2019 Brand of the Year: Frank And Oak goes greener

The Montreal-based brand has planted seeds of sustainability as a way to grow in a competitive retail landscape.

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This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2019 Brands of the Year. To read about the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, click here.

This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of strategy.

“We are what we wear,” proclaims Edmonton rapper Cadence Weapon at one point during the “Frank And Oak – And” ad that celebrates Canada and our values.

The Montreal-born retailer, like many others, has taken notice of Canadians becoming more conscious of what they put on their bodies, as much as what they put in them. And Frank And Oak has been listening to the cries for more eco-friendly clothing.

“I think the idea of sustainability is extremely powerful, but you also need to make cool products that customers want to wear, right? I think we’ve been able to combine design and sustainability and that has been a big part of our success,” says Ethan Song, CEO and co-founder of Frank And Oak.

For instance, take its “Circular denim” collection, which the retailer launched this August to wide acclaim and media coverage. The new jean line is made from old denim that was destined for the landfill, but instead shredded and broken down into mere fibres. Those salvaged fibres were then respun into new materials with the goal of “reducing our footprint and giving your old jeans a new life,” according to a Frank And Oak Instagram post announcing the line.

“Consumers have more choices than ever because of ecommerce. They have access to anything in the world now, so just having a product, for example a T-shirt, is not enough anymore,” says Song. “I think when consumers buy something they want to buy the story behind that product too… I always say, ‘When consumers vote for your product, they effectively vote for the kind of world they want to live in,’ so that’s the relation I see between values and products now.”

Frank And Oak Circular denim 1But Frank And Oak is ensuring that its sustainability efforts go well beyond one denim collection, as it aligns itself with today’s appetite for conscious consumerism. In 2017 only 5% of Frank and Oak products were made through “minimal impact processes,” such as reusing or recycling materials, reducing the amount of water used in production, and reducing the amount of animal products; that number rose to 30% in 2018, and the new goal is to reach 50% by the end of 2019. In addition, its “Good Cotton” collection, launched two months before “Circular denim,” is made from organic cotton that the company says uses no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, maintains soil fertility and promotes biologically diverse agriculture.

While all of these sustainability efforts may be good for Mother Earth, they are also often good for the bottom line. A survey of more than 20,000 consumers, released by global firm Kantar Consulting last year, found that almost two-thirds of millennials and Gen Zers express a preference for “brands that have a point of view and stand for something.”

Frank And Oak’s point-of-view has evolved since it was founded in 2012 by high-school friends Song and Hicham Ratnani, currently CCO. The company name was meant to symbolize the connection between humans (Frank) and nature (Oak). The brand started out as an online-only retailer selling men’s clothing, then opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Montreal in 2013 and added women’s clothing in 2016. It now has 22 stores across Canada and grew from a brand that was mainly focused on function (its co-founders both have engineering degrees and were initially focused on personalizing the shopping experience online, and then helping men build a wardrobe in its physical stores) to a values-based fashion company.

“Personalization has always been important to what we do, but in terms of vision we realized that, as a company, we needed to have less impact on the world and that’s where the idea for sustainability came in,” explains Song. “We realized the product that we make, and the values that we have, have to be perfectly aligned and that’s what we’ve been focused on.”

While the privately held company wouldn’t reveal any sales or growth numbers, Song did say Frank And Oak is “still a relatively small company” with an in-house creative and marketing team of about 12, who do everything from creating videos to content for its online magazine and social channels.

“As a brand we’re learning that storytelling has to be a part of what we do well,” says Song. To that end, its online magazine, The Handbook, tells stories that directly and indirectly promote the brand and its purpose, from a story about eco-tourism to one that argues that chinos (which the brand sells) are “the not-so basic basic.”

Frank And Oak also promotes its popular Style Plan via a playful video. The 58-second spot shows viewers how to use the brand’s personalized, subscription-box service in an easy-to-understand way, featuring hip-looking professionals donning Frank And Oak attire.

The Style Plan is intended to give consumers the ability to have clothing mailed directly to their home on a monthly basis (and offers the option of mailing back what they don’t want). As part of the retailer’s ongoing journey toward more sustainable practices, Song fully acknowledges that mailing clothing back-and-forth isn’t exactly good for the planet. But the brand has a plan to offset the carbon footprint from shipments via a tree planting program. And while the company’s current packaging is 100% recycled and recyclable, it’s in the process of testing reusable packaging that “never goes to landfills,” says the CEO.
Other sustainability-focused goals that Frank And Oak wants to reach by 2022 include zero virgin plastic in its supply chain, a 100% carbon-emissions reduction, using 100% renewable energy, having zero waste at Frank And Oak’s head office and using more sustainably sourced cotton.

1130153-8CU.5679While a recent Financial Post article called the Montreal company a “millennial magnet,” Song says he’s less focused on a certain age group and is more interested in reaching purpose-driven shoppers who want to fill their fall wardrobes with long-lasting staples, like a $99.50 machine-washable merino wool sweater dress or a $229 herringbone wool blazer. “I think our customer base is pretty wide… generally our customers are creative professionals,” says Song. “Nowadays it’s more about being values-based than age-based.”

And in line with promoting those values, Frank And Oak stores are about building a sense of community and often hosts events. For example, it held a “Frank And Oak Talks” event about the future of circular fashion at its Toronto Eaton Centre store in August. Also, all of its stores are built “as conscientiously as possible with recycled materials and minimal waste,” according to the brand’s website.

The retailer has big ambitions, but remains wedded to the Canadian values promoted in “Frank And Oak – And.”

“We’re actually proud of what we consider our care for nature, openness, being inclusive to other people, so we would like to leverage our brand to communicate those Canadian values globally,” says Song. “That would be our dream in five-to-ten years – to continue to be part of this movement of changing the behaviour of consumers.”