?

The other day in profiling the company Terrapax, we suggested that Nau was not, strictly speaking, 'ahead of its time', but rather they were treading a path laid down by eco-pioneers, well over a decade ago. Today we take a peek at Esprit's Ecollection.

Esprit has had a colourful history from its gestation in 1968, but we'll just cherry pick the elements relevant to this story. In it's formative years the company was owned and managed by Susie and Doug Tompkins. Doug was also the original founder of The North Face, when it was just a single outdoor retail store, He is presently the benefactor of Parque Pumalin in Chile, with his current wife Kris, who was once upon a time CEO of Patagonia. But we are getting ahead of ourselves -- back to Esprit in the 80's.Activism
As Esprit, blossomed in the early 80's the Tompkinses rewarded their employees with unique staff benefits, such as a 52% discount on the brand's clothing, as well as subsidised tickets to cultural events like the theatre, plus free foreign language classes and mountain vacations. [Though it should be noted that workers' right groups suggested that the working conditions of their seamstresses were not as comfortable.]

In 1989 Doug, a long time outdoor enthusiast, was developing an interest in environmental issues. This manifested itself within Esprit by Doug instituting a new marketing strategy, in which the company actually told its customers to think twice before buying Esprit product. The campaign's exact words were, in part:

"The direction of an environmentally conscious style is not to have conspicuous consumption written all over your attire. We believe this could be best achieved by simply asking yourself before you buy something (from us or any other company whether this is something you really need.)"

It went on to say:

"We know this is heresy in a growth economy, but frankly, if this kind of thinking doesn't catch on quickly, we, like a plaque of locus, will devour all that's left of the planet"

About this time Sally Tompkins established a lunchtime social issues lecture series for staff. Additionally setting up a program to pay Esprit employees who 'volunteered' 10 hours per month for nonprofit organizations. The staff had to pitch in an equal number of hours of their own time. [Esprit Australia, taking its lead from the US, established the Esprit Cares Trust Fund to assist homeless youth and support environmental issues.] It was around this period when the in-house "Eco Desk" was developed to monitor the company's eco and social impact. I still have a copy of the 34 page Eco Manual.

From all this grew the Ecollection. A five year long project, which was to research and implement responsible practices for the apparel industry. Designer, Lynda Grose, was given the task of heading up this groundbreaking initiative. The ripples from which are still being felt today.

Ecollection when released in March 1992, after two years R&D;, truly broke new ground. And would continue to do so over the next few years, as the line was further developed. (The images used here were scanned from a 1994 catalog.)

Materials
The range used organic and in-transition organic cotton, that was not bleached with either chlorine or hydrogen peroxide. They did use synthetic dyes however, because their research indicated that they resulted in 75% less unused dyestuff in the effluent and created siginificantly less water and energy consumption. The dyes chosen were free of heavy metals.

Naturally coloured cotton in green and browns, that didn't need dyeing, and actually got darker as you washed it, was also just becoming available. Fabrics were mechanically pre-shrunk so as to avoid the use of resins and formaldehyde normally used on this finishing process. Biodegradable enzyme washes were developed to smooth fabrics and prevent pilling. [Such treatment is now industry standard for softening hemp fabrics.]

The Ecollection also used wool from various sources, but did not dye it. Naturally coloured wool in white and brown was scoured and spun using natural detergents and lubricants, before being blended to achieve varying hues. But Lynda and her team also investigated both reused and recycled wools. In the former, old woolen garments were cut up and mixed with discarded production scraps before being fashioned into patchwork scarves. For the recycled woolens they worked with generations old English 'shoddy' companies. These firms collected thrift shop garments and shredded them, sorting the colours so they could then spin then into like-coloured melange yarns.

Other natural fibres were developed as well. Such as raw silk that was gown in in Columbia as a replacement crop for socially divisive coca (cocaine) farming. Similarly dew retted linen (flax) was sourced. Like hemp, flax fibres need to be separated from the pithy core of the plants stem. This has been traditionally been managed by leaving the flax in the field, so the moisture from dew can partially decompose the stem, releasing the fibre. A much slower process than industrial alternatives, but the Ecollection team felt it minimised water contamination.

Tencel was a new kid on the block, way back then -- kind of analogous to Nau's more recent development work with corn-based PLA. But Tencel found it way into the Ecollection by virtue of being a renewable plantation tree pulp that was converted into a biodegradable fibre through a recycled solvent process.

Components
Not only was the source and process of the fabrics considered, but so to were the garment's components. Metal zippers and other hardware were selected from non rusting alloys to avoid the hazardous sludge normally resulting from the metal anti-rust treatment known as electroplating. Lynda Grose also established partnerships with the group Aid to Artisans, who in turn provided income to workers in Ghana, who ground down old glass bottles and refired them to make artistic recycled glass buttons. Closer to home, the Watermark Co-operative in North Carolina was contracted to provide water-based, hand-painted pine and maple buttons.

They even encouraged the recycling of silver from old photographic film by selecting reclaimed silver for buttons, earrings, cufflinks and pendants. Necklaces and some buttons were additionally crafted of ivory-like tagua nuts from South American rainforest trees, and bags were hand woven by a Mexican co-operative using 'ixtle' cactus fibres.


Influence
This all sounds fantastic. But remember 18 years ago there was no where near the level acceptance of environmental responsibility that exists today. Speaking of the manufacturing hurdles involved in getting organic cotton to market at that time, Lynda Grose was quoted as saying, "We are trying to change the very basis of our industry. Obviously, no change is going to happen overnight."

The intent with the Ecollection was that it would act as a seven person 'skunkworks', developing materials and processes that would then influence the broader Esprit range. Lynda commented, "How you make something is just as important as the finished product." Sally Tompkins, said:

"No matter how much time and money we donate to charitable causes, it just doesn't matter if we don't make the right product. It's one thing to produce a tee-shirt which carries a message about social and environmental responsibility, and quite another to design and produce a shirt which, because of the way it is manufactured, is making a difference."

It was envisaged at one point that by 1996 all of the company's T-shirts, sweatshirts and jeans would be produced with organic cotton.

Hiccups
Alas, it was not to be. Due in part the parent company having to financially restructure again--for the umpteenth time. Also middle line managers weren't as committed to the same outcomes, and the bubble burst on the then short-lived eco-enthusiasm of a fickle fashion world. Partly this occurred because the price tag of the Ecollection, in reflecting comprehensive environmental costs, was 30% to 100% higher than the rest of Esprit apparel.

Yet some of these costs were unavoidable. For example, as there was so little organic cotton production on offer at the time, mills had to clean down their machinery free of chemicals, before running a line of organic cotton through. And the production batches were small too. But there were some savings. Because bleach and formaldehyde were not used, waste disposal costs were reduced.

Marketing
Ecollection had its own unique marketing focus, which tried to explain some of these realities. [That catalog I scanned had its cover made of paper which included fibres from leftover organic and recycled cotton. The product photo pages were printed on a waterless press and the whole thing was bound with twine, not staples.]

Here's a quote from a business case study (PDF) on the Ecollection:

"Rather than spending money to advertise, the team focused on point-of-sale consumer education instead. Retail managers and salespeople were encouraged to read a three-inch thick manual on the facts and figures behind the philosophy so that consumers questions could be answered completely and honestly. The information encouraged social and environmental activism on the part of each individual."

Heidi Julavits, part of the Ecollection team stated, "We feel that our customers must understand what they're buying, this not only justifies the slightly higher cost, but informs people as to how their buying habits can have an effect on the environment."

Yet, without spending anything on advertising, the Ecollection garnered more print media coverage than any other previous new line introduced by Esprit. It exceeded or met sale expectations in Asia, the Pacific Rim and Europe. Esprit believed that "buyers purchased the clothing line because they liked the design rather than the environmental attributes of the garments." But uptake at home in the USA was less robust. Poor results were attributed to the economic recession and the limited distribution network - only within the company-owned stores.

Hoping, by now, that the strong similarities with Nau are becoming clear. Unlike Nau, however, Esprit had other well established business through they were able to absorb the Ecollection's $1 million USD in research and development costs.

(At one juncture, in a strange twist, during 1997, Esprit even became the owner of a high grade outdoor apparel and sleeping bags maker - Moonstone Mountaineering.)

Afterwords
But ultimately the company chose not to pursue the Ecollection range further. These days the Ecollection project doesn't even rate a nod in Esprit's own history timeline.

Lynda Grose went on to become a high knowledgeable eco-consultant. She was the lead expert in helping Patagonia move their entire cotton production to organic. She is now an adjunct professor in California College of the Arts in San Francisco's Fashion Design Program, as well as being a founder of the Sustainable Cotton Project.

Yet she remains skeptical of eco-fashion, telling the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism:

"Green consumerism isn't that different from regular consumerism. Producing and selling more garments is part of the problem."

In another recent interview for Fair Companies, Lynda was asked if the apparel industry had, since the Ecollection days, adopted whole systems to manage environmental impact.

"Not really. Most of the action involves substitution of materials. This is only part of the picture. The whole lifecycle of the garment including consumer behaviour and consumption patterns offer opportunities for additional design strategies besides material substitution."

Requested to inform Fair Companies readers how they might dress more sustainably, Lynda responds with a list like one we did ages ago: "Wear your garments until they are truly at the end of their useful life. Wash them less and when you do, wash cold. ... Buy from thrift stores..." But she also says, "Watch for 'cyclical' systems from companies and support their efforts." The companies cited? Patagonia, and Nau.

NB: Fair Companies link updated: April 2009

Tags: Agriculture | California | Clothing | Consumerism | Cooperatives | Organic Agriculture

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