A zeitgeist of today’s industry, ‘sustainability’ is firmly entrenched in the sphere of fashion. However, talk of sustainable fashion is not reserved for brand executives and leaders, but rather, the industry is faced with a generation of citizens with all-encompassing sustainability agendas well-established in their arsenals.

Addressing sustainability requires us to closely examine a whole range of topics including emissions, production, social justice, waste, pollution, and biodiversity – all of which are inextricably linked. Reinventing the fashion industry to tackle this complex matrix of considerations will require collective efforts from brands, retailers, citizens, and governments.

CONSUMER VS. CITIZEN

The notion of the ‘conscious consumer’ is commonplace these days, but does the term ‘consumer’ require a total rethink? Reducing people to their consumption habits not only places the onus on the accumulation of more, but also limits us to thinking in extractive ways. People and their needs have come to be commercialised – cultivating an unquenchable desire for more.

It is often posed that we should instead reclaim our identities beyond the grasps of relentless marketing and think of people as ‘global citizens’ – agents who can explore their impact in several ways beyond simply consuming, even if it is ‘consciously’.

CITIZENS AND COMPANIES: WHO HAS THE INFLUENCE? 

Businesses are based upon consumer demand, and regulations often change according to public outcry. Shifts towards more sustainable business models are no coincidence, but rather happen as a response to an ever-increasing demand for better practice.

This, however, begs the age-old question around the balance of responsibility between citizens, policymakers, and corporations as the antidote to the climate crisis. The answer lies somewhere in between. If citizens continue to pursue endless consumption at such rapid rates, brands benefitting from this system are less likely to radically reinvent businesses – Drapers recently reported that 39% of people shop for fashion at least once a month, with 19% purchasing something every two weeks.1 Staggering figures such as this indicate that some disruption must come from citizens rethinking their shopping habits, otherwise we can’t expect brands to change.

So, whilst a huge proportion of responsibility resides within organisations to carry out business more ethically, responsibly, and transparently, citizens have the opportunity to demand more from organisations because they simply have to listen. If citizens have the privilege to do so, they can be very powerful with their consumption. The exchange that takes place when someone buy a garment, positions them in an often-global supply chain.

TRANSPARENCY AND GREENWASHING

Drapers latest report indicated that shoppers want to do the right thing but are often confused when shopping – thus, there appears to be a gap between what consumers want to do versus what they end up doing. Earlier this year Zalando released its, ‘It Takes Two’ report – exploring the attitude-behaviour gap across 12 dimensions of sustainable purchasing decisions, emphasising just how critical efforts are from every party to bridge this gap.2

Whilst an overall decrease in consumption is a powerful way to disrupt the industry, when people do try to shop more sustainably, they are stifled by the lack of transparency and the rampant rise of ‘greenwashing’ in the industry. Citizens can’t establish the true cost of garments without credible information about supply chains.

Buzzwords aplenty, it’s difficult to find a brand without some sort of ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ collection, and yet with no regulation on these terms, Drapers found that 69% of people do not always trust brands and retailers when they say they are sustainable,1 so even in terms of marketing – greenwashing simply isn’t working. A two-pronged approach is needed here – encompassing better regulation on sustainability labelling and greenwashing avoidance from brands.

Read more about the role of policy in driving the agenda on transparency HERE.

Individuals are questioning systems and demanding change; accordingly, they should be provided with the credible information they need to begin to navigate the complex world of sustainability.

Read more about how Global Fashion Agenda is working with the industry to navigate these complex issues HERE.

REFERENCES

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

2. Zalando (2021). It Takes Two.

Black Friday is unashamedly a day centred around the mass production and consumption that is so problematic today. Cue the onset of emails filling up your inbox incentivising you to capitalise on the ‘biggest sale ever’ before it’s ‘too late’. Currently, it is estimated that 30% of clothing made isn’t sold and another 30% is sold at a discount.1

Whilst this day is the ultimate embodiment of overproduction and overconsumption – two of the most poignant barriers to industry progress – these continue to be a problem throughout the year. Suppressing these impulses is certainly no easy feat – we find ourselves in a time where social media platforms are in essence, tailored catalogues presenting alarmingly accurate depictions of the products playing on our minds through targeted ads. Users are constantly in a state of ‘ambient shopping’, however, as we reckon with the ever-urgent climate crisis alongside a whole host of accompanying social issues, we must reset the pace and purpose of our shopping habits.

The current rate of production and consumption cannot be sustained if we are to remain within planetary boundaries. Our Fashion on Climate report indicated that sustainable consumer behaviours have the power to influence 21% of fashion’s carbon emissions.2 As citizens we must now re-evaluate our consumption habits and use our purchasing powers to send a strong signal to the industry. Below, we outline just some of the considerations that citizens can take when doing so.

To understand more about the balance of responsibility in the industry read our article here.

Buy less

It may seem obvious, but with billions of garments produced annually, and little sign of this growth slowing, addressing rates of consumption is a necessity. As algorithms reinforce the cultural urge to buy, and hauls, reviews, sponsored posts, gifted items and influencer collaborations saturate our feeds, we must take the time to truly consider what we consume. Avoid impulse buys on the basis of deals and short-lived trends and consider the garments already in your wardrobe.

 

Buy better

We live in a time of throwaway culture, but what we seem to forget is that clothes don’t just disappear once we’ve grown tired of them – the latest images of Chile’s Atacama Desert show the stark reality of this. We must instead think of every purchase as something to treasure, pass on and look after because there is simply no such thing as ‘away’ once you are finished with something. When you do decide to buy something new, explore the brands taking things a step further, beyond simply mitigating or neutralising negative impacts but rather fostering positive climate results. Looking holistically at brands efforts towards both social and environmental sustainability is vital. You have the ability to be powerful with your purchases. Every time you opt for one garment over another, you incentivise brands to continue with the practices behind the item.

Used clothes discarded in the Atacama Desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile. [Martin Bernetti/AFP]

 

Be cautious of greenwashing 

The prevalence of greenwashing and misleading eco credentials is on the rise which can make shopping sustainably quite the challenge. Instead of taking product claims at face value, to truly discern the impact of a product means exploring detailed policies from brands. Alternatively, apps such as ‘Good On You’ and ‘Renoon’ exist to try and guide users through the true impact of brands – indicating where they perform well and where they perhaps fall short.

 

Shop resale 

Shopping second-hand has never been easier, and this is a powerful way for us all to contribute to a circular economy – giving a new lease of life to garments already in existence, all whilst finding unique pieces for your wardrobe.

 

Consider renting

One in three young women in Britain consider a garment worn once or twice to be old.3 Shocking as this may seem, action need not entail creative compromise. With throwaway fashion at an all-time high during Christmas party season, there is no better time to rent. Renting not only saves money but allows people to indulge in very trend-forward pieces without having to toss them aside following a few Instagram snaps at an event.

 

Take care and repair

Good care of garments will reap a number of benefits. By ensuring the longevity of your clothing and repairing where you can, you extend the lifetime of what you already own, making garments less likely to end up in landfill. Beyond this, being mindful about the number of times you wash garments will prolong their life, reduce your water consumption and CO2 emissions, and mean that fewer microplastics enter our water ways. Washing clothes is responsible for over a third of microplastics in our oceans.4

 

Resell, reshare and recycle 

Paying close attention to the end-of-life of your clothing is crucial. Consider reselling garments, swapping clothes with friends, or looking into recycling schemes for the clothes that are beyond repair. Be mindful when donating clothing – the second-hand supply chain is complex. Read more here.

 

Avoid returns where possible

Discarding returns is common practice from brands – some 5 billion pounds of waste are generated annually through returns.5 When shopping new it is imperative to ensure correct sizing to avoid the need for returns. EyeFitU feature on Global Fashion Agenda’s Innovation Forum, with a mission to provide the most precise, engaging, and innovative size and fit software available. Through time, this kind of software will hopefully become the norm, making it much easier to be confident about sizing when ordering online.

These are just some of the ways citizens can create an impact when it comes to consumption. Find out more here.

 

REFERENCES

1. Global Fashion Agenda (2021). Prosperity vs. Growth Explainer video.

2. Global Fashion Agenda (2020). Fashion on Climate.

3. Business of Fashion (2019). The State of Fashion 2019.

4. De Falco, F., Di Pace, E., Cocca, M. et al. (2019). The contribution of washing processes of synthetic clothes to microplastic pollution.

5. BBC Earth (2020). Your brand new returns end up in landfill.

Fashion has the power to be a leading force in tackling the climate crisis, that is, if we address the role it plays in perpetuating current patterns of consumption and production. As we grapple with increased consciousness around this, we know that this pace cannot be maintained if we are to remain within planetary boundaries.

This month, we’ve been taking a deeper dive into consumption in the fashion industry. We’ve considered whether the title ‘consumer’ is due a rethink, we’ve explored the balance of responsibility between citizens, policymakers, and corporations as the antidote to the climate crisis and we’ve laid out how citizens can re-evaluate their consumption habits and use their purchasing powers to send a strong signal to the industry on days such as Black Friday.

Read more about where the responsibilities lie here and our sustainable citizen guide here.

Our Fashion on Climate report indicated that sustainable consumer behaviours have the power to influence 21% of fashion’s carbon emissions. To help citizens navigate the complex world of sustainability, a number of pioneering solution providers exist to help streamline the process of consuming more mindfully.

Our digital Innovation Forum showcases an extensive range of solution providers that are encouraging industry-wide transformation by providing solutions to support processes throughout the entire fashion sector. Innovations are a key way to create change in the supply chain by allowing citizens to shop circular clothing, access better size guides and gather more information about the credibility of brands sustainability claims.

Solution Providers

Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) is a global leader in providing physical and digital labelling solutions. Avery Dennison is actively involved in serving the evolving needs of citizens while advancing the circular economy and engaging customers in the life cycle of garments. This is evident in the Digital Solutions Portfolio – with labels indicating how a garment was made, what it was made from, how to care for it, and how to recycle or resell it to ensure a circular product lifecycle.

Aware™  is a traceability technology that verifies the authenticity of sustainable materials. With a simple scan people can distinguish genuinely sustainable fabric whilst accessing all of its traceability data. Citizens can in shop in confidence, knowing a brands sustainability claims are reliable and genuine.

EyeFitU AG is a software company in the fashion industry offering a SizeEngine™ AI Platform and Advanced Analytics. The SizeEngine™ provides guides costumers with the most precise, engaging and innovative size and fir software in the world. As a result, return rates are lowered which has a direct impact on CO2 emissions and reduces transportation, reconditioning and waste.

Renoon is the first app globally that empowers citizens to realise their sustainable lifestyle and values when shopping for clothing by combining the offering from multiple websites at once and assessing sustainability at the product level. Renoon’s proprietary algorithm can process millions of fashion items and assign sustainability attributes to them. As such, Renoon functions as a direct-to-consumer destination and educational tool, bringing transparency in the industry and allows users to be guided, as well as educated, in a new value-based, personalized experience.

Sense – Immaterial Reality exist to support the digital transformation journey through innovative technologies. Among its offerings is Sense Fabric – highly photorealistic and detailed 3D models of fabrics, reproducing all of the features of the real product. This customised solution means that all products in a collection can be viewed in Immaterial Reality – like having a sample in your hands only without the production and shipping costs.

Visit our digital INNOVATION FORUM to browse and connect with the entire array of solution providers that can help futureproof the industry.

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.