Matt & Nat goes beyond eco-friendly, vegan products

From the C-Suite newsletter: The fashion brand has grown its presence by offering more than a green promise.

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Without having other core product attributes to lean on, David Gray of DIG360 Consulting believes eco-friendly brands are likely to struggle – and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

“It’s hard to win simply on a values statement,” he says. “But it has a big impact if you’re putting that on top of an otherwise really good product.”

In fact, Gray believes it’s Montreal-based Matt & Nat’s ability to tick those two boxes at once – quality handbags and fashion accessories that also happen to be vegan and eco-friendly – that likely best explains the success it has had in recent years.

“Whatever definition shoppers have of quality, green is getting included in a good quality product as opposed to having to feel like you’re sacrificing something,” Gray says. “And certainly brands like Matt & Nat are a great example [of that].”

After opening its first standalone brick-and-mortar location at the CF Carrefour Laval in Quebec in March 2016, Matt & Nat (in operation since 1995) has continued to build its own store network and ecommerce presence, offering vegan handbags, totes, wallets and backpacks. It initially planned to open no more than 10 to 15 stores; CEO Manny Kohli previously noted growing to 40 or 50 locations was possible but never part of the vision.

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But demand in western Canada, the U.S. and Europe has called for opening a greater number of locations, says Kathy Tsolakos, who became Matt & Nat’s first marketing director in January. Last month, the company opened it first three U.S. stores, bringing its total North American store count to 13. Tsolakos forecasts eventually having a footprint of 15 to 20 stores, after opening three to five more next year.

But entering new markets still requires educating consumers about the brand and nature of its products, even though, in most cases, “we are already well known and customers are aware of who we are,” she says. “The strategy is really to connect with eco-conscious consumers and build that long-lasting relationship.”

In the future, she anticipates growth will come from a combination of innovation in product design, expansion into new physical markets and the introduction of new product lines. This year, Matt & Nat introduced its first vegan outerwear line, and it has plans to launch a collection in the fall called Purity – its first “fully recyclable outer body fabric” made from PVB that is 100% recyclable.

Matt&Nat OuterwearIn her new role for the company, Tsolakos will focus on helping the business continue to scale beyond its wholesale roots and push further into direct-to-consumer retail and ecommerce channels. She expects to do that by sticking to a social and influencer marketing strategy, believing that they remain the “easiest and, literally, the fastest way to make an immediate impact and connect to consumers in real time.”

In recent years, Tsolakos believes there’s been a “cultural shift” that has led to greater demand for more eco-friendly and sustainable goods. With a growing number of players “jumping on the eco-friendly train,” she thinks major brands and retailers will inevitably have to transform their businesses to more circular models.

This year, Aldo’s Call It Spring banner announced it has gone “fully vegan,” while shoe companies like Native Shoes, Fluevog and Timberland have been working on sustainability for some time.

But Gray thinks the power of individual smaller players remains relatively small. “Matt & Nat by themselves will not change the world. But there are a lot of Matt & Nats out there, and so as the buying public is exposed more and more to that, and it becomes almost table stakes over time, that does put pressure on the bigger mainstream brands.”

“Sometimes that runs into greenwashing-type behaviour,” he notes, “but they will still start to feel that pressure.”

Over time, Gray expects more brands to begin building sustainability into their business models that could lead to widespread change across the fashion and accessories space – similar to how the fair trade movement eventually came to dominate the coffee industry.

“There’s a collective consciousness that happens both among consumers but [also] among entrepreneurs and decision makers, that say, ‘We better get on board with this,’” he says. “So that will drag the laggards along too. But I don’t ever see green being rewarded just for green’s sake except by a small number of people who are very activist consumers.”