Eddie Bauer: Green or Greenwashing

Is it green or greenwashing? This series looks at the sustainability practices of reader-nominated brands. For more details on the project and a bit about my background, the project page is here. This piece focuses on Eddie Bauer.

Before diving too deep into fabric choices, I just want to call out that Eddie Bauer is in a much different price range than the previous 3 companies in this series. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, outdoor recreation is expensive. Sustainable production is usually takes more time and effort, which both cost money in a business setting. Budget-constrained customers are often priced out of the most sustainable brands, but they still manage to have a smaller carbon footprint than wealthier peers. There isn’t a single innovation in the apparel industry that can offset the impact of overconsumption.

On the flip side, cheap prices tend to drive overconsumption from wealthier consumers who could afford to buy less and buy better, but would rather have more. Is Eddie Bauer sustainable? Even more than prior brands, it really depends on the customer, their finances, and their rate of wear.

I also think it’s unreasonable to expect Eddie Bauer to meet the same sustainability targets as Patagonia, who pay for upcharged materials (like recycled nylon) or supply chain auditing and accountability services (like with ROC organic cotton). So I’ll be comparing EB to their peers – folks like Columbia and REI Co-op. I’ll also compare them to brands like Target, Old Navy, Uniqlo, and Amazon Essentials. Ecommerce has allowed basics brands into outdoor lifestyle and entry level technical gear. Meanwhile, Eddie Bauer seems fairly lost as to the market they aim to serve and product they want to make for them.

With that, here’s how they stack up against my 5 main tenets of sustainability:

  1. They use more sustainable fiber types: recycled synthetics, closed-loop semi-synthetics, and regenerative natural fibers.

Eddie Bauer is very early in their sustainability journey. I’d say behind REI Co-op and Old Navy, on par with Target, Amazon Essentials, and Columbia.

Acrylic is still part of their assortment. Acrylic was the first and easiest fabric to cut out of my wardrobe when I started shopping with sustainability in mind. It’s mainly used in chunky knits like sweaters and beanies since it has good warmth for its weight, costs a lot less than wool, and is much easier to dye. But acrylic is also terrible. Up until recently, it was pretty much impossible to recycle. Today, 2 textile engineering firms offer recycled acrylic, but neither are on the market as finished garments. It pills and fuzzes easily. It doesn’t absorb or wick moisture, and the fibers don’t breathe, so it can get sweaty and clammy. It’s the official fabric of trendy sweaters and tacky Christmas sweaters that get warn maybe a handful of times before they hit the donation pile (where they’re never desired by thrifters and ultimately get trashed). Eddie Bauer has a lot of acrylic in their assortment compared to their peers. Uniqlo doesn’t use it at all. The rest have between 2-10 styles that use blended fabrics where acrylic is usually under 30%. Eddie Bauer offers a lot more acrylic styles with higher acrylic content. And when some of those styles include $20 socks, $40 beanies, or $189 gloves, they absolutely have the margins to use wool or a wool/recycled poly blend instead.

Recycled polyester is also behind their peers. Most polyester is virgin. The pieces with recycled materials Lyo have a virgin fiber as the primary fiber type; recycled is secondary. I’m especially surprised that the polar fleece and synthetic insulation in puffies is not recycled, since those are some of the most affordable swaps with plenty of vendor options.

Cotton is never organic, mainly due to the price point. REI Co-op and Gap both offer some items that would hit Eddie Bauer’s price range, but not with any sort of third party certification like GOTS or OCS. (If organic certs are new to you, see my last piece on Cotopaxi). The occasional piece has Cotton USA cotton. I poked around on their website for about a half hour and failed to find anything concrete about the program requirements or tangible results. Eddie Bauer also fails to educate the customer on what the certification means for customers.

Semi-synthetics are a mixed bag. Quick cliff notes: semi-synthetics (or MMCF – man-made cellulosic fabrics) are where trees get dissolved into cellulose, some chemistry happens, and then the mixture gets pumped into yarn. Sometimes, it’s harmful. Rayon and viscose use carbon disulfide in the “chemistry steps.” It’s not a closed loop system, and workers and their broader community have major health complications, as the chemical is a neurotoxin. However, other MMCFs are closed-loop where the chemicals can be reused (modal fabric). Some take it a step further, confirming that all wood inputs are harvested from sustainably managed forests (Tencel branded modal). And then Lyocell is the top of the bunch, as they replace carbon disulfide completely. Eddie Bauer gave be a big “ick” based on their corporate sustainability page. They have goaled themselves to use more rayon. Like, sure, it’s better for the earth than virgin synthetics, but your sustainability goals are trash if they excuse environmental racism and worker exploitation. Tencel and lyocell are small parts of their assortment.

They follow regulations on how to market green initiatives. They don’t rely on generalized, debatable terms like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable,” and instead use fact-based language that’s reflective of their actions.

Eddie Bauer looks pretty good from a legal perspective. It’s hard to mess up green marketing when you don’t have a ton of sustainable initiatives. There are only 2 things that that jump out to me: one, they call a cotton shirt “recyclable” (60% of customers have to be able to drop that in curbside recycling, or they have to add qualifiers and context). Two, they say that items with recycled content are a “recycled blend.” It isn’t super clear to the customer whether that means “2+ recycled fibers blended together” or “recycled blended with non-recycled.” And in the case of this sweater, they even call it a “recycled polyester blend,” even though most of the polyester in the garment is virgin. The FTC’s crystal clear that anything partly recycled needs percentages – and not just further down the page in the fabric content section.

Now, the FTC advises against general claims like “green” or “sustainable,” but they don’t take legal action on that front very often. This is where EB gets a little fast and loose with the term “sustainable.” They have a Sustainability Shop with no clear criterium on what’s included and what’s not. There’s some hemp, but not all hemp. There are some products with recycled materials. The bags that are 100% recycled are not included. There’s a 60/40 cotton-virgin poly blend shirt for no rhyme or reason. Guide Pants are included due to bluesign certified materials (they monitor chemicals, since the apparel industry uses and disposes of a ton of chemicals). They’re still a virgin nylon blend though. They include a lot of responsible down products, which is definitely a more ethical form of apparel production, but saying it’s a sustainability play feels like a stretch.

The same goes for their “lower impact materials” badging that they put on web pages. (Here’s an example). A – lower than what? The FTC Green Guides are very specific that if you’re going to make a comparison-based green claim, you have to be specific and you have to come to the table with substantiation. B – some of these items are a cotton-poly blend.

Eddie Bauer clearly lacks a sustainability strategy. They have a couple of random items that were offered up by vendors and made their way into the assortment at some point.

It’s a mistake to market a grand sustainability story at this point. They’re going to lose trust with customers. They’re sucking the wind out of their sails if they ever have something meaningful to bring to market in years to come. In that same vein, their competitors speak to their sustainability efforts with a little more self-effacement and self-awareness. Personally, I would’ve made sustainability a filtered experience until there’s a more robust strategy. Interested shoppers can find what they’re looking for, but the brand isn’t positioning it as a complete, impactful, effective campaign.

It would also be much smarter to have a multi-year, phased approach. Start with something easy like recycled polyester or BCI Cotton and task your vendors to re-source as many virgin synthetics as they can. Then drop acrylic and make new sweaters and hats with wool and/or recycled synthetics. Then start tasking vendors with following bluesign during the manufacturing processes. Every year, educate the customer on the meaningful step du jour. Patagonia wasn’t built in a day, and latecomer brands need to learn that brand reputation comes from actions, not from marketing.

Pieces are built for the long haul: not only are pieces physically durable, but they’re durable in the face of trend cycles. They’ll be relevant in your closet for years and capture strong resale value if they’re cycled out.

Aesthetically, sure, for most of their garments.

Physically, absolutely not.

My partner has 2 polyester tech flannels that are 10-12 years old. One is Columbia. It has a broken button and a 2-inch tear from a gnarly mountain bike crash that I repaired. The other is Eddie Bauer. It has roughly 10 holes from being washed and worn.

I also have an older fleece that doesn’t get a ton of wear – maybe 40-50 over its lifespan, mainly at home. A friend gave me a Better Sweater she purchased from Worn Wear. I’m the third owner, so while I’ve only worn in 5-6 times, I don’t know the full wear history. But the Better Sweater has significantly less pilling on the arms and along the cuff trim work.

I have a used flannel that’s held up okay, but the fabric is very thin, even compared to other entry price brands like the Amazon Goodthreads shirt in my partner’s closet.

There’s a reason Eddie Bauer’s used gear shop, ReAdventure, only lasted 4 months. No one wants to pay that much for used Eddie Bauer gear (at least not product from recent history). Secondhand gear is cheap and easy business to set up and collect revenue from, but getting meaningful profit out of that revenue stream is a whole different ballgame – especially if you give the customers the option for cash instead of store credit. There’s not much money to go around when pants go for $8-20. Shipping costs almost as much as the product.

They’re clear on how products are made and how to best dispose of them: transparency about the brand’s green claims builds trust with consumers.

Eddie Bauer has no end of life instructions or programs now that resale is deprecated.

They don’t play games with customer demand. Merchants have some tricks and gimmicks to manipulate customer demand: short term promotions, limited time offers, limited quantities and “a few units left” messaging. Sustainable brands give customers the time and space to decide whether they really want an item without creating pressure and mark down what’s left at the end of the season.

Eddie Bauer’s promotional strategy is maddening. They are constantly running sales. I checked 15-20 homepage versions in the Wayback Machine and every last one has sale messaging, varying from 30-60%.

In 2019, there was a class action lawsuit against Eddie Bauer over their promotions. They constantly ran sales on everything in their assortment. Sometimes products were 40% off. Sometimes they were 50% off. But they rarely – if ever – sold at full price. The plaintiff monitored sales in 2017. For 290 days, there was an “X% off everything message.” The other 75 days a year, over half of the assortment was on markdown. The FTC makes it very clear that that kind of sale strategy is not okay. But the lawsuit was removed from superior court because the plaintiff did not experience “injury” under the state definition. However, there is a similar case pending in Oregon for the same issue.

Our little lemming brains see “$30 cost” and “50% off of the $60 cost” very differently. We’re much more likely to buy in the latter scenario because we assume we’re getting the best value. And they would do countdowns telling you that you only had days or hours left to buy to create a sense of urgency, but then the price would just carry into the next sale event.

Eddie Bauer has pulled back from their “everything” promotions, but they’re still highly promotional. They have 543 items in their women’s assortment. 233 are on sale (43%). They also like to do multi-unit, “stock up and save” discounts, where you save a greater percentage the more units you buy. This is proven to prompt the customer to order more than they originally intended to.

The also add a lot of badging to signal customer interest. They tell you which items are “trending” and how many other customers have viewed a particular item. They conveniently never tell you the timeframe. They just want to send a signal that other people are attracted to the garment. “Are these pants cool? Clearly. 179 other people viewed it.” The “In Demand” badge has a subtle message of scarcity.

And not to detour too much into analyzing Eddie Bauer’s go-to-market strategy, but this high-low strategy doesn’t seem to be doing them any favors. Eddie Bauer revenue has hovered around $1 billion dollars per year since 2008, despite a huge surge in participation from outdoorsy millennials and an entire pandemic that bolstered outdoor hobbies. Brand searches in Google Trends have fallen significantly (wild to me that in the early to mid-2000s, they were larger than Patagonia).

Eddie Bauer needs to put some rigor around who they are, who they serve, and what they stand for – both regarding sustainability and their branding at large. Their $25 t-shirts and $1,500 expedition down suits sell to vastly different customers, and it seems like Eddie Bauer isn’t reaching either of them effectively. Likewise, they have many sustainability marketing stories at play at once, each only executed across a handful of items, which fails to make a big difference, both to the planet and to within customer perception.

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