For eight years, tentree has forged a unique path in the world of sustainable fashion.  As the name (which is stylised with a lower case t) suggests, every product its customers buy leads to the planting of ten trees as a way of giving back to the planet and offsetting the impact of apparel production and consumption. 

At the same time, tentree has also set a high bar when it comes to using recycled and repurposed materials, assessing the impact of its manufacturing cycles (the company is a highly-ranked Certified B Corporation), and making clear, transparent information about the footprint of its products available to customers.

This month, The Interline spent some time with tentree Co-Founder Arthur Kononuk, discussing the different approaches that brands and retailers can take to becoming more sustainable, and how small changes stack up to create big results.

The Interline: To tackle the elephant in the room straight away, how has tentree been affected by COVID?

Arthur Kononuk: I think we’re in a similar position to a lot of other businesses: direct to consumer eCommerce has helped us survive the storm.  We are still a wholesale-oriented company, and that side of our business is down in a pretty drastic way, but eCommerce is also up drastically. 

I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect balancing of the scales just yet, but if anything having our sales shift so heavily over to online has really helped us to streamline the digital side of our business.  We’ve been able to really think about what a direct to consumer relationship means, without also having to juggle wholesale, so we’ll see what the future holds there.  More than likely we’re going to be putting fewer eggs in the wholesale basket, so to speak.

The Interline: And how about from a supply chain point of view?

Arthur Kononuk: We’ve been quite lucky, really.  There were a few delays earlier in the year with our fibre and fabric sourcing processes, but that only ended up being a couple of weeks.  And obviously you know that would be a huge amount of time in the fashion business in normal circumstances, but COVID has relaxed a lot of wholesale deadlines well.  Last year, if we’d been late by three weeks we’d have potentially lost our partnership with a store.  But today, if anything, retailers are sending product back to us because their physical sales are slow while our online sales are up, which is helping to prevent us running out of inventory for eCommerce.

The Interline: Let’s talk sustainability.  It seems to be a core belief at tentree that little changes add up over time to create a big positive impact, and that’s a timely message because a lot of brands and retailers see sustainability as just too big a subject to tackle in any meaningful way.  And that leads to inaction, or quite restricted action.

Arthur Kononuk: That’s what you might call perfection paralysis.  Some brands feel like sustainability is an all or nothing game: you’re either fully in, tying yourself to a tree, or you don’t care at all, so you either do sustainability to the extreme or you might as well not even start.  That’s a similar notion that some consumers have as well, because there’s this air of elitism around environmentalism that doesn’t seem welcoming to anyone who isn’t a “perfect” environmentalist.  And that’s a problem that sustainability advocates need to overcome, because it’s only going to put people off.  Neither of those two extremes is relatable to the average person.

At tentree, we try to find a balance and encourage people to realise that it’s ok to be imperfect.  There’s still so much work we can do, for example, and we’re far from perfect, but the important thing is that we’re striving to do better every day.  And that would be my message for the bigger brands who aren’t willing to make a change: it’s ok to start small and then keep making small changes for the better.

The Interline: Do you have any examples of where tentree has put that philosophy into practice?

Arthur Kononuk: When we first started we were more focused on our mission of planting trees than we were on creating sustainable products.  We actually began by using blank products – whatever was available – and it wasn’t until things started picking up, and we got underway with our own design, development, and prototyping, and sourcing our own materials, that we started to really learn about how bad the fashion industry is for the environment.

But we knew we couldn’t instantly jump to making 100% sustainable products, so we had to take things one step at a time, and make progressive improvements to the way our own products were made.  Even today we can’t make that claim top total sustainability.  I think something like 98% of our product line-up has some sustainability factor, from the thread to the tags, but there are certain elements such as zippers and buckles that there are currently no good, environmentally-sound options for.  We didn’t arrive here overnight, though, and that’s the reason that we, as a brand, like to say that big change starts small.

The Interline: We hear a lot about how shoppers are keen to buy from more ethical and environmentally-aware brands and retailers, but better sustainability credentials also seem to come with a price premium attached, and it feels like that’s destined to complicate the conversation around making little changes.  Take buying a car, which a member of our team did recently as an example: vegan leather upholstery is considered an “upgrade” for some automakers, and there are clear parallels there with apparel and footwear, where shopping with conscience often means paying more.

Arthur Kononuk: There are two parts to that.  First: vegan leather is actually horrible for the planet.  It’s polyurethane, which doesn’t decompose and isn’t currently given a second life, so even as a vegetarian or vegan, if I was given that choice I might prefer to buy a product made from real leather, because the alternative is actually worse for the environment.  I think the fashion industry needs to be clearer about what some of its “more sustainable” materials are made from, because shoppers might think differently about them if they knew the reality.

But equally, there isn’t always a choice, as a product designer, to use a more sustainable option.  So people need to look a little further than the immediate decision about what fabrics to use when they’re figuring out how to become more sustainable.

Take seriously high-performance products and synthetic materials for instance.  For a brand like Arcteryx, there may not be a way to get the same level of comfort, performance, and durability out of a non-synthetic materials.  But they’re approaching sustainability in a different way; yes their products are expensive, but they’re also very high quality.  So hopefully you’d buy one jacket from them and that’s all you’ll ever need, versus buying a three or four cheaper jackets – and disposing of them when they break – in the same timeframe.

I think those are the sorts of slightly more indirect choices that shoppers and brands need to make.  Perhaps, as a brand, I can’t use an organic material to improve the environmental impact of my product at the creation stage, but can I design it better, use longer-lasting construction methods and such?  Or as a consumer, maybe I don’t opt for vegan leather in my car upholstery, or my handbag, but I buy fewer and better-quality handbags, or I take my bike to work more often and drive my car less.  Sustainability isn’t always a binary decision you can make in the here and now.

The Interline: If you could give advice to any brand or retailer that is, today, staring down its internal processes and its supply chain, and wondering how to make a measurable start on becoming more sustainable, what would it be? Materials seem like the logical place to start, but perhaps that’s just because composition is the first thing people think of when they hear sustainability.

Arthur Kononuk: I think it’s going to come down to the level of complexity a brand has in their supply chain, and the logistics of making a change there or elsewhere in their product lifecycles.  Materials could be an easy option for some companies, because there’s a wealth of great options out there for certain types of products, but if you’re reliant on very technical materials, there aren’t a lot of alternatives to nylon, for example.

For a lot of brands the most sensible first step is to trial any changes with a capsule collection – launching something into the market that incorporates a different material, or that gives you an opportunity to improve their patternmaking to reduce waste, or where you can take a chance on using waste from another line to turn it into something new.

I’ve noticed quite a few brands are now going with a more androgynous aesthetic for either smaller collections or even their entire ranges, and that’s representative of a choice that you might not think of as being sustainability-driven, but by having one genderless style instead of two, you’re automatically generating less waste.

 The Interline: Whether we’re looking at materials or beyond them, every route to improving sustainability is going to rely on knowing, in detail, where and by whom your products are being made.  From that angle, supply chain visibility seems essential, so what’s tentree’s take on managing supplier relationships? What processes and technologies do you use to make sure that the environmental information you’re basing your claims on is accurate?

Arthur Kononuk: I think the key is defining what it actually means to partner with a manufacturer or another supply chain partner.  In today’s world – even before COVID – a lot of apparel manufacturing relationships are established at a distance, or through an agent.  Not a lot of people are actually going to their factories, shaking the hands of the people making their products, and actually seeing the product lines in action.

In our case that’s something we insist on.  We make it our mission to be one of the most sustainable lifestyle brands on the planet, so we have to walk the walk.  We visit our factories and conduct self-audits everywhere we can, and we also have detailed audits from third parties that supplement our own investigations.

But we also try to build stronger partnerships with our vendors by working to get them educated and aligned with our sustainability goals.  For a lot of manufacturers, it’s a very big plus when they find out that we plant ten tree for every item they make, because that principle then trickles down to the line worker.  So you have people doing the hands-on repetitive tasks, like sewing and assembly, but who know that their work is contributing to a greater good.

I don’t see a lot of value in that traditional, hands-off relationship where the brand creates and the manufacturer is just there as contract labour.  We want to build trust and have our suppliers share in our mission.  That, to me, is the key to building the sort of transparent, accountable, mutually beneficial partnerships you need to really gather meaningful data from your supply chain.

The Interline: And where do you see the handoff between those kinds of personal relationships and the data gathering side of things you mentioned? What investments have you made in technology to strengthen your ability to monitor or control your impact?

Arthur Kononuk: The part of the business I’m proudest of, technologically speaking, is actually our tree planting, which is much more advanced than you might think.

Every item of clothing tentree sells comes with a token that contains a code (which will be replaced by a QR code soon) that’s assigned to a parcel of ten trees, and the tracking and tracing between those two things is managed in a similar kind of way to a warehouse management solution or an inventory management platform.  It’s actually a homegrown solution that we developed, and while we started using it to manage the sheer volume of planting we were doing – which is past 45 million trees at this point, across multiple sites – for our own purposes, it’s also going to power the customer-facing side of things. 

With that code, the goal is that anyone who buys a tentree product will be able to see photographic proof of the fact that the ten trees their purchase funded have actually been planted.  We also hold a lot more data, like 3D maps of our planting sites, GPS plotting information, tracking information from field workers, and other accountability and transparency data that we’re planning to open up to customers as well.

I know that might sound weird, for an apparel company to have invested so much in technology that doesn’t directly serve their apparel business, but it should give you some idea of the scale of the opportunities that can exist if you look at sustainability in a broader way.

Our goal is to plant a billion trees by 2030, and investing in technology is a way for us to try and get there without having to sell a hundred million t-shirts, so we’re pursuing efficiency and sustainability in our own way.

The Interline: One of the looming challenges when it comes to supply chain visibility and transparency of the kind brands are going to need to make bigger strides towards sustainability is the prevalence of multi-tier supply chains and subcontracting.  It’s one thing to know your factories, and another to know your mills and trim suppliers, and the people who supply them.  How are you approaching that?

Arthur Kononuk: Right now I don’t know that there’s a good solution for that, but like a lot of things it’s been a staged approach for us.  When we started out with blank products we’d ask an agent to find the most sustainable suppliers they could.  When we began designing our own products, we went direct to factories ourselves and met the people involved.  But there’s still a middle point between those two approaches where, if we need to introduce a new category or find a new material, it’s typically through a third party that we find the right supplier to do that for us.  But we work hard to find a third party agent who cares, and whose values align with our own.

Even then, though, you need to work quickly to build trust.  You can never rely one hundred percent on information that’s being relayed through an intermediary.  So when it’s feasible to travel again, or tour a facility virtually, I’d encourage anyone with direct or indirect suppliers they don’t know first-hand to better connect with them.

The Interline: Finally, there have been a lot of column inches devoted to how attitudes to sustainability are going to evolve – or devolve – as a result of COVID.  Are ethical and environmental standards going to matter more or less in difficult economic times? What’s your perspective on that?

Arthur Kononuk: Obviously I’m super biased, but I think consumer power has been shifting towards sustainability for some time, and I don’t think COVID is going to change that trajectory. 

You’re already starting to see massive brands shifting their businesses in that direction, and in the near future the brands that aren’t actively focused on sustainability mandates simply won’t survive.  They may be able to live off customers who don’t care about the environment, or the wellbeing of people in the supply chain, but with the way the world is going the number of those people is getting smaller and smaller by the day.  Just look at the biggest trend in youth fashion right now: the second hand market.  Young people aren’t even buying new things – they’re going on DePop or Grailed or StockX instead.

We also have to realise that climate change is here to stay.  We’re reporting the highest temperatures on record here in the US, and we’re going to reach the stage where nobody can ignore the impact it’s having, and sustainability will become top of mind for everyone.

This year it’s totally understandable if brands need to put some of their initiatives on hold to save costs, or to keep the lights on, but as a long-term movement sustainable fashion is only getting bigger.

Consider this: when we first started out, trying to find organic cotton products was difficult.  We approached one of the biggest hat suppliers in the world – they probably make a billion hats a year – and they told us we were the first to request an organic cotton hat.  That was in 2012.  Today, anywhere you look, in any product category, you’re going to find organic cotton options.  That’s a lot of progress in not a lot of time.