We and the environment are so not friends

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Hey thanks for the prize Paytrail and everyone who voted for us! So, we won the public vote for Verkkokaupan Ympäristöystävä, something like Webstore Friend of the Environment. And we promised in advance that should we win, we would say a few words about the whole thing.

We would like to be friends with the environment, for sure, but at the moment we are shitty friends. And because we don’t like to be blamed for virtue-signaling and moral grandstanding, we chose to use the opportunity to discuss our, and the whole industry’s problems.

Why are we not friends with the environment?

Varusteleka is a company that produces new items, mostly clothes, and sells them through a webstore. That is a pretty challenging starting point for becoming friends with the environment. The clothing industry is responsible for more emissions globally than all plane and ship freight combined. In addition, we use airplanes to deliver goods around the world. The air freight alone caused 900 tons of CO2e emissions, the vast majority of our calculated emissions so far.

Our business is completely dependent on the use of natural resources. Our emissions will inevitably rise as our production volumes increase and the company grows. At the moment, the production of raw materials and freight are powered with non-renewable energy. Especially our plans to conquer America depend on air freight at least for the time being, until it makes sense moneywise to establish a warehouse in the US of A.

A part of the problem is our unawareness of how much we actually emit and where that takes place in the supply chain. We have managed to make a good start in figuring that out and we have also immediately compensated all calculated emissions. Compensation surely is a good band-aid, but it would be better to stop releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere altogether.

Being environmentally friendly is more than just minimizing carbon emissions. We should also be able to take into account the ecosystems affected by our supply chain and well, avoid destroying them. Biodiversity and the health of aquatic ecosystems are valuable as such, but also weapons in the battle against climate change.

Like pretty much everyone in the clothing industry, we also don't have the full data on every material we use. We don't have a clue where some of our raw materials come from and how they are processed, what kind of energy is used at the production facilities, what chemicals are needed, and where the wastewater ends up. We also don't know what lush jungles have been cut down to make room for the cotton and merino sheep we need.

The list of related issues is long and people smarter than us have written books about it, so we will leave it at that.

How we are trying to be better buddies?

Although the work has only begun, we have taken some steps to improve the situation. One environmental issue related to the online sale of clothes is webshop returns. It means unnecessary transportation back and forth and includes a risk of the product not being in condition to be resold when it finally gets back to the sender. Here we can proudly say that we have succeeded in our operations, since we have a very low return rate. Our own brands have a return rate of 3.6% while the biggest fast fashion stores have rates reaching 40-50%. Our numbers are very low also in comparison with the national average: in Finland, a third of all clothing purchases made online are returned.

Some of this success can be explained by the difference in the consumption habits of our customers and the mainstream consumers. We would like to attribute a part of that success also to our honest product descriptions and informative sizing tables. It is also worth mentioning that should we get returns that are in abominable condition, we have the pit "Tunkio" in our store, where someone will buy that gear anyway because of the nicely reduced price.

In order to avoid our products ending up as waste when they are no longer being used, we have created a circular economy system called Kierto. It is brilliant, but we have one major problem: people aren't returning enough clothes to create a massive impact at this point. In addition, we have begun to replace the virgin materials in our products with recycled and less destructive materials. We also hired an unsustainability coordinator, so all this work would not be done only when somebody has the time.

Why isn't this enough?

Our Operation Unethicalness 2019-2021 has largely consisted of reconnaissance. In the next phase of the operation, we are planning to:

  • Set emission reduction targets and minimize our carbon footprint
  • Continue compensating and calculate our emissions more accurately
  • Continue improving our material efficiency and increase the share of environmentally preferred materials
  • Further advance circular economy. Our customers can help us with this by returning all unnecessary Kierto-labeled items

The plans for the operation are underway, and we will definitely tell more about it soon.

Research takes resources and making changes takes time. Luckily at the same time, the rest of the society keeps developing as well, and environmentally-friendly options are becoming more common and cheaper.

To be frank, our chances to make a huge change in the production chain are small in comparison to multinational megacorporations. That’s why we need to grow and rule the world. On the other hand, we also need to come up with some more out-of-the-box solutions in the form of, say, circular economy. Because if we just make tiny adjustments here and there and otherwise continue business- as usual, the environmental disaster will continue.

These problems are, unfortunately, irksome in the way that they are unsolvable by conscious consumers, nice companies, or governments alone, but we need all. If we do not stop buying unnecessary shit, it doesn't matter whether it has been produced sustainably or not. And if we don't stop selling unnecessary shit, somebody will buy it anyway.

The biggest factor contributing to us ever achieving the point of calling our operations responsible, are our clients. You folks appreciate durable gear made for heavy use. Luckily for us, the durability requirements for our gear are dictated by the intended use. Our stuff simply cannot disintegrate in the first wash. Also thanks to everybody who isn't asking for brand new fashionable patterns and models every year. Our latest fashion cycle began in 2016 when the Finnish armed forces allowed us to adopt the M05. The clothing styles we sell remain identical year after year. You only ever need to update your wardrobe if your own size has evolved or the garment is so well worn, it is beyond repair.

Responsibility and sustainability are things that should be on every company’s agenda. Based on the marketing statements, almost everyone has become tree-hugging hippies in the last couple of years. We got rewarded for our eco-friendliness (or for our promises to deliver a no-bullsit acceptance speech), but it would be a shame if the bar was set to the level we have reached in our work now. Because this is still very far from being friendly. We would thereby suggest that everyone else also stops talking crap. Once we honestly see the situation for what it is, we can move on and do something about it.