How to Grow, Within an Industry You Hope Shrinks: Romain Liot, Adore Me
On this Authentic Avenue, Adam is joined on the podcast by Romain Liot, co-founder and COO of Adore Me. Adore Me is a sustainable lingerie business which hopes to bring "Trust Through Transparency" to the industry.
Did you know that the fashion industry accounts for 4% of global carbon emissions -- more than France, Germany and the UK combined?
Romain did -- and it's so serious that he believes the fashion industry should actually shrink over time, to lessen our impact on the earth.
Why, then, would he continue to grow a business within that industry? That's a question he answers for us today.
Enjoy! Full transcript below.
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FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW:
Adam Conner: [00:00:00] Hey Romain. How are you? Thank you so much for joining me today.
Romain Liot: [00:00:03] Hi, Adam very good. Very good. Very happy to be here.
Adam Conner: [00:00:07] This story, your story is particularly interesting to me, ultimately, for the blueprint that you have written for others within fashion and other industries to become more transparent, uh, and hopefully they follow your lead.
But before we talk about that, I want to learn more about how you got to this point. Of course, you're on the founding team of Adore Me and you've had this wonderful transition into prioritizing sustainability. I think that has a little bit to do, as we've talked about before with making the world better for your child, but I'd love to know the founding story and how things have progressed to date before we get a little bit more into the case for sustainability.
Romain Liot: [00:00:50] Yeah. Sounds good. Adore Me was launched in 2012 and it was like, a typical DTC business selling lingerie online, but we always had this twist of thinking about others. And the initial foundation of Adore Me was really "lingerie for everybody," and really have this inclusivity element at core. And today it sounds obvious for many brands, but in 2012 it was not that obvious.
It was relatively new. And we always had this promise, this DNA to bring affordable lingerie to everybody. And then the company evolve and we become, I would say, a more established business. Uh, we pass the $100 million revenue line in 2017. And the company progressed, and then we had more and more at every level as a company. We were, um, questioning ourselves.
"Are we sure that we are still doing some things that is really good?" And when you see the negative impact of fashion, uh, on the climate change, we had to change. And, and I think for me -- everybody has their own personal journey -- but for me, I would say: my son is born in 2018 and I was thinking, okay, what, what, what world will he have? And, And that's where it was really a more stronger conversions to our sustainability. And I think it was my personal journey at Adore Me, but many people were having the same type of question. I think the whole company really shifted the word "sustainability-first mindset." And what is very interesting is like we didn't start as a sustainability-first company and we are not perfect even today.
I wish -- but it's not the case. But what we have, that is a thing is interesting, is that we are moving. We are moving fast, much faster than the industry. And we are really willing to share the journey. What is working well? What is working not that well? And really the goal is within five years to have totally disrupted our company, but also have contributed to disrupt our fashion industry that is not going in the right direction. Let's be honest.
Adam Conner: [00:03:13] Okay. So this is interesting as a leader of this category, to say that broadly, it may not be heading in the best direction. Let's start with a few years ago then, because I understand that you made a pledge in 2019, actually, which set this scene, established the case that fashion generally is wasteful and deserves to be disrupted.
You set a timeline with that pledge, but can you tell me more about it specifically?
Romain Liot: [00:03:44] The starting point is industry. Fashion industry is 4% of the carbon emissions. Only for one, for just this industry -- which is more than France, United Kingdom and Germany combined. And, uh, not only it's bad, but we are also missing the target of carbon reduction by 50%. So we are not missing the target by 5%, but by 50%. So basically it means that the fashion industry not only is bad, but not making any progress. And, contrary to other industry like airlines, for which it's a big technical challenge, in the case of the fashion industry, a lot of solutions are already existing.
They might be complex. They might sometimes (but it's not always the case). And it's about really moving and say, okay, now let's do it. And that's what we have done. So in, in 2019, uh, September 19th, 2019, actually, we said, okay, now it's time to change and make a big, uh, radical change, uh, within the company yet.
So that was a bit of, um, a call to arm. I will say that was, uh, a bit, uh, disruptive within the company at the beginning, but I think really allowed to shift directions towards a better place.
Adam Conner: [00:05:10] Okay. So when you said this on 9/19 of 2019, you said: "We are going to give ourselves some time to fix this incredible gap between where we should be (our goals) and where we are with regards to carbon emissions and becoming more sustainable.
Now you had founded this business seven years prior. You had employees who were presumably around since then. How did they react to this new pledge? And for those who maybe weren't prepared to trade off growth for purpose, how did you get them on board?
Romain Liot: [00:05:49] Uh, I think that it was different reactions. Uh, there was not one typical reaction, it was different type of reactions. Some were already on board for a long time and we are much more visionary than I was. Uh, so they were happy and excited. Uh, some were like me, saying, we need to change, but can we do it? And having a lot of internal questioning .What trade-off? Can we do it? Oh, it's too complicated.
And some didn't see it coming, so they were a bit shocked and a bit scared, saying: "What did Romain say? Can we do it? It's bullshit! It's greenwashing!" So there was a whole spectrum of reactions. And the first two to three months were a bit rocky, you know, internally, because people were a bit confused.
Should we change our strategy? What does it mean for my, my product launch? What does it mean for our marketing strategy? And, uh, so there was a bit of a shock, you know, initially. And then gradually, the strengths of, of a company is "autocorrect" and adapt ourselves to this new environment, to this new paradigm.
And that's what has been happening. So, uh, you know, it was, uh, some people pushing within our team, some initiative. We also had done a, uh, some kind of internal hackathon around the sustainability where everybody will come and, and pitch some ideas that we were not doing not doing, and that will really help the company to move in the right directions.
And that was amazing because we had external advisors that came in and graded what the ideas were and most of them were implemented within 12 to 24 months. So it's possible, but it's really required a big change of paradigm for the strategy of the company, and a change of a mindset for everybody within the company.
Adam Conner: [00:07:56] So that has now been happening. You brought in those advisors, you set standards and goals for the five-year mark, which won't happen until 2024. So how do you feel about these first two years then? You mean you've made some progress, but where, what, how do you feel about what has happened so far since you made that pledge?
Romain Liot: [00:08:18] Your way of "the glass half full and the glass half empty." Uh, so the glass half-full is that I think we have changed gears on the topic, uh, which is good and we are moving fast. And, uh, we, we gain a lot of credibility with our partners and suppliers. We launched a lot of, uh, project, either internally or either with partner in the industry, that are either coming to life already, uh, for the customer, either will come to life in six or 12 months. Uh, so there is a lot of things that have been done.
Also, the "glass half-full" is like, I think that, uh, even before COVID you could see that people were understanding that it was not acceptable and it was not a model that was sustainable. And I think the last couple of months has shown an acceleration of this trend, of "okay, where are we heading?" And, uh, so that's a glass half full.
Glass half empty is like, there is still so many things to be done. I wish we could go 10 times faster. Uh, we don't have much time. I mean, you see like the news that Oregon is burning. Every day you, you see some catastrophe. Every year, you got some kind of once a century event, uh, on the climate change. We don't have much time. On the glass half-empty, you also have greenwashing everywhere, which is really like a plague for the industry because it confuses customer. It feeds the cynical. So there are a lot of challenges, let's be honest.
Adam Conner: [00:10:03] I've even heard that term "greenwashing" very recently with another of our recent features, a sustainable farming company in the U.S. called AppHarvest, who noted the same problem. And isn't it unfortunate that you have one of these once in a lifetime occurrences that seem to happen every couple of years. It points to the need for serious change, which hopefully you can serve as one of the leaders for when it comes to the fashion industry.
Because of that, perhaps, you have developed a model of"Trust Through Transparency," which I think is really nice. I want to know what, what is that all about? How, how can you explain that a little bit for me?
Romain Liot: [00:10:50] It started, really, about the need to create credibility in our industry and to gain the trust of customer.
And again, I think if a customer doesn't trust brands, there is reason for that. Because they have been confused. Because a lot of brands are using all the possible tricks to confuse them. And we say, okay, What facts can we gather that will help people to first understand the problem (which is a very complex problem)? But if it's well explained, actually the customer will get it and ensure that we are making progress.
And by doing that, you have multiple advantages. You can make the difference between pure greenwashers and, uh, people actually making some stuff. And also, it will help the people to buy your story, to be really willing, to, to encourage your brand, to "vote with their wallet," if I might say. So that's very important to start. When we look at the problem, we also saw some serious challenge about how to create trust and how to measure our progress. Because in the fashion industry, in the sustainable fashion industry, there has been for instance a lot of index and a lot of labels that say this is a good product, not a good product. And all these labels, they have a specific purpose and they are most of the time doing a great job.
Let's be honest about that. But they are not super easy to understand. Even for us, within Adore Me, but even less for the customer. I'll give you a couple of example. Is it better to have organic cotton? People say, oh, it's great because it's organic, but then you say, oh, organic cotton is using twice more water.
So how do you know if it's better to use organic cotton versus another fiber? Is it better to have a recycled fiber? Um, another type of, um, natural fiber? So it's, it's really not easy to get it. So another, uh, challenge that we have seen is like a lot of the index with a big binary -- either you are good or you are bad. But the reality of a business, especially business in transition, it's never such a simple picture. If you take a company, like Adore Me, we started very, very bad. Let's be honest. But it's the star of the industry. So you can say "the star of the industry is very bad." And I hope that within five years we'll be good. Very good. We'll be great, but we'll already be a good starting point.
But to go from very bad to good, you need to go through the whole spectrum. Labels that just tell you you're good, you're bad, are not really adapted to the transformation journey that a company like Adore Me is experiencing.
And why should we care about Adore Me? Because all the industry will have to transform. So you cannot have only new players that will come and replace all the existing industry. It doesn't work like that. Because you have the existing players that will either fight to death against that. Either they will not use their real asset and competencies and skills to actually accelerate the transformation. So that means most of the transitions to a better sustainable economy will have to come from the transformation of the existing industries.
And you need to adapt to this reality. You need to say: well, you have a whole spectrum that go from "very bad" to "bad" to "average" and then "good" and all this grading. And that's why we had to develop internally some tools to measure that, which we have done around different dimension, which led to a lot of internal brainstorming.
And all these labels are public, we actually put them in the open source for others in the industry to, uh, use them, to challenge them. And ultimately, uh, we want civil society to really, uh, take them and bring it to the next level. Because it's not a company like Adore Me that will define norms, we are aware of that. So we will give them to civil society.
So, uh, it will be a whole world. And that's how you transform a company at scale.
Adam Conner: [00:15:32] And you're not just doing it with Adore Me, that brand. You have taken this (as I understand it) blueprint model, used this open source mentality as you've described, and spread it out further. Would you mind explaining briefly how this has already been put into practice with some of your sister brands and within your Innovation Lab?
Romain Liot: [00:15:59] Yeah, so what we have done, we have launched 10 brands in the last 12 months, uh, that are all different and have different product and value propositions, but have also sustainability in their DNA. And through this Innovation Lab, it's, it's fantastic because it really helps us to test new innovation, different messaging, and try to speak with different community.
And accelerate the transitions. Uh, so you'll have one brand that is more dedicated to the gen Z and it's called Earth Republic. And actually it's launching today. Literally today. You have one brand called Gentrue which is, uh, I would say the Lululemon of the future, meaning chemical free yoga pants. Because you have to know that yoga pants you have more than 50 different chemicals and it just that's how your health. So when you do yoga with the yoga pants, the reality, it's bad for your health, except if you shop on gentrue.com. And, uh, it's allowed us to test this new type of innovation and to work with fantastic people because we didn't innovate everything alone, it's much more complicated. So we have to find the right partner pushing innovation and you know, it's really a journey. It's pretty hard to move everything in the right directions.
Adam Conner: [00:17:25] Can I ask: how in the world have after launching a dormy successfully and having grown that for nearly 10 years now, how in the world do you launch 10 different businesses?
Did you say 10 in 12 months or was it 12 in 10? Regardless, how are you able to expand so exponentially so quickly?
Romain Liot: [00:17:48] Well I think that's one of the beauty of technology. Adore Me, we started as an online company around how we have some stuff. But, the reality: our DNA is really tech. And all our tech stack is really built as platforms.
So you have one platform for the product management, meaning how do you design a product and how do you purchase this product. You have one platform which is about your CRM, your one platform about brand display. So with all those platforms, what's happening? A brand! You need to define the brand identity. You need to do some customer research. You need to do the product. But the cost of launching a brand has decreased drastically, because we have all those platforms that we can leverage. And I think that's the type of game changer that suddenly you can look at the industry in a different manner.
Adam Conner: [00:18:40] Yeah. That is fascinating because it proves that this -- technology sure, but also -- this blueprint, this Trust Through Transparency model that you have laid out (if you have the right structure in place to build a company) can also scale easily. It is not something which, now that you have provided this blueprint, should be a large obstacle. All anybody has to do is follow your example.
And to that example, I'd like to ask about what you foresee. Because we are just two years into that five-year pledge to disrupt fashion towards sustainability. So you've got years three, four, and five to go. What do you expect to see over those years?
Romain Liot: [00:19:33] Number one, I will say it's more and more a "must have" to survive is really transparency at every level.
Who is your supplier? How do they treat their worker? Uh, you know, to be able to share, you know, how much workers are making? That transparency will become a new norm. And the ones that are not willing to share this transparency as it will be less and less, uh, credible. Another aspect is just to, to decrease the, uh, negative footprint of every product.
You know, is the best way, uh, to, to decrease the fashion carbon footprint is actually not to buy new clothes. So I encourage everybody: limit your clothes buying consumptions. That will be good. And the industry must shrink. But if you have to buy something, you can buy secondhand. And I think that's another way to do, and that will become more and more, a new norm -- secondhand.
Third thing, which is not as good as "buy secondhand," but it's still better, is to buy products that have a better sustainability index. And that's what we are doing. And we're trying to improve the sustainability of our product. We're also working on, uh, thinking about, uh, uh, secondhand purchase and really think about a new way to consume fashion in the future.
Adam Conner: [00:21:03] This is interesting, and I'd like to begin to round out here, because ultimately you are painting a picture of the future in which Adore Me, the sister brands, the whole ecosystem that you have founded continues to grow within an industry which, if we are to care about the planet and act in a greener way (without greenwashing things)... in a greener way should shrink.
How do you, um, plan to -- I mean, what goes into, how do you deal with both of those competing factors?
Romain Liot: [00:21:45] Yeah, but it's -- interesting question -- it's that they're competing at an industry level, at a macro level, but at a micro level, there will be some winner and there will be some loser, you know, I think that's the beauty of innovation and, and entrepreneurship that, you know, some companies are at their peak and then they go down and they go bust.
Exxon used to be, uh, the largest company in the world for a long time. And now they are not anymore in, uh, in the index of the New York stock exchange or, you know, uh, they are falling away. And, in a few years, it will be bankrupt and, uh, everybody will think it's normal because this company was there for too long. And it would be the same with the fashion industry. I think it has been too cozy for a long time and some of the big player will disappear and, some of the new players -- Adore Me, but also others will actually grow and thrive.
Adam Conner: [00:22:47] I got it. So then in theory, this industry should shrink.
However it should come at the expense of -- I don't want to make the direct comparison, but the Exxons of the fashion world, perhaps? Those who are the most wasteful? And the survival of the greenest (I'm not sure. Again, I don't want to use that word because I know that greenwashing has become such an issue, but), the survival of the most sustainable perhaps is what allows you to continue to operate and move forward, given the outlook. So I appreciate that because it is, I think, noble to operate, understanding that the world needs to operate differently, but knowing that you individually want to grow. And I think it's a true part of Adore Me's, and your, authentic story. That's where I'd like to close, because I always ask people about this particular word on this podcast, that word being authenticity.
You have laid out on this show how, since just a few years ago, you saw the light about being better for the world. Set out goals. Long-term goals. And built a scalable blueprint, which you first proved yourself before hopefully being able to circulate it more broadly through an industry that you hope to grow, even as it broadly shrinks. Now the folks that listen to this show are seeking to build their own authentic stories.
And while it may not necessarily be in an industry that they believe should shrink, they are always looking to grow and they emulate the types of people like you, who have managed to build such an authentic journey. So my final question is: what advice can you give to our listeners to help them find their own personal truth?
Whether it be for their business, whether it be for their personal outlook, generally speaking, how do they find their own avenues to authenticity?
Romain Liot: [00:24:50] Hmm. Very good questions. Uh, I, I would take it in a very, uh, modest way. Meaning that: everybody will have their own answer and I'm not sure I'm the best person to, to, uh, to give best advice to, to anyone.
I will just share what I'm trying to do. First is to step back, you know, and to step back, I think there is two way to step back that I found personally powerful. Number one is step back on what truly matters to you, you know. Is it to have a lot of likes on social media? Or is it to interact with people? Try to go at the bottom of what matters to you.
And the second way to step back is to bring a bit of timeline perspective. In 20 years, you know, it's likely or very likely that the world, uh, will be extremely different at every level. In terms of tech consumption, in term or heat wave or "heat dome" everywhere. And where do you want to be in 20 years?
And I think that it's easy to hide, uh, in six months or in 12 months. It will not change much. But in 20 years, it will be a big difference. If you live in Miami, you might have to acknowledge that in 20 years, it's likely that the city will be underwater. Where will you live? Still living in Florida? Great. Do you want to go north, fine. You know, so. Take a long-term perspective. And I think it's a combination of what really matters to you and what will happen in 20 years, so long-term perspective. At the crossing of that, you have a lot of interesting question and you can build your own strategy on the world's authenticity.
Adam Conner: [00:26:41] Well, that's thoughtful input. And I think it would make sense for anybody, especially with an eye on making a better world, to zoom out in that way. What will the world look like in 20 years for my specific industry, my specific job, my journey? And how can I think ahead and be a trendsetter? I think that there's a great deal of authenticity to be found there.
And I'm glad that we found a little bit of it today through your story, Romain. I appreciate your, your feedback here, your thoughtful answers and your blueprint to helping others find that Trust Through Transparency and build sustainable futures. And for sharing all of that right here with me, thank you very much.
Romain Liot: [00:27:27] Thank you.