Coach has unveiled a major sustainability initiative with the launch of Coachtopia, a new Gen Z-focused product strand debuting Thursday in North America and the UK, and arriving in Asia later this year.
So what is Coachtopia? At its most basic level, it’s a youth-focused bags line priced a little below the regular Coach offer that makes the most of waste materials… luxury from scraps!
On a more complicated level, it means the Tapestry-owned brand has completely re-thought the product process. Covetable new bags (and other items) are made from the leftover materials that usually go straight to landfill, those offcuts, zipper ends and the like that were previously seen as unusable.
And it’s been making sure that representatives of the ultimate end customer have been heavily involved at all stages.
The company sums this up saying it’s a “new world of circular craft. Powered by community, building towards a better future for our planet”.
Essentially, Coachtopia “reimagines the product lifecycle from end to beginning — reducing the creation of new materials by crafting with waste and designing products that can be reimagined, remade and recycled to live multiple lives. In so doing, it is working to create beautiful things that have a significantly reduced impact on the planet compared to conventional luxury products”.
It really does represent a whole new way of thinking for Coach from design to production and even pricing. But it’s just a beginning.
Joon Silverstein, the company’s SVP of Global Marketing and Sustainability, and Head of Coachtopia, talked Fashionnetwork.com through the launch at the label’s Regent Street, London flagship.
She said it’s been “created as a discovery lab to accelerate our transition to a circular economy. We’re really rethinking the product life cycle from end to end. Creating beautiful new things from waste, designing to re-make at scale and ultimately working towards a closed loop system.
“We know we can’t create our circular future alone. So we’re building Coachtopia as an inclusive community of designers, thinkers, makers, and consumers. We’ve had a Gen Z community working with us that’s now 120-strong.”
It’s been a 20-month project so far that has seen the company revising its thinking along the way as it has come up against stumbling blocks and discovered new possibilities.
And the fundamental point about it is the very different approach it has required.
For instance, Silverstein said: “We’re designing for multiple lives. Typical luxury craftsmanship makes circularity very hard. An example is that in traditional luxury leathergoods, the back of the hardware is always invisible. It’s generally sandwiched between the shell and the lining because that’s what looks ‘refined’. But when that hardware or the handle needs to be replaced or repaired, we have to take apart the entire bag. And so in Coachtopia, all of our hardware screws back and the backs are exposed. So it’s more easy disassembled and remade.”
But will this go down well with luxury shoppers? Silverstein thinks it will: “We’ve found that Gen Z have a very different mindset, older generations, typically, would tell us that ‘we’re okay if you make it sustainable as long as we can’t see the difference. Make it invisible’. Gen Z tell us ‘we want to see the difference’.
“So all of the construction, including our binding, allows things to be taken apart more easily without damage. We’re really thinking about not just how a product will be used in a single life, but about when a product comes back to us. Products need to be more easily disassembled to create circular pathways, and to ultimately create a pathway back into new products.”
Another point of difference is pricing. We’ve all become used to the ‘sustainability price premium’ as creating products sustainably can drive costs skywards.
Silverstein said that Coachtopia prices are pitched below those of regular Coach products and the company is “really focused on breaking the trade-off that Gen Z consumers have today” between what they want to buy and what’s affordable. “We don’t want products to be more expensive because they’re sustainable,” she insisted.
And of course, a big change comes in the way the company thinks about the design process. Essentially, designing products using scraps can’t be approached in the regular way.
“We have to design backwards,” she said. “In the traditional world we design forward, we envision the perfect products, we go out and make those products. Today, we can’t do that. We start from the problem we’re trying to solve, which in this case is cutting room floor scraps. And we use creativity to transform what already exists. We tried to apply existing modes of working on the scraps, which didn’t work.”
She explained that we now “experiment and prototype. One example is this bag with zippers, if you think about when you purchase zippers they come on a huge role and then at the end there’s always a tiny piece that’s not big enough. We’re taking the scraps and turning them into bags”.
The result is bags in chequerboard patterns, with contrast colour fringing, with Coach’s signature flower appliqués, and yes, with decorative zipper trims.
There’s even a bag that uses the tiniest scraps from scraps. “This unique pressed leather is made from scraps that are too small to use elsewhere,” Silverstein explained. “We’ve innovated a way to press them into a really unique material”.
At its core, it’s all about “pioneering a better fashion system, tackling the fundamental problem of fashion that’s built as a linear system where we extract natural resources from the earth, use energy, water and chemicals, and the majority ends up in landfill”.
Silverstein quoted figures that say almost 40% of fashion’s impact is from the creation of new virgin materials and that this is “a big priority for us to tackle”.
She added: “We’re already reaching the limits of this system. The Global Footprint Network estimates that if we maintain our current rate of resource extraction and waste generation we would need 1.8 planet earths.”
She had a host of other disturbing figures about humans’ impact on the planet relating to the products we make, consume and discard.
So it’s no surprise that the target consumer for Coachtopia is also a scared consumer. Silverstein said that Gen Z are “anxious about the future…. 50% say humanity is doomed. They feel a lot of anxiety. Part of our vision in creating Coachtopia is that it’s a heavy subject but we want to approach it with a more hopeful vision of the future, hence the name.”
Of course, targeting a consumer group that’s more sustainably minded than any other and that will represent 40% of the luxury market by 2035, makes good commercial sense, as well as being planet-friendly.
And with the future customer in mind, as mentioned, the company has worked very closely with a Gen Z community. It comprises 120 people that have helped it come up with every aspect of Coachtopia.
“We believe very strongly that it’s important to create it not for these consumers but with them,” Silverstein stressed. “They see sustainability as a moral choice, but they also value uniqueness and self-expression.
“They’re also consuming fast fashion. For us, that’s not evidence that they’re not doing what they believe in, but rather that they’re making trade-offs. And we see that they express their increasing discomfort with the trade-offs that they’re making.”
She said that these individuals “see themselves as participants, not just consumers. They share this with us over and over again that they want to be at the table, they want to be part of driving the change, to help shape a different future. One of our beta community members said ‘we want to know what’s going on beneath the surface, we want to be invited to talk about these things to make sure we’re being heard’.”
The heavy involvement of the young people in the development of Coachtopia has seen the community of “designers, makers, up-cyclers, journalists, activists, creatives, filmmakers, thinkers, and consumers feeding their perspective into Coachtopia from the early days,” she said. “They’re also collaborating with us on products, graphics, and content messaging. We engage with them daily on Slack channels.
“Coachtopians are at the centre of all of our content messaging and campaigns, they’re the models, they’re on our e-com site, in our launch campaigns.”
They’ve designed graphics too. For instance, regarding shoes, the company has replaced the trio of supplier box, customer-facing box, and shopper bag with one footwear box adorned with community-created motifs.
And it’s supporting the target group further with circular design scholarships and a craftsperson apprenticeship programme. In fact, two of the scholarship recipients designed collections “that we’ll be bringing to market as limited-edition drops.”
The approach to Coachtopia that the company has taken has been undeniably deep with a whole host of other features such as developing a unique environmental impact calculator, which allows it to calculate the carbon footprint of every product and share that information with customers.
Silverstein said she knows that “circularity isn’t an endpoint, it’s a journey, and we’re prioritising progress and experimentation over perfection, really looking end to end across the whole value chain. We’re looking at how we reduce and eliminate packaging, thinking about end-of-life.
“The notion of circularity isn’t really well understood. It’s become a buzz word. But we want to be part of an emerging group of brands, non-profits, and other organisations helping to define emerging standards for circularity.”
It’s an ambition that grew out of the Coach (Re)Loved programme that to date has processed more than 20,000 products across the US, Canada, UK, Japan and China.
But it’s also an ambition that made the company realise that achieving “circularity at scale is very challenging. In order to truly scale for circularity, we have to truly design for it from the very beginning. Coachtopia says ‘how do we go back to the very beginning?’ We’ve committed to take back every Coachtopia product, regardless of age or condition. Add to find clear pathways for keeping them in use at their highest value.”
And while it’s inevitably going to be a small part of the firm at launch, the plan is that it will grow.
Silverstein concluded: “We’re starting quite small because we want to get it right. It will launch in a small way but we really do want to do this at scale. We have bold ambitions!”
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