Apr 24, 2024
by Karl Smith
GANNI Isn’t a “Sustainable” Brand. So What Is It?
by Karl Smith
Apr 24, 2024

GANNI has long been a symbol of Scandinavian contemporary cool, paying homage to its Danish roots and folding them in with modern tropes, what that means exactly in aesthetic terms shifting and evolving since its founding in 2000 but more so than ever over the last 15 years of the Reffstrup’s tenure.

What hasn’t changed though – or what, if it has, has only gotten stronger – is the brand’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of Earth-friendlier design.

Now, first things first: GANNI is not a vegan brand – there is animal-derived leather (though no longer any sign of virgin materials) and wool on show across the breadth of its product offering. And yet, it’s fair to say that the Copenhagen has done more – and continues, perhaps, even to do the most – in terms of bringing new developments in sustainable fashion to a widespread audience than any other comparable brand. (Yes, Stella McCartney exists, and yes it has a not dissimilar approach – but it does so at the higher end of the fashion spectrum, with a significantly higher price point and, in many ways, a narrower reach.)

Not just focusing on the bare minimum of leather alternatives, in recent years GANNI has been busily pushing the limits of what’s possible when it comes to sustainability in fashion. To name only a few, the label has worked with Rubi Labs on a carbon-captured yarn, with Modern Synthesis and BioFluff on bacteria- and plant-based versions of its Bou Bag respectively, and with Ohoskin on boots and bags made from orange and cacti waste, acting as a springboard and spotlight for products and processes that other fashion outfits and the wider public have yet to even consider using.

“We don’t identify as a sustainable brand, because at its core fashion thrives on newness and consumption, which is a major contradiction to the concept of sustainability.” – Julie Verdich, GANNI Material Innovation Lead

And yet, according to Material Innovation Lead, Julie Verdich, GANNI is still shy about sharing in that spotlight – wary of self-mythologizing.

“We don’t identify as a sustainable brand, because at its core fashion thrives on newness and consumption, which is a major contradiction to the concept of sustainability,” Verdich explains, alluding to the prevalence of greenwashing in the industry and to a sense of self-awareness that many of the brand’s contemporaries seem to lack.

“Instead,” she says, “we are, and always have been, focused on becoming the most responsible version of ourselves. We’re not perfect but committed to making better choices every day, minimizing our social and environmental impact across the entire business.”

On the face of it, this could be misread or misinterpreted somewhat ungenerously – but this isn’t sustainable solipsism, it’s progressive realism. GANNI is focused on fixing the problems within, rather than without, because these changes are at least partially within the brand’s control. In Verdich’s somewhat humble approach, however, she sidesteps the fact that where leaders go, followers follow – that GANNI’s own measurable progress will set a new standard to be upheld.

In fact, GANNI has already swayed collaborators; last year’s New Balance collaboration saw the sportswear brand’s 1960R and RC30 sneakers released with a new look and a new sense of purpose. This was not the low-effort dual branding which has become customary for fashion and footwear collaborations in a cycle of never-ending, hype-driven footwear drops, but a full-scale transformation, remade not only without animal-derived materials but with only 100% recycled materials.

And, while New Balance has made some efforts recently in the Earth-friendlier department, it has repeatedly missed the mark when working alone. With GANNI, it seems, they have a steady hand to guide them.

They’re also not the only ones: with Dr. Martens it was a boot made from recycled plastics and without animal-derived leathers; with eyewear brand Ace & Tate, GANNI has pushed bio-acetate as an alternative to regular plastics; with Icelandic outerwear outfit 66°NORTH, there has been clothing crafted from deadstock materials and from Seaqual’s recycled ocean plastic.

All of these are imperfect partners – none, alone, seemingly the most aligned with GANNI’s Earth-friendlier vision. But, in a sense, this is what makes them ideal collaborators and what makes these collaborations more than an exercise in virtue signaling or vanity. Compare these joint efforts to previous releases by any of the label’s partner brands and it’s clear that the influence GANNI exerts to be and to do better really cannot be overstated.

So, yes, they may be focused on themselves over in Copenhagen, rather than trying anything so bold as to change the world, but doesn’t mean one won’t follow the other.

“The time to create change is now,” Verdich suggests, in what sounds like a bold, broad-strokes statement, but which – in the end – comes back to GANNI. “That’s why we are working towards an absolute 50% carbon reduction target by 2027, at a baseline of 2021.”

Again, though, carbon reduction is only part of the equation. The brand’s Fabrics of the Future initiative is an incubator for next-generation material innovators looking to impact (or to lower impact on) the planet in various different ways, whether that’s through regenerative farming, through waste reduction, or through the removal of harmful chemicals. Although, of course, emissions will always be a key element of any forward-thinking product or material.

“Our work with Fabrics of the Future began in 2019,” Verdich says, highlighting the fact that – at a time when next-gen materials were far from ubiquitous, barely even a part of the fashion industry conversation – GANNI was well ahead of the curve, doing more than just talking. “Through the initiative, we’re committed to researching and developing innovative materials to reduce our carbon footprint.”

“We are, and always have been, focused on becoming the most responsible version of ourselves. We’re not perfect but committed to making better choices every day, minimizing our social and environmental impact across the entire business.” – Julie Verdich, GANNI Material Innovation Lead

Of course, for a brand like GANNI – for any established brand – working with relative unknowns is something of a gamble; not so much in the sense that these materials might not hold up in the literal sense compared to more traditional fabrics, but in the sense that anything that changes a “what” could be seen as an attempt to change the “who,” and the label’s DNA is both what keeps its audience loyal and what keeps its audience growing.

“Our approach emphasizes a balance between innovation, seamless integration of responsibility principles, a deep understanding of product dynamics, and the ongoing evolution of iconic GANNI style,” Verdich says, asked about how you integrate change into a brand without changing the brand itself so much as to become unrecognizable.

The key, she explains, is to work with what they’ve built and make use of those foundations: rather than creating brand new products with brand new materials, giving something like the Bou Bag a next-generation facelift piques consumer interest and more effectively flexes the capabilities of these new materials; further proof that next-gen alternatives are able to do everything their higher-impact forebears could, but with the benefit of reduced harm to the environment.

“Our designers experiment with next-gen materials in a way that retains a sense of familiarity and creates an appetite from our community by working with icon styles of the brand,” Verdich agrees, “By updating iconic designs with new materials we maintain a connection to our brands heritage while introducing innovation into our collections. The goal is to not separate Fabrics of the Future from everything else we do.”

Still, while there are few reasonable critiques of GANNI’s ethos with regard to these initiatives, there are some questions raised on the logistical front; most notably, the question of scale.

Despite working with existing designs, the label’s most innovative creations – like the Bou Bag made with Modern Synthesis’ bacteria-based technology – are one-of-one prototypes, prompting queries about the actual impact of what could be described as more environmental art piece than fashion product.

But, while Verdich understands the criticisms, it’s clear that GANNI has a plan to put them to rest. More than anything, it’s a question of practicality: “With the release of a prototype we are testing what is possible product wise and whether the material is aligned with the GANNI DNA,” she says, “It’s also about testing market reactions and receiving feedback while at the same time working with the innovator on making the product feasible.”

This, then, is about the long game – and that makes sense. After all, while it’s true that time isn’t exactly on our side when it comes to the climate crisis, any real progress relies almost as heavily on consumers as it does on the brands and innovators they buy from. If a new product – even a next-generation product – is released at scale and rejected, then the impact of its production, regardless of how softened jt may be, simply cannot be worth it.

What’s left would be little more than a vanity project. That isn’t a good look for GANNI, and it isn’t good for the planet.

“We are genuinely invested in making these innovations work,” emphasizes Verdich, “We launch prototypes with long-term partnerships in mind and also commit to offtake material agreements with Fabrics of the Future partners,” she says, preemptively blunting another frequent criticism which follows forward-thinking brands and which effectively led to (or at least played a part in) the collapse of Swedish innovator Renewcell earlier this year. The issue of material and financial commitment – not just in principle, but in practice.

“Though each partnership looks different, depending on where the innovators are in regards to scalability and viability, a longterm relationship is key for us,” Verdich says, “Hopefully we can bring more of these products to our customers soon.”

But, for GANNI, it’s not just about bringing the products to market – it’s also about giving them the chance, the space, the freedom, to develop, to grow, and to innovate further. Fabrics of the Future isn’t just where finished next-gen products are sent to go on sale, but something like a nursery – an incubator initiative where the Danish label lends its expertise, its infrastructure, and, of course, its clout to those it thinks will use them wisely.

But it isn’t a one-way conversation and it isn’t all give on GANNI’s part. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

“Showcasing what next-gen material innovators and start-ups are capable of is so important – this is what allows them to grow and continue their work, and most importantly scale which the industry needs,” explains Verdich, keen to remind anyone who needs to hear it that growth is a process not something that just happens.

“Nurturing these relationships is very important for us, and the reality is we need each other to succeed and in order to have any success within our sustainability goals.”

So, while GANNI may not be a “sustainable brand,” or at least may not be keen to call itself one, the truth is it’s actually something much more important – more vital to the future of fashion. And, on that, its actions can do all the talking.