Companies give 'sustainability' the 'big data' approach

Fashion designer Yael Aflalo found herself perplexed by the wastefulness and toxicity in the industry she called home. Companies were outsourcing work to countries with lax environmental regulations. Simple, mass-produced garments were using up exorbitant amounts of precious resources, especially water.

"Things just didn't make any sense," she said.

Yael Aflalo
Source: Celeste Sloman

In 2009, Aflalo made a go at her own fashion company — one that attempts to be fashionable in a sustainable way. But her firm tries to make "sustainability" more than a marketing buzzword. Reformation, which has become popular with younger, green-minded crowds, does something more than just offer environmentally conscious clothing. It actually quantifies for consumers the environmental impact of each piece of clothing sold by the California-based company.

"It gives us the opportunity to be honest," she said. For each item it sells, Reformation will calculate certain environmental trackers, like the carbon footprint used in production, and compare it to an industry average. The company calls it the RefScale. See an example below.

"It's tricky to call yourself a 'sustainable' company because, of course, not everything is perfect. This is a way to track what we are doing and how we can get better," Aflalo said.

In effect, the company gives consumers a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the green label. Increasingly, Reformation is not alone. As younger consumers become more brand-conscious, companies are looking for ways to harness more that sustainability brand power. Quantifying that sustainability is one way to do it.

Craig Elimeliah, director of creative technology at marketing firm VML, said customers appreciate the information.

"Consumers are now expecting more from the brands they have an affinity for and show loyalty to," he said. Companies are benefiting from the transparency, he added, "and it's a new proxy for genuine and authentic customer engagement."

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But does it contribute to a company's bottom line? Elimeliah is sure it does. "Customers stay loyal and keep buying products," he said. "They keep the brand top of mind and align themselves with it from a lifestyle and ethos standpoint."

With the issue of climate change in the headlines, some brands are trying to show their own contributions to a larger, international story. This week in Paris, the United Nation's climate change agency led international negotiations on global warming. Last week, OPEC members met to discuss possible cuts to oil production amid an oversupplied global market. Meanwhile, the price of solar energy has plummeted dramatically in the last few years, prompting new residential and commercial solar projects across the globe.

Tracking waste in event planning

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One industry that is plagued by wastefulness is the event planning industry, according to Brendan Doherty. He left the public sector about two years ago and co-founded an event production company with industry veteran Andy King. Their company, Inward Point, incorporates sustainability data into planning and marketing for clients.

"Andy and I started with the idea that the event industry is broken," Doherty said. "Most people look at events as one-off occurrences; they discount them from their broader story."

Many top brands understand the value of being seen as environmentally responsible, he said. But events are planned without that in mind — a lot of waste is generated, and companies pay little attention to it.

Inward Point tracks the environmental effect of events it plans, down to the most minute detail. For example, the company gives its clients a list of waste statistics, broken down into the sources of waste by material, and how exactly they were disposed of. Then the client is presented with data how their waste generation compares to industry averages. "We measure the impact of our events from social and environmental perspectives — it's a big data approach," Doherty said.

The idea is that clients will use that data to tell a deeper story about their brands, and to make them more appealing to a younger, more socially aware generation of buyers.

"Millennials ... love to shop, want responsible consumption and have trust in brands," Doherty said. "All of these businesses are having bigger influences on groups of people, and that's what we are trying to cultivate."

Inward Point intentionally chooses its partners for quality and environmental/social impact like Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse -- a sustainable, family-owned farm less than 50 miles from the event, who provided grass-fed cheeses and seedlings for Ecos' new employee garden.
Source: Ethan Covey | Inward Point

The big data approach to sustainability was one of the reasons why Earth Friendly Products decided to produce an opening ceremony with Inward Point. The maker of green cleaning product line Ecos worked with the firm to celebrate its latest factory opening in New Jersey last year.

"They gave us a very detailed waste report," CEO Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks told CNBC. "They represented our brand the way we want to be seen by the outside community."

Inward Point planned the event for about 135 people at the new plant. Vlahakis-Hanks said that everything was locally sourced and more than 80 percent of the leftover waste was diverted from a landfill to composting.

"Out of 135 people there, only 16.6 pounds of trash was generated," she said. "That really goes hand in hand with our own zero-waste guidelines."

The AP contributed to this report.