Ratings vs Rhetoric

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Effective Sustainability communication is a tool that can advance progress in the fashion industry, but how can we best harness fashions communicative power to drive towards impactful transformation?

During a panel discussion at CFS+ 2021, speakers contemplated whether unified sustainability metrics such as CO2 emissions and litres of water used will be key to achieving behavioural change or if we need to look at brand storytelling that can provide context and connect brand identities with impact strategies.


The balance between statistics and storytelling

Julien Slijan, Director Sustainability Digital Experience at Zalando – Europe’s largest online fashion retailer – shared: “We need the rational part and we need the emotional part of sustainability.”

Whilst all speakers during the panel discussion agreed upon the need for both ‘ratings and rhetoric’, they offered insight into their perceived benefits and limitations for the two modes of communication.


The need for compelling brand narratives

Marketing Creative Consultant & African Fashion Expert, Arieta Mujay, outlined a crucial consideration for sustainability communication that cannot be overlooked: “If you look at the message of sustainability, it means different things in different people everywhere across the world.” For this reason, ratings may not always be applicable or sufficient.

With many certifications failing to consider multiple markets, for example, Africa, Mujay reiterated that when looking at ratings, we have to reflect upon who sets the standards and then establish whether or not it is fair for these incentives to be rolled out in specific places.

Despite being a stanch advocate for transparency about ratings, Slijan also urged the industry to recognise that, for example, some 50% of people in Europe do not understand what sustainability means in fashion – so presenting these people with sustainability metrics is not necessarily enough or in fact useful.

As opposed to just exhibiting various statistics and ratings, brands must first engage individuals in the sustainability discourse – focusing on educational content and ways to inspire a meaningful connection between citizens and their clothes. To successfully tailor approaches to different cultures, companies must avoid a one-size-fits all attitude and communicate the benefits to local economies and environments.

An additional advantage to a ‘rhetoric’, is that sustainable communication can help instruct citizens on their role in sustainability. For example, customers can be educated on how to prolong the life of a garment, something mere metrics may fall short in conveying.


The benefit of ratings

For the those who are already engaged on matters of sustainability, ratings can then help them assess the impact of the decision they are making.

Sandra Capponi, Co-Founder of the sustainability rating service, Good On You, highlighted: “Consumers have a really big role to play in driving the change that we want to see in the industry, but they can’t shop more sustainability if brands and other players in fashion aren’t being more transparent”

At present, when customers try to find information about how brands are performing, they are often stifled by the lack of information which is either missing altogether or not presented in a consistent way.

Capponi also emphasised that ratings must account for the plethora of issues that fall under the umbrella of ‘sustainability’. These matters are multifaceted and interrelated and any good sustainability communication needs to address that complexity and be comprehensive in its understanding of the issues. Brands must look beyond carbon emissions, because whilst the climate is critical, so are local communities directly impacted by fashion manufacturing every day.


The future 

There are lots of standards and certifications emerging which are tackling important issues and giving brands the means to communicate certain credentials, but for Capponi, these can add to the fragmentation and the confusion for shoppers.

A recent article from the New York Times titled: ’What If You Could Read a Fashion Label Like a Food Label?’ explored new labelling systems – drawing parallels between the fashion and food industry.

The new “Sustainability Facts” label from the brand Nisolo, offers on-label sustainability markers spanning 12 categories – presented in a similar way to the vitamins and minerals labels found on food packaging. The assessments cover everything from materials and packaging to wages and health care for workers. Each is listed as a percentage, sourcing data from 31 sources, including the Higg Index, Textile Exchange and the aforementioned Good On You.

This is an interesting and seemingly more accessible way for a brand to present data. Furthermore, this methodology may bridge the gap between statistics and storytelling by allowing for both awareness and accountability. Nonetheless, the article concludes that fashion will inevitably have to follow the path of the food industry and adopt a universal format for on-product sustainable communication.

You can watch the full panel discussion ‘Ratings vs. Rhetoric’ in our CFS+ On-Demand Library here.

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