how sustainable is farm rio?
Today’s brand analysis is a little bit different than the others I’ve done bc it’s on a brand that I used to work for: FARM Rio.
I was the only copywriter on the marketing team for their global brand for a year and then was let go due to COVID in the spring of 2020.
Since then I’ve started to see FARM Rio pop up more and more in my social media feed. More recently, on the pages of sustainable fashion advocates and activists.
I found this interesting because when I worked at FARM Rio, our marketing director explicitly said we couldn’t call the brand sustainable, rather that we had sustainable initiatives. And that take was actually something I really admired them having.
So I decided to reexamine their brand from the outside in and see what changes they've made since I've left and what their current practices are.
I'll start off with their brand analysis and then end with my personal thoughts and experiences at the end. Let's dive in.
Who they are: FARM Rio is a Brazilian apparel brand known for its vibrant colors and unique prints. It was established in Brazil in 1997 in an independent fashion market. In 2019, the brand launched its global brand.
Citing nature as “their greatest inspiration,” FARM Rio believes it is part of their duty help to protect nature and give back to the environment.
**A majority of this analysis will focus on their global brand, as it is what is available here in the U.S., but it will also look at some aspects of their Brazilian brand.**
Where are they made? Their prints are done in-house by someone on their Brazilian team and then printed by a fabric supplier (94% of which are in Brazil). According to their Sustainability Report 88% of their products are sewn in Brazil. The rest are sewn in China.
What are they made out of? FARM Rio’s garments are made of a wide variety of materials, with a large majority being made from viscose. Other fabrics they use include polyester, polyamide, cotton, acrylic, linen, wool, and nylon.
According to their sustainability report, in Brazil 14% of their garments were made with responsible materials in 2020. For their global brand, of the two collections tracked, one had 27% responsible materials and the other had 11%. These responsible materials include organic cotton, Sportiva Pro®, Fluity-(co2)®️, and LENZING™ ECOVERO™. Some of the materials are certified.
FARM Rio’s main goal to increase the sustainability of their materials is to increase the use of responsible viscose, give preference to materials from renewable sources, and search for certified suppliers.
Do they have a sustainability policy or manifest on their website? Does it include targets and actions to meet those targets? Yes. Their global site has a sustainability page, but it is mostly full of general information. More detailed statistics can be found in a sustainability report linked on their site. Their Brazilian site has a very robust sustainability manifest. However, many of the sustainability initiatives they have for their Brazilian brand are not carried over to their global operations, and they do not make note of this anywhere.
Do they educate their customers on proper care for their garments? They do the standard basic care instructions like “Machine wash cold. Tumble dry low” and “Handwash only. Line Dry” on each product page. For polyester and acrylic items, they make no note of microplastics that shed during wash nor do they suggest the use of mesh bags or filters to collect these microplastics.
Do they publish a supplier list or factory sites? A supplier list is published on FARM Rio’s Brazilian website. It is unclear if these are the exact same suppliers for their global brand. This supplier list provides information on the name, address, type of services, number of workers, gender distribution, union membership, and certifications of only its Tier 1 suppliers.
Do they track their scope 1-3 greenhouse gas emissions and calculate their carbon footprint? Yes. They complete a full supply chain analysis of their GHG emissions and waste.
Do they pay all of their supply chain workers a fair wage? They might, but they don’t publish anything about this on their website or in their sustainability report. They make no claims to fair wages, nor do they have any independent certifications that would verify claims if they made any. Their ABVTEX certification only ensures fair working conditions and payment of wages as is applicable by law.
Do they have any social impact/environmental impact/give back initiative in place? yes. Their global brand has 3 main initiatives: planting a tree with every order, planting 1,000 trees a day everyday, and a partnership with the artisans of the Brazilian Yawanawa indigenous people to provide employment and improve infrastructure of their villages.
Their Brazilian brand has many more initiatives like upcycling old fabrics into new products (RE-FARM), partnering with Enjoei to sell FARM Rio pieces secondhand, partnering with brands to upcycle FARM Rio fabric scraps, partnering with many conservation organizations like Instituto Vida Livre, Ampara Animal, and Instituto Socioambiental, and sponsoring beach cleanups with the Aqualung Institute.
Do they have sustainable packaging? They make no claims to having sustainable packaging. their garments typically arrive in warehouse in polybags and then are removed and put into a cardboard box with tissue paper for shipping.
What certifications, if any, do they hold? FARM Rio itself holds no certifications. They are however considered climate neutral, solely through offsetting emissions through planting trees. 64% of their apparel suppliers are ABVTEX certified, which addresses issues related to working conditions in the supply chain through the certification of suppliers and their subcontractors.
What is their production capacity? FARM Rio's global brand releases 4 collections a year with 150-200 products in each collection. Their Brazilian brand has close to 2,000 items currently on their site, with new items coming in every week. Their garments have a traditional production cycle, so they would not be considered fast fashion.
Are they inclusive of people of all sizes and colors? Ish. Their website, marketing, and social media feed feature many women of color, although they could improve on including more women of darker skin tones. They are also big champions of the LGBTQIA+ community. However, when it comes to size inclusion, FARM Rio only goes up to a size XL, which is not inclusive whatsoever. They have been criticized for many years for their lack of inclusive sizing, to which they usually reply “the plus size market is something we’re trying to understand and will explore in the future.” However they have made no move to do so, both for their Brazilian brand and global brand. As part of a collaboration with Anthropologie, they have offered plus size options in this specific line available at Anthropologie, showing it is possible for them to create larger garments. However they have chosen not to for their own brand.
Other notes: FARM Rio's sustainability efforts are heavily reliant on offsets through planting trees and increasing their use of 'responsible' viscose, both of which are often criticized by environmentalists and sustainability experts as solutions that don't address the problem and really don't do much to lessen a brand's overall environmental impact. They also do not mention anything about the impact of the dyes that are used to create their very vibrant prints.
Sustainability Ranking: C-
I would not say my experience working at FARM Rio was positive (although there were some positive moments), which I tried not to let sway my analysis of their brand.
Like I mentioned earlier in this post, while I was working at FARM Rio we were not allowed to call FARM Rio a sustainable brand. But now they state that they want to become the most sustainable brand in Brazil.
Of course brands can change, and try to better their supply chains and processes. I thought it was funny how, now that sustainability has become more popular, they’re changing their tune and really trying to hype up their “responsible materials.”
They really haven't changed that much of their business since I worked there. The only aspects they seem to have changed are the introduction of some responsible materials (which you will see makes up less than a quarter of their product offering) and planting even more trees so that they are able to offset all their emissions and call themselves carbon neutral.
To me that's not enough of a change to all of a sudden start calling yourself sustainable.
Now, I will give them credit where credit is due. Their Brazilian brand has sooo many great partnerships with organizations to uplift their communities and work in conservation efforts. I really wish they would bring more of those partnerships and sustainability initiatives that they have over to their global brand. I was also impressed by their transparency. Are they perfect? Absolutely not. But they shared a lot more information in their sustainability report than I expected they would.
Take what I say with a grain of salt. I am not a supply chain expert, although I do think I know quite a bit on how to analyze a brand's operations for sustainability. If you want an expert opinion, Fashion Revolution included FARM Rio in their Fashion Transparency Index for the top 50 fashion brands and retailers in Brazil. In 2021, they scored a 28% on this index. It's not a great score by any means, but it does score them in the top 30% of brands in Brazil when it comes to transparency. What do I take from that number? They're technically ahead of the game, but really everyone is behind on what they should be sharing. They've got lots of work to do.
But much like in the case of H&M, transparency doesn’t equal sustainability. Most of their push for sustainability relies on their tree planting scheme and increasing the use of responsible viscose. Time and time again, scientists have said that planting trees isn't really going to do much to mitigate the effects of climate change. Especially when the trees planted aren't native or if there isn't any follow through to make sure that the trees planted actually survive. In FARM Rio's case, it appears that they make sure the trees planted are native to the area in their work with One Tree Planted. But once the seedlings are planted, that's where their commitment to the trees stops.
They only gain the status of "carbon neutral" because the supposed number of trees they plant captures enough carbon to negate their emissions. But if they aren't ensuring the trees stay alive, how can they really make that claim? To me, they can't.
And then that brings us to the fact that a majority of their responsible materials are 'responsible' viscose. Traditional viscose is not good for the planet whatsoever. Brazil already has a deforestation problem, so relying on fabric made from wood pulp isn't great. Not to mention it's an energy, water, and chemically-intensive processes and very polluting as well. I'm glad they're making the switch to better viscose. And many people sing praises to LENZING's ECOVERO™ fabric. I'm just hesitant to hop on board because all the analysis that's happened on ECOVERO so far has been from the company that makes it - LENZING. Lemme see some third-party testing and maybe then I'll hop on board.
Another aspect of the clothing side of their business that I have some issues with: the prices. For their global brand, their clothes are pretty expensive. I'm talking a majority of their clothes are in the $125-$325 range. That's not accessible to most people. And if you're thinking "oh well if they're better quality it's worth it." Here's the thing - to me their clothes are no higher quality than what you can buy at Zara. They're definitely overcharging for what the quality is, and I know that their margins are on the high side. Plus, their clothes for their Brazilian brand are much more affordable. I compared two similar style dresses from their global brand and their Brazilian brand. The global brand price: originally $225 (it's now on sale for $113). In Brazil: coverts to about $83. That makes the pricing for their global brand over double what it is for their Brazilian brand.
I wish I could say my beef with them ended with just the apparel side of the business, but unfortunately it doesn't. I'm also got some issues with a few aspects of how they run their business (and marketing ties into it too).
FARM Rio's main concern is about how they appear as a brand and that people love them. Image is everything to them. It definitely takes priority over other aspects of their business.
Their main strategy when first entering the global market was to get their clothes on as many celebrities and big influencers as possible so that more people would want to buy their clothes. Standard influencer strategy. The problem with it though: they hardly ever do paid sponsorships. Pretty much every time you see one of their pieces on a celeb or influencer, it was gifted to them. And they say there is no obligation to post. But people are going to post anyway because their pieces are beautiful.
So essentially they're getting tons of people to create free marketing for them.
Here's another real kicker: a majority of the people that they feature wearing their clothes or their #FARMRioLovers are actually people on their Brazilian team. They want to control the image of the type of person who wears their clothes so much that they'd rather just post pictures of their team in their clothes rather than sharing the everyday people wearing their clothes. They're getting better about sharing more people who don't work at FARM Rio now, but you will notice a trend of who they're sharing: it's a majority white, skinny women with really big social media followings.
And a great example of their strategy to try and get as much free marketing as possible is their latest Extraordinary Winter Challenge. If you read the terms and conditions of the challenge, you'll find out that just by entering the challenge FARM Rio gets the rights to the content you made to use in any way that they want for any future materials and you won't get credit for the content you made or earn any royalties on the use or gain any compensation. That is WILD! Influencer 101 says don't give up the rights to your content without getting compensated for it. They're banking on no one reading these terms and just getting a bunch of free content for them to do whatever they want with.
I really wish it ended there, but FARM Rio also loves to talk about how much they care (about certain causes, their workers, etc.), but they often just use really good sounding language without actually doing anything themselves. For example:
Last summer they came under fire after one of their store associates, who was pregnant at the time, was killed by a stray bullet during a police shootout in Brazil. Rather than just donate money to the family to help cover funeral costs, FARM Rio made a social media post announcing any sale made using the store associate's code would then have the profits donated to her family (they have since deleted these details from their post). Essentially they were trying to get more people to buy things in order to give more money to the woman's family, instead of just donating the money themselves. There has been no mention if FARM Rio ever gave money to the family, only that they offered their "full support."
With the Black Lives Matter movement, they posted multiple posts both on their global and Brazilian accounts about championing inclusivity and racial equality. While I admire that the company has its own Racial Equality Committee comprised of POC employees, they did not make any donations to social justice organizations or provide examples of any initiatives they are doing within their own communities to work towards equality. Racism is rampant in both the U.S. and Brazil, and outside of words and some internal meetings, I'm not seeing any efforts made by them to help their communities of color.
In their sustainability report they talk about the challenges of COVID in 2020. The talk about the launch of their app, a carbon neutral virtual store, and live commerce. They also mention the their revenue was 222.7% higher than that in 2019. However they fail to mention the many team members (including myself) they had to let go of in order to keep operations running and remain profitable.
Now despite all this, they're still a very profitable brand that many people love. And that's just because people love how their clothes look. They're different and vibrant and beautiful.
And that's great. But they're trying to make themselves seem like this amazing company that cares about ethics and their affect on the planet, when really they just care that they look good and people are buying their clothes.
I'm glad that they're starting to make more changes to their business to make it more sustainable. I wish that they were doing more and weren't trying to fluff everything up with fancy language. It will be interesting to see what other changes they continue to make as time goes on.
If you're looking for beautiful clothes, FARM Rio can definitely give you those. But if you're looking to support a sustainable brand that truly cares about the planet, your money might be better spent elsewhere.