Volcom's Ryan Immegart, Derek Sabori and Big Tony are a bit of a dream team. Collectively, the trio have been a part of the company for more than two decades and have seen the growth and evolution of what started as a small counter-culture movement in the early '90s.
Today, Volcom is owned by powerful parent company Kering, but still hasn't lost its initial drive to be a progressive "thought-starter" in the space.
For 2018, the brand is rolling out its New Future Alliance program, which combines all of the sustainable business practices that Volcom has been passionate about since day one, says Chief Marketing Officer Ryan Immegart. "These ideas have become ingrained in the philosophy of the brand. We believe this is what the future is all about – making responsible decisions."
Last year, Volcom became fully accredited by the Fair Labor Association (only a few other companies in adventure sports and outdoors have accomplished this status.) Beyond this, they have been working on a new documentary, "Farm to Yarn," launching in January 2019, about their seed-to-material organic cotton program.
As part of this initiative, Volcom's Global VP of Supply Chain and Compliance Big Tony traveled to India where the company has helped support the growth and distribution of nearly 30 tons of certified organic cotton. In order to do this, Volcom worked with Kering and Cotton Connect to support a farmer business school and gender training program, which helps empowers the labor force – especially the role of women growers – who are out in the fields doing this work for a living.
"It's about helping them learn the best business principles to be smart, and then also teaching them basic life skills that we might take for granted here," Big Tony says.
Speaking of empowerment, Volcom women's is also turning its attention to being more inclusive with its just-launched Every Body campaign, which will offer plus sizes for nearly 90% of the women's collection by early next year, according to Immegart.
New Future Alliance is a way for Volcom to link all of these stories together, to help convey the internal company message they've been building for years, and now leverage it on a larger scale; Volcom is committed to a "new future where our oceans are strong, our climate is stable and we live in a smart and mindful society."
We caught up with Immegart, Big Tony and Sustainability Advisor Sabori to hear the details behind New Future and how it has and will continue to shape Volcom’s strategy.
From a marketing standpoint, Volcom has been working on social and environmental responsibility for many years. Why is now the appropriate time to tell this story?
Immegart: Like you said, we've been working on this program for years. And, so has the apparel/fashion industry as a whole. Sustainable Fashion is no longer a sideline project – there are amazing advancements developing and a critical mass, it seems, of people discussing it, learning about it, and even requesting it. Our customers are eager to support the products and it just felt like there was a tipping point. The Fair Labor Association accreditation really gave things a nudge as well.
In many ways, what you are doing with the New Future Alliance has been part of Volcom’s internal business strategy since the beginning. Can you speak to how this program started under your guidance and how it’s evolved to where it’s at today with New Future Alliance’s many facets?
Sabori: Rewinding a bit, the team at Volcom started dabbling in more sustainable fibers back in 2005-2006 with the creation and launch of what we then called the Volcom Verde line featuring some hemp, recycled PET and organic cotton items. That eventually went on to become the V.Co-logical Series, but I was so intrigued and inspired by it, that I knew it's where I wanted my career to go. From those days, we've never looked back. We formed an internal V.Co-logical Society, getting employees motivated and informed and that led to my eventual role as the VP of Global Sustainability. Meanwhile, during those same years, Big Tony was working on the Social and Compliance side of things and developing what has become the P.A.S.S. department (Product And Social Safety). Neither of us have had any real downtime – it's been a constant push forward ever since.
In addition to the leadership team at Volcom, much credit, I believe, goes to the Sustainability Team at Kering. I officially started my role as head of sustainability in 2009 and was for sure challenged with the idea that sustainability in Volcom products was going to take more than some Earth Day events and recycling bins in the breakroom; it was about the products and the global supply chain. In walked Kering's support team – our first assigned sustainability point person was Dr. Helen Crowley, who was at the time, Kering's Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity expert; that says something, right!?
We immediately jumped on board to set ambitious sustainability goals and began the process of learning how to measure and account for our impacts all the way through the entirety of our supply chain thanks to the innovative Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L). The EP&L is a form of natural capital accounting that would measure our impact across each tier (back to the raw materials) in terms of GHG Emissions, Other Emissions, Water Use, Water Pollution, Waste and Land Use. It was a game changer for us, helping us to zero in on an effective roadmap for making better, more sustainable products over time.
Each season, the New Future concept – which is the umbrella for all things sustainability, social, compliance and giveback – becomes more and more a part of the conversation. It just keeps snowballing with more products, more departments, more employees on board. It's been so fun to watch.
As part of the New Future Alliance, you are bringing to the forefront your Environmental Profit & Loss (EP & L) system and the HIGG Index. How are you vocalizing this involvement to the Volcom community?
Immegart: One of Volcom's core sustainability pillars is Impact Evaluation, and the Higg Index plays a role there. In fact, we've been completing a self-assessment on the Higg Index for years now. It's been a great supplement to the Environmental Profit & Loss report that we've completed with Kering. We would love to see more industry brands using the Higg Index, and on the manufacturing side, we're working to have more and more of our factories & suppliers do the same.
The Higg Index is such a valuable tool that not only acts as a temperature gauge for how you're doing in regards to social/environmental impacts, but it's also a brilliant roadmap. The better our score, the lower our impact on people and planet. We'll share this message with our customers. If/when the time comes that the Higg Index scores can be used for consumer facing messaging, we'll be glad to consider it for sure.
From your perspective, why is seed-to-source so important to Volcom?
Big Tony: Seed-to-source, or Farm to Yarn as we're calling, allows us to have full traceability into the organic cotton, from the seed purchase and the GMO testing, to the farmer, to the ginner, and eventually the spinner and fabric knitter. This program is unraveling the supply chain and giving us clear insights each step of the way, helping to create assurance and product integrity.
Additionally, there's the seed quality to consider. Seeds play a significant role in the quality of the cotton yielded at harvest time. True to the type of staple we are growing, the purity of the seeds ensures there's little if any contamination from other seed types. In the end, it ensures the clarity of the cotton and the best appearance of the garments overall.
You’ve connected the dots beyond the product to that human element, by putting in place programs for the workers who are producing this cotton. Can you talk for a minute about what that process has been like and why you think it deserves to be elevated and implemented across the board in the apparel industry?
Big Tony: It's been a humbling, eye-opening and life-changing experience. We're proud to be a part of a program like this that allows us to support organic farming training, farmer business school support and a gender roles/empowerment program for the farming communities. Visiting the farmers, interacting with the women (who do most of the cotton picking) and getting a glimpse into their daily lives was such an opportunity. Knowing that we're able to – even if in a relatively small way – support the hard work they do, which essentially goes unnoticed, and advance their well-being is very, very rewarding.
Most of us brands are not geared to work this way because it's no easy task. It's easier to order your finished items from a "vendor" or an "agent" and then let them handle the rest. Business this way, however, covers up much of the human experience that's going on behind the curtain.
We'd love to see more and more brands working directly in as many parts of their supply chain as possible, monitoring/auditing the conditions, setting/enforcing standards – looking out for the humans that are behind every stage of the products that we all love. We've been doing this at the sewing factory level for years – it feels so good to be able to take this even further back into the supply chain. We'd challenge the rest of our competitors (if you haven't already) to do the same. Hit us up if you have any questions or want some more insights into what we've done. We're more than happy to share our experience.
You also recently rolled out the Every Body campaign. Can you speak to why this initiative is so important to Volcom’s core values?
Immegart:From Volcom's perspective, offering inclusive sizing was long overdue not only for women but for men as well. From an anthropological perspective it's irrational for us to not cater our products to people of all shapes and sizes – just by looking around any public gathering, our thesis was proven. Therefore, for us to preserve our core values and embody our brand mantra of 'True To This,' we had to start offering a broader size and fit assortment. The 'Volcom For Every Body' campaign was the creative output of this strategic decision and although the messaging is currently focused on women, we are starting to extend our offering for men as well. For example, we now offer our most popular chino pant and short, the 'Frickin Modern Stretch,' in up to a 46" waist as well as a 30, 32 and 34" inseam in the pant.
What was the most eye-opening or surprising thing that you encountered on your travels in India making the “Farm to Yarn” documentary that is launching next year?
Big TonyThere was so much, but I was humbled by the work days of some of the women there, who wake up every day at 4 a.m., and walk almost 10 miles to/from their workplace. Working in remote conditions, picking the cotton for the goods we make, taking care of their livestock and their families, and always looking forward to their end goal of having their own farm, saving money, or even being a police officer! You're out in these fields and you'll see some of the most beautiful colors you've ever seen – not from the crops and environment, but from the textiles. Wait until you see the beautiful, vibrant colors found in the saris the women wear while training and working.
It was a real honor to connect with the farming community in the region we sourced from; it sounds so cliche, but there are truly so many things we take for granted here. We have a great opportunity to make lasting change in people's lives; this is fast becoming one of my personal missions. Being a part of something that has direct impact on human beings is for me, one of the most rewarding things of my career and the fact that Volcom is spearheading this in our industry makes it that much more fulfilling for us all.
What are some of the more innovative sustainable fabrics you are using, aside from seed-to-source organic cotton? How did you select them to be a part of Volcom’s production arsenal and how much time and resources went into this sourcing process?
Big Tony: When it comes to fabrics, about 90% of our products come from either cotton or polyester fibers – so, innovation aside, it's important for us to focus on sustainability in regards to those two fibers, specifically. Hence, the emphasis on organic and recycled. Farm to yarn, like you said, is innovative in itself, and Repreve offers us a traceable, verified and certified source for recycled PET (polyester), while the use of Econyl in our swim line lets us feature fabrics made from fibers that contain upcycled fishing nets.
We're putting emphasis on lowering our water footprint in our denim line, which we will launch in July 2019 and in our women's swim line. On the denim side, we are using an innovative technique that uses little to almost no water and significantly cuts down our energy consumption. The swim line features a digitally printed collection that allows us to skip the wet dye, rinse/print process.
You'll also find the use of Teflon's EcoElite in the line, an award winning non-fluorinated water-repellent finish. It's plant based, certified USDA bio-based, and approved by bluesign. It's a safe alternative to the perfluorinated chemistry alternatives that are available on the market. Want to learn more about this? Check out the Footprints in the Snow report that Greenpeace did. It offers some insightful guidance.
For anyone looking to make a difference, how can they get more closely involved in making a change in the apparel industry and its impact on our environment?
SaboriTake my class and listen to my podcast. Shameless plug, but I'm serious. I'm developing and teaching a sustainable fashion certificate program at Orange Coast College that will consist of 3 courses. We'll tackle the environment, ethics, law, compliance, the supply chain and social impacts, among other topics. The first class kicks off this fall, and they'll roll out from there.
Additionally, I'm trying to share all of what I learn on The Underswell and have had the very fun opportunity to interview like-minded entrepreneurs, change agents and brand builders who are committed to this journey, too. Lots of insight over there. Regardless, whether it's my channels, or a publication like ECOTEXTILE, or a movie like The True Cost, just dive in and educate yourself.
Lastly, get inspired, then go inspire someone else – that's the jam, and that's how it works.
When it comes to being better stewards, from a company perspective, what is one piece of advice or knowledge that you’d impart from your years of experience?
Sabori: For one – if you're in a leadership position, and you're reading this, get on board. We need you. Without full support from the company's leadership team (from the very top, and across all departments) you're asking for a program that will either fail, or stay stagnant at best. Sustainability and social impact require a real commitment and ongoing financial and emotional support from the top.
Also, from a company perspective, realize that it's your products' raw materials that carry the biggest burden of your environmental footprint. Upwards of 65 to 70 percent of your impacts are coming from your raw materials and how they're processed. So that's what you want to tackle.
And don't be afraid to start small.
More TransWorld Business Content: