Pushing purpose over profit: the challenge of credibility in sustainable fashion messaging

sustainability

Syrian refugees working in a Turkish clothing factory producing for brands including Marks & Spencer and ASOS were at the centre of a new BBC Panorama documentary this week

The fashion industry produces over 100 billion items of clothing worldwide each year, with three out of five of those ending up in landfill within the same 12 months, according to McKinsey & Company. Zara produces 24 collections a year, while H&M’s 12-16 lines are refreshed weekly. Overall, public consumption is up a massive 60% since the year 2000. And yet it seems demand and greed is finally catching up with the shopper’s consciousness, and brands are taking note.

“Being green” is no longer a dirty term. A recent report by Nielsen showed that in 2015, global sales of brands that proved a commitment to sustainability grew by 4%, while those without grew less than 1%. The same study shows that as younger generations seek more value from what they consume, 62% of consumers see ‘brand trust’ as the top sustainability factor.

Tapping into an increasingly demanding and informed shopper mentality, brands are now adopting a sustainable philosophy to push a message of purpose over profit; meaning over mindless consumption. But marketing credibility to a skeptical generation – where 50.9% research a brand’s ‘giving back’ claims before buying – is proving to be a challenge where fewer brands are coming out on top.

A recent demand in eco-friendliness explains the success of companies that were built with that Millennial mindset. Reformation, a cool girl clothing brand hailing from Los Angeles, lives by the motto “We make killer clothes that don’t kill the environment”, illustrating the point that talking about “being green” doesn’t have to be alienating to customers. It deploys the RefScale tool to monitor the impact each of its garments has on the environment, while the RefRecycling programme allows e-commerce shoppers to use its delivery box to send old clothes back to the brand, who will handle recycling.

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Reformation’s RefRecycling scheme

When looking at the issue of transparency in production, Everlane gives customers different choices when buying online, which serves to not only explain the value of its merchandise, all made in the USA, but to force people to think of how they are spending their money. The “Pay what you want” scheme allows shoppers to pick how much they want to pay for an item out of three options, while highlighting that the less they pay, the less the brand will be able to invest on production and internal growth.

With 73% of Millennial consumers being willing to pay more for sustainable goods, it’s likely the approach will encourage positive behaviour.

But how can brands who have always been part of the fast fashion phenomenon respond? Enter H&M, whose sustainability focus has moved beyond a higher priced Conscious line and pledge for sustainable cotton, to encouraging customers to bring old clothes into stores for recycling. Although generally a great idea, the practice, now adopted by a handful of high street brands including Zara, raises interesting questions about its intentions. More often than not, customers who donate also receive a discount on their next shop, meaning they are propagating the reckless consumption problem.

Andrew Morgan, director of film, The True Cost, recently spoke to The Telegraph with skepticism: “It’s marketing that confuses well-intentioned people into believing there is no harm.” While for some this can be seen as greenwashing, fast fashion brands seem to always get caught in the “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” cycle.

H&M

H&M

And yet problems around fast fashion and sustainability run a lot deeper than the fast pace of its production and delivery cycles, with a list of complex issues at every stage of production, including subhuman factory conditions, as ASOS has recently come under fire for. Further retailers including Marks and Spencer, Mango and Zara were also central to a BBC Panorama documentary just this week about Syrian refugees working in Turkish factories to make their clothing.

Primark, which has recently won a sustainability award for a pilot programme helping thousands self-employed women farmers better their conditions, is often under criticism for not disclosing enough details about its supply chain too, such as where it sources its cotton from. The argument is that more transparency is needed, even to outline shortcomings against efforts being made to improve.

Speaking to Glossy earlier this year, Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co, remained optimistic: “Wouldn’t it be a dream if [fast fashion retailers] stood up and said, ‘we are going to do one less delivery this year, we’re putting too many clothes out there, and we’re going to take a profit cut?’. The race to the bottom in my opinion is very real.”

While for some brands ‘doing good’ is at the crux of its existence, such as Tom’s one-for-one scheme, bigger, more established brands might find it more challenging. “People used to think about sustainability in terms of brands,” said Wright. “But what do we do if we can’t redo our entire brand? If you’re J. Crew or Tory Burch you can’t rebrand as a sustainable brand. You don’t want to. So you can show you’re making positive change in your supply chain.”

One example lies in Patagonia’s famous Fix Stations, which have become a staple at their shops across the globe. Customers can bring in old Patagonia garments and camping gear to get them stitched and fixed, emphasising the message that if you buy and wear responsibly, you are doing your part to keep the environment in better shape.



The sportswear label conveys that throughout all channels, such as in its recent capital investment in Yerdle, a peer-to-peer marketplace that allows users to swap items, instead of buying. Patagonia’s stance on throwaway culture is refreshingly self-aware; it admits to being part of the consumption problem while inviting others through its Worn Wear events to join them in taking the radical approach of repairing over replacing.

Similarly, customers who buy a pair of jeans at Swedish label Nudie are eligible for a lifetime of free repairs at their stores. “It is deeply rooted part of Nudie Jeans to encourage the care of things that actually get more beautiful as they age. Things that bear your own history and are timeless,” says the brand.

In fact, recently the Swedish government, aiming to tackle “throwaway culture”, has announced it will introduce tax breaks on repairing items, such as bicycles and washing machines, aiming to persuade people to fix rather than buy new items.

To celebrate its 80th anniversary, Hermès has also launched a series of pop-up spaces allowing consumers to dye and clean their used scarves to give them a new lease of life. Hermèsmatic, launching in Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Munich and Kyoto, resembles a laundromat kitted with orange washing machines, in-keeping with the brand’s quirky approach to talking about its history. Encouraging customers to cherish their items throughout the years is perfectly aligned with the luxury house’s ethos of creating heirlooms to be passed down generations.

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The Hermès Hermèsmatic scheme

This whole “make do and mend” mentality touches upon a need to feel a deeper connection with products that people consume. There’s mileage to be had out of ownership around items that tell a story – a nostalgic tool that has been deployed by brand marketers for decades.

The idea of fixing something rings genuine because it forces the consumer to commit to what they are buying and think responsibly about its lifespan. By encouraging repair, brands are fostering a deeper connection with the customer that goes beyond one sale, while emphasising the quality and durability of their products.

Using sustainable semiotics in advertising and marketing is no longer enough. Brands that aspire to lead change must embed their higher purpose in everything they do. Credibility through authenticity will come out on top. There’s a long road ahead, but a collective push being led increasingly by the consumer to get there.