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Business Case
Sustainable Fashion — What’s the Hold Up?

Despite the consumer demand, brand opportunity and environmental imperative, very few brands are taking action in a meaningful way. So, what’s holding up the necessary shift away from fast fashion?

The 2019 McKinsey State of Fashion Report found that 66 percent of UK consumers were willing (in theory) to spend more on sustainable brands, yet sustainable fashion represents just one percent of the entire fashion industry in the UK. There is a huge opportunity for fashion brands to democratise sustainable fashion — in the same way that brands such as Primark democratised fashion through price — but there is a hold up: Despite the consumer demand, brand opportunity and the environmental imperative, very few brands are taking action in a meaningful way.

The 2019 Pulse Report showed that the pace of sustainability progress in the fashion industry has slowed vs. last year, while the industry itself is enjoying immense growth — by 2030, it is expected to reach $3.3trillion and manufacture 102m tonnes of clothes and shoes. So, what’s holding up the necessary shift away from fast fashion?

It’s undermined by a perceived trade-off: aesthetic vs ethics

Fashion is about image, invention, imagination. Fashion is about fantasy, not function. Sustainability is seen by some in the industry as a barrier or constraint on the creative process. Even at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit this year, panellists talked about a trade-off between design and sustainability, like it was a real thing. In my mind, it’s a false paradox. The desire to stay creatively original also means there is a tendency and emphasis on ‘anti-collaboration’ in fashion. This is one of the reasons that it is harder to apply mass transformation within the sector.

European luxury brands, in particular, tend to be quite closed, creatively. There can be a disconnect between the artistic vision within fashion houses and what is actually happening or needed in the market. It is one of the reasons why big cultural appropriation issues happen — they aren’t in touch with the cultural reality for consumers.

Ironically, it is fashion’s creative minds who have the potential to bring sustainability to life. Some fashion designers are starting to do this, channelling their commitment to sustainability into a different kind of creativity or design ethos — the brilliantly outspoken Katharine Hamnett is a trailblazing designer leading this charge. A Cold Wall is also doing some really interesting work on re-engineering design philosophy — the brand is challenging hype culture and adding a ‘human patina’ to the marketing of its clothes; the way we use trainers, for example, is being shown to add to their value; and on a social front, working to equalise luxury fashion by telling stories rooted in youth culture and opening out fashion presentations to a public audience.

Focusing on small changes, while ignoring the bigger picture

There is no doubt that initiatives such as the 1p tax on all garments sold, proposed by the Environmental Audit Committee in its Fixing Fashion report earlier this year, was a step in the right direction, but the bigger picture must be acknowledged and addressed. The sustainability issues in the fashion industry are so systemic and interdependent — working conditions, child labour, forced labour, chemical management, wastewater and effluents, energy and carbon emissions, microfibres associated with synthetic textiles … the list goes on. Brand heroes will not be those that just own a single issue. In addition, brands should not only be thinking about how they can reduce negative impact, but also how they can generate value for people and communities.

However, I believe the most important issue fashion brands can, and should be, taking responsibility for is their supply chains. And there must be greater transparency about how they do this — made all too clear by the Fashion Transparency Index. There’s also a responsibility to help consumers buy more sustainably — whether that’s through choice editing (removing non-sustainable choices, limited purchase, etc); or conversely, through choice influencing (providing information and rewarding more sustainable choices).

Sustainability not taken seriously internally

Although most fashion brands do have an inhouse team dedicated to sustainability, their appetite and commitment is often not enough in isolation. They don’t have enough influence within organisations to make significant change happen. For real impact, it needs to be baked-in across the whole business, from supply chain to sales, and it must start from the top. Fashion leaders need to quickly understand that this is the future of fashion. As Mark Carney warned business leaders about their laissez-fair approach to climate change, they must adapt or ‘fail to exist.’ The question will be how quickly they will respond.

Brands must first be clear on the role sustainability will play in their business — is it about license to operate, driving efficiencies or brand differentiation, growth, innovation? They need to develop a robust POV on the most important issues and implement this across the entire value chain. Sustainability must then be integrated into both the business model and brand — it can’t be a stand-alone initiative. It must be dealt with holistically (from seasonality and sourcing to consumer communications), and shared accountability needs to be created to ensure everyone in the business has the right knowledge and skills to reflect the strategy within their decision-making.

For those sustainability teams who do remain siloed, here are some tips for ensuring your voice gets heard:

  • Collaborate with designers and buyers — inspire them, upskill them and help them deliver the change

  • Bring consumer insight into the process — in 2018, the fashion search engine Lyst tracked more than 100 million searches on its shopping site and reported a 47 percent increase in shoppers looking for products that merged ethical and style qualities, including search terms such as ‘vegan leather’ and ‘organic cotton’

  • Ask for forgiveness, not permission! The best way to persuade a business to launch a new idea is to prove that it can work. Sustainability teams need to learn how to trial (fail) and learn fast

Where do we go from here?

Fashion brands do still have a long way to go in improving their approach and commitment to sustainability. Where should they start? Greater transparency is an important first step. This then should be backed up with improved traceability — and there’s so much brilliant new technology to help make this easier. If transparency is about trust, traceability is about accountability — the combination of the two will help drive real change.

In terms of commercial motivation, sustainability will rarely be the primary purchase driver — that’s not how fashion works. But, if choice and availability can be improved, then people are likely to make the more sustainable choice. Purchase decisions can also be influenced by using sustainability messaging to create stronger connections for consumers — people buy into brand stories and like to say something about themselves through what they wear.

One day, a really successful mainstream brand will show the potential of sustainability and design working in perfect harmony — and will demonstrate, in practice, its creative potential and commercial returns.