In 2019, a whole slew of brands that had never demonstrated much prior interest in sustainability suddenly launched campaigns aimed at convincing customers that they were the most eco-friendly choice out there. Executives who had previously focused solely on their bottom line gave quotes to reporters about zero-waste ambitions and fast fashion brands claimed that sustainability was at the heart of their company vision.
Against the backdrop of this race to the top of the sustainability mountain, Brendon Babenzien's oft-repeated claim that his brand Noah is "not a sustainable company" is striking.
"Being in business and being sustainable is not a real thing," Babenzien said recently in an interview in Soho, New York. "[But] we can do a lot better than we're doing now."
It's not that Babenzien, who was the creative director of Supreme before he founded Noah, is flippant about the environmental impact of making clothing. If he was, Noah wouldn't likely have created tees made from recycled yarn, been honest about the struggles of finding environmentally friendly packaging that doesn't "suck" and used its platform to raise funds for environmental non-profits.
But Babenzien doesn't want to pass any illusions on to customers that all these initiatives, which he's genuinely proud of, mean that Noah has no environmental footprint. The attitude feels a bit reminiscent of the one that led Patagonia to print its legendary "Don't buy this jacket" ad — it's rooted in the complexities of running a business in a world that ultimately needs consumption to slow.
In Babenzien's mind, fixing fashion's ills has less to do with shutting the whole industry down than it does with changing the paradigm of how businesses are run.
"We're less about a single sense of sustainability than we are more about responsible business practices. That gives us the possibility to go out into social issues as well and helping people," he says. "We have to change the way we view success. Maybe making tons of money in the wrong way isn't cool."
Fashionista sat down with Babenzien and Noah's COO Beau Wollens in Noah's Soho New York flagship to talk sustainability, the changing nature of streetwear and giving away money to people who deserve it. Read on for some of the highlights of our conversation.
You talked recently on the Relentless podcast about how a boss you had in the '80s, in combination with the book "State of the World," shaped the way you view your environmental impact. How has that affected Noah's ethos?
Babenzien: My boss from back then was just so ahead of the curve. He'd send emails to Quicksilver and all these surf brands saying, 'What are you guys doing? These are terrible choices. And as surfers, guys who care about the environment, you should know this.'
What I find happening now is these people trying to get all these "gotcha" moments. 'Yes, you're making a recycled cotton tee, but you're shipping it all around the world. You're terrible!' But we've spent hundreds of years creating this consumer society we now live in and it's going to take a long time to unravel that. If a small business can do anything at all to make some change, that's a good thing.
You've worked in streetwear for 27 years. Were there things you witnessed in that time that inspired you to be transparent when it came to your own brand?
Babenzien: I was reactionary to consumer behavior as a whole. It was more of me witnessing and recognizing how we were as consumers in its totality.
What people call 'streetwear' — I don't really think of it like that because I came in prior to that term ever existing. With the early days of Supreme, nobody ever used the word. It was just clothes and a skate shop. Once the term "streetwear" came into play, that's when I turned off. It went against the entire ethos of youth. The youth were supposed to be rebellious and the ones calling out things about consumerism and what's wrong with the world. When you become a full-fledged consumer, you are no longer in the space of rebellion.
So, when the youth started accepting this thing of 'my clothes define me,' or 'I'm part of this culture of collecting,' I was like, this is not for me. It just isn't my world.
It must be heartbreaking though to see that switch in dynamics.
Babenzien: If you're younger, you never knew any different; "streetwear" is how it was introduced to you. But if you're older like me, you remember when that wasn't the case. It's hard. But there are still young people on the outside making better and smarter choices. That's where we come in. We're hitting the reset button and starting over.
The Noah Community Field Team that you highlight on the brand's blog is a great way of showcasing the people who wear your stuff, streetwear buffs or no. How did that come about?
Wollens: It was rooted in trying to break the cycle of how people envisioned the Noah customer. We were tired of being put in this box of streetwear or this 'hype' world.
Babenzien: We do get lumped into this conversation about streetwear and it's incredibly limiting. We have friends who are farmers, fishermen, surfers and runners and they like to wear Noah. So we wanted to show people it's not really "fashion." We want people to have a broader scope.
You've also done many partnerships with non-profits. Talk to me about the Billion Oyster Project specifically, which is focused on creating healthy underwater ecosystems in the New York Harbor through reviving oyster reefs. What made it so special to you?
Wollens: There were several articles written about them and we had been sending them to each other like 'Wouldn't this have been cool to work on something with?' But nothing really materialized until [we thought about] the Oysterman graphic that was already in our line.
We had created it as a symbol of Northeast fisherman culture. There was an afterthought that we should highlight this amazing organization, which is how the majority of the give back components of Noah happen. It's always organic.
Babenzien: Things happen naturally, or they’re reactionary. We know people are going to need some help. We do the best we can and make a T-shirt, then donate the money to whoever is going to help those people.
Is having a hub where people send their organizations and you review them something you're working towards building in the future?
Wollens: We recently joined One Percent for the Planet. When you join, the idea is that you're pledging to give 10% of your net profits or 1% percent of your annual revenue to organizations within their network. We need initiatives to fill that quota. Some of the things we do fall outside of One Percent for the Planet, so we actually donate even more.
Babenzien: These things occur naturally for us because it was built into the DNA of our business. The idea was that no matter what, we're always going to try to do some good things.
When Noah makes collaborations in which you donate 100% of the proceeds to a cause, do you have to make more pieces of other collections to balance out the financial loss?
Babenzien: We don't think like that. Those pieces operate independently. Some people might buy pieces from those collections who have never bought from us before and might look into us and become valued customers.
For 2020, are you going to stay small intentionally?
Babenzien: I like being a small business, but I also recognize the downsides. The bigger you get, the more power you have, the more you can do. We're so small now that there's nowhere to go but up. The bigger we get, the more we can do — and that’s a real positive.