Photo: Jared Soares/Jared Soares
Linda Greer is known among fashion insiders as the industry’s leading sustainability scientist. But she wishes she wasn’t such a rarity.
“It’s so often that I put a company or a sustainability organization in a nutshell and they act like I’m a genius,” says Greer, raising an eyebrow over her dark-rimmed glasses. “And I tell them, ‘That’s not specialized knowledge. That’s what environmental professionals do.” That I’m a unique voice in this world is crazy. And it tells you a lot.”
Greer earned her reputation by serving for more than 25 years as a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the country. There she built a unique program aimed at reducing pollution from the fashion industry, which was adopted by Kering (parent company of Gucci and Saint Laurent), Target and Levi’s. She used her academic expertise to advise global fashion companies and industry coalitions alike on how best to reduce their environmental footprint.
“She is that leading voice and scholar in this field,” says Maxine Bédat, founder of the New Standard Institute and author of Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment. Sean Cady, vice president of global sustainability and responsibility at VF Corporation, which includes Supreme, Timberland and The North Face, calls Greer “by far the smartest environmentalist I’ve worked with.” Stella McCartney once wrote an admiring essay about her vanity fair.
It’s not that Greer isn’t proud of everything she’s accomplished, she says from a chair next to a huge window overlooking the flowering trees in her backyard. But the point, she says, is that much of what she’s credited for shouldn’t be taken as revolutionary.
Linda Greer at her home.
Photo: Jared Soares/Jared Soares
On the day I visit her at home in suburban Washington, DC, Greer is wearing a black cardigan over a patterned yellow top, both of which they’ve worn for so long she’s not quite sure where they’re from , although she’s pretty sure Top was a thrift store find from two decades ago. The only time I see a hint of a brand logo is when her husband — also an environmental scientist — comes out of the back room to say hello in a button-down shirt and a quarter-zip Patagonia sweater.
When vanity fair organized a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz to accompany a story about Greer in 2015, stylists called to ask who their favorite designers were. “I said, ‘I work at a nonprofit and I don’t buy designer clothes. I don’t have a favorite designer, and I don’t even know who to name you,’” she recalls. By then she had been working with some of the biggest brands in the world for at least six years – including a number of luxury labels.
Greer grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, a town of fewer than 100,000 on the banks of the Taunton River. Though it was once the “world’s largest manufacturing center for woven cotton fabrics,” in hindsight, that beginning seems ominous to her. Growing up only meant living in an economically depressed shell of a place left behind after a major industry left the area in search of cheaper labor abroad.
But Greer was a doctor’s daughter, and experiencing economic and educational privilege in a struggling community made her realize she had to “try to do something good for the world and solve problems,” she says.
To achieve that, she ended up in environmental sciences. When she entered college at Tufts University in 1972, the field was relatively new—the US Environmental Protection Agency had been established just two years earlier. But she was so interested in pollution as a subject of scientific study that she pursued it through boring chemistry classes, into graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, and on to DC, where she got a job as a staff scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. She began lobbying on Capitol Hill while pursuing her PhD. in Environmental Toxicology, which sometimes meant speaking to congressmen from a student union payphone.
She joined the NRDC in 1990, where she and her colleagues worked on the further development of the fledgling US environmental regulation system. It was a “huge” task, she says, especially while raising two children, but it was a stimulating time to work on environmental policy. So much seemed possible: She was close enough to both Republican and Democratic staffers to be invited to their weddings, and a bipartisan compromise seemed feasible. (“It was such a different world,” she says.)
At some point, however, pollution numbers in the US began to fall, and it wasn’t because the environmental problems had been eliminated – they simply followed foreign manufacturing. So Greer turned her attention to the international stage. This is how she ended up in the fashion industry: When she looked at the information on an industrialized province in China, she saw that the clothing industry was second only to the chemical industry in terms of its contribution to local water pollution. (She now worries that this statement, always intended only to inform her own internal priorities at the NRDC, may have somehow led to the propagation of the endlessly repeated but thoroughly debunked claim that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world As a person who appreciates accurate data, the thought pains her; the truth is we don’t have the data to accurately rank the industry, she says, and what we know would result in wildly different gradings depending on who whether we track water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, or some other indicator.)
The pursuit of pollution in the apparel sector eventually led Greer to escapades to factories in China with Gap’s founder and a handful of other company officials. The culmination of all these factory visits and chats with company representatives and endless tea sessions with dye house owners was a program called Clean by Design, launched in 2009 that aimed to reduce pollution from fashion manufacturers. It outlined ten well-researched but easy-to-implement best practices that could help factories reduce their water and energy use — practices that included improving the isolation and processing and reuse of wastewater.
Greer wanted to start with the fashion industry and then move on to other polluting sectors. “I just looked at it as one sector, and I wanted to do the next five sectors once I figured it all out,” she says.
What she didn’t anticipate was how difficult it would be to change the fashion industry. Maybe it was because the sustainability people didn’t work closely with anyone in the companies who had real decision-making power. Perhaps “you need to insulate your valves” wasn’t sexy enough to catch fashion people’s attention. But at the deepest level, she thinks, the problem was that fashion companies didn’t believe they really had an environmental problem – and since there was very little government oversight of the sector, there were no regulations to hold them accountable . Greer pitched Clean by Design to the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, the body that represents and oversees the Italian fashion industry, and it “called the whole thing off,” she says. She pitched the program to a VP at Walmart, and he said with a grin, “You should be in sales.”
Despite these reactions, Clean by Design garnered the support of key players, from Burberry and Kering to Target and H&M, and reportedly resulted in savings of 3 million tons of water, 61,000 tons of coal, 400 tons of chemicals and $14.7 million in operating costs by 2015.
“Linda has made more changes than she realizes,” says Cady, “from reducing the amount of water it takes to make a pair of jeans to driving the chemical industry to phase out toxic and hazardous chemicals.”
And the fashion industry has come a long way in recent years to acknowledge, at least in words if not always in deeds, that their impact on the planet is an issue. Still, Greer brings back her original question: Why aren’t more scientists working on this? Her feeling is that despite all the pineapple leather capsule collections and marketing and sustainability promises on Earth Day, most fashion companies don’t really believe they need the help of people like her “because their environmental work isn’t serious enough yet. ”
In 2018, Greer left NRDC after 27 years in office. Though Clean by Design was never as successful as it hoped, it lives on through its acquisition by another organization, the Apparel Impact Institute, which calls the program “very successful” and claims that companies using its efficiency-enhancing Adopt practices pay back in less than two years through lower operating costs. Today, Greer works from her home in DC with China’s largest environmental nonprofit, the Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs. She and her colleagues are still tracking fashion’s footprint alongside that of other sectors. She sits in an office full of memorabilia from her worldwide travels, with a framed copy of the vanity fair Article in the hallway and a poem by one of her old colleagues written on the back of two NRDC envelopes on the wall (an example line reads: “[Linda] Inspired designers to make clothes more sustainable / and she didn’t take a single giveaway”).
Today, when Greer discusses fashion’s environmental issues, while a fox wanders her backyard and a drizzle waters the garden, she vacillates between hope and frustration, impatience and energetic optimism. However, for those who consider its trajectory and the space it has cleared from the outside, there seems to be reason to believe that the tide is beginning to turn.
“In the beginning, Linda seemed like a lonely voice,” says Frances Beinecke, former NRDC President and former Greer boss. “And now the idea that the fashion industry needs to become more sustainable is pretty broad-based. I was impressed that in Glasgow” – last year at the UN Climate Change Conference – “a lot of attention was paid to fashion”.
So are there enough people joining Greer at the intersection of environmental science and fashion to really make a difference? She has to hope because at the moment the business is “melting down the shop” as before, she says. “I’m a little cautiously optimistic that as the pressure on the industry and on these companies increases, these organizations could get stronger.”
Until then, the one and only Linda Greer will keep doing what she can.