Sustainable Fashion Communication

By Constance Beswick

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The power of fashion communication

Fashion has always dictated trends with a certain ease – no other medium has quite as much power and potential to make ‘sustainability’, in all its nuance, desirable. This, however, can only be achieved by effective communication, which can give impetus to a new era of sustainability – one in which everyone has influence, knowledge and can act accordingly.

‘Traceability’ is an internal enabler in our Fashion CEO Agenda 2021; within this we advocate for transparent communication to a variety of stakeholders and the wider public. This is in increasingly strong demand, particularly when it comes to a brand’s value proposition, reporting on targets, strategies, progress and actions.1

The demand for information

At COP26, an ambitious update to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was unveiled, laying out a common vision for fashion. Emphasis in the Fashion Charter lies on aligning industry communications to engage broad audiences and expedite meaningful action. The key messages from the UNEP incentivise the industry to commit to transparent and accurate reporting, focus on inclusive storytelling, spotlight new role models and notions of success or aspiration and avoid both exaggeration and omission of claims just to appear more environmentally or socially friendly.2

With upcoming EU legislation impacting transparency including the Sustainable Products Policy Initiative set to be announced in March 2022, the industry will have to adapt. Our partner, the Policy Hub – Circularity for Apparel and Footwear, believe that engaging, comparable, and trustworthy sustainability communication at the product level is key to driving more sustainable customer behaviour and operational change within businesses. You can read more about the role of policy in driving the agenda on transparency in our article here and explore the position paper of the Policy Hub here.

Due to a generation of savvy citizens attuned to the likes of greenwashing, these changes are also in high demand from the wider public. In a 2020 survey conducted by Fashion Revolution; 75% of those surveyed believed that fashion brands should be legally required to provide information about the environmental impacts of their business, and 72% of those surveyed agreed that fashion brands should legally have to provide information about social impacts of their business.3

Synonymous with this demand is scepticism and an overall trust deficit – a 2021 Drapers report revealed that 69% of people do not always trust brands and retailers when they say they are sustainable.4 This begs the question around the most effective type of communication – we examine just some of the options below.

Practices to avoid

Greenwashing 

Popularised by Jay Westerveld in 1986, ‘Greenwashing’ is a form of deceptive marketing in which unsubstantiated claims are used to mislead people into believing that a brand’s product is in some way sustainable. In turn, this leads to widespread scepticism of all sustainability claims and hinders the customer’s ability to make an informed decision.

Greenhushing 

At the other end of the spectrum, we see ‘Greenhushing’ – a term coined by the firm Treehugger to denote when businesses fail to communicate their sustainability practices to customers and stakeholders.5 This may be an attempt to avoid greenwashing accusations as well as to evade criticisms that a brand is not doing enough.  In turn, greenhushing results in missed opportunities to engage customers in the environmental discourse.

Clichés 

To further refine a communications strategy, it pays to stand out. Clichés are often indicative of greenwashing. In 2021, Radley Yeldar analysed Forbes 50 Most Valuable Brands’ sustainability webpages and found that on average the word ‘sustainability’ is repeated 10 times on each webpage and yet the most sustainable brands are only using it once. Moreover, they found that 98% of the analysed brands used at least one identified sustainability cliché on their websites.6

Alternative communication strategies 

Radical Transparency 

Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company have referred to a type of ‘radical transparency’ that will become increasingly pertinent in line with widespread public demands.7 Paving the way for this new level of authenticity at the mass market level are the likes of H&M Group owned Arket, who provide detailed information about suppliers and supply chain policies.

Vulnerability 

Taking things even further into the realm of ultimate transparency we see ‘Mea Culpa’ marketing, with brands acknowledging shortcomings like never before. In the fashion industry this technique has been partly pioneered by Danish label GANNI, now renowned for its vulnerability and openness about needing to do better. In 2020 the brand shared its ‘Good On You’ sustainability rating which indicated that GANNI was ‘not good enough’. This level of upfront honesty can cultivate new levels of trust in its defiance of the norm – carefully curated, calculated, and polished brand representations.

Storytelling 

Whilst facts, stats and numbers can account for certain brand behaviours, they do not tell the full story. It is compelling stories and narratives that give life to sustainability information. At the heart of statistics are human beings with dependent livelihoods at each step of the value chain. Progress in the social and environmental space must engage the wider public on these matters.

Team Integration

The foundation for improved communications lies in education, data, and supply chain knowledge – the above strategies cannot be achieved without internal alignment within a company first. Those responsible for communicating a brands sustainability efforts will fall short and make themselves vulnerable to greenwashing critique if they are not well versed in the intricacies of the fashion value chain at hand.  A recent article from Vogue Business indicated that the onus, however, does not lie on the individuals working in this area as the communications teams seldom have access to all the relevant information.8 The communications team need to be fully integrated into the company to ensure a thorough understanding of its sustainability strategy.

References

1. Global Fashion Agenda (2021). Fashion CEO Agenda 2021.

2. UNEP (2021). Communication must play a critical role in fashion’s climate response.

3. Fashion Revolution (2020). Consumer Survey Key Findings.

4. Drapers (2021). Sustainability and the Consumer 2021.

5. Small99 (2021). Greenhushing.

6. Radley Yadler (2021). Words that work: effective language in sustainability communications.

7. McKinsey & Company (2019). What radical transparency could mean for the fashion industry.

8. Vogue Business (2021). Sustainable fashion communication: The new rules.

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