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

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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.

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All hail the fashion forum! In the social media age, we need them more than ever, says Susie Bubble

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The Fashion Spot

The degree of depth and specificity that take place in the discussions on internet fashion forums, not to mention the honesty and critiquing of the industry, make them an incredible valuable resource, argues Susanna Lau, aka Susie Bubble, founder of blog Style Bubble.

“In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, they may seem like antiquated artefacts of the late 1990s or early 2000s. But fashion needs them more than ever,” she writes for The Business of Fashion.

She gives The Fashion Spot as one example, a site containing nearly 10 million posts on it to date, and the one known as a go-to hub for discussion since its launch in 2001. “The grain of the conversation… is often frank, no-holds barred and pointedly critical of the industry. That’s because members aren’t beholden to their IRL identities. In a forum, you can truly be anonymous and express the sort of unfiltered opinions that are sorely lacking in the general discourse in a fashion world still dominated by big brands.”

She says the sort of depth to the conversations, whether it’s about fashion schools, the cut of a Hedi Slimane-era Dior Homme jacket, 1990s-era Prada advertising campaigns, the rivets on a certain designer bag and the friction this causes with clothing, also can’t be found in mainstream media publications or social media platforms.

“Forums will always be a valuable source of information and discussion for people who want to go beyond fashion’s surface, and those people will always exist,” says Eugene Rabkin, founder of StyleZeitgeist, another well-established forum. “The social media cater to the part of us that wants immediate and easy satisfaction. But at some point, a stratum of audience becomes dissatisfied with such superficiality.”

Importantly, Lau explains, the commentary on forums isn’t always music to designers’ ears, but that often makes it something they pay attention to. She cites the likes of Rick Owens, Joseph Altuzarra and Dries van Noten as all turning to them for honest feedback on their work.

In the Spring 2013 print issue of Style.com, then-editor Dirk Standen said: “As one PR exec told me recently, the designers he works with are more interested to hear what the anonymous commenters on TheFashionSpot.com have to say about their collections than the mighty critics.”

“Forum members have nothing to lose; they are certainly not making money from fashion,” Rabkin explains. “Forums are an incredible source for honest criticism. It is true that you have to have a thick skin, because sometimes the criticism is brutal, but in turn the praise is honest and therefore truly deserved.”

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2014: A designer meets digital year in review

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What a year it has been for fashion and technology…

From wearables taking off with varying designer brands during fashion week, to the launch of new services like Apple Pay, the success of Alibaba’s IPO, discussion around visual search, the ongoing use of selfie campaigns and more, one thing after another has once again been making an impact in this space.

Below then, are 10 of the posts you loved the most on the relaunched F&M site this year. It’s an interesting exploration of subjects as varied as big data and viral videos, as well as the more gimmicky, yet PR-worthy role technology can often play. Think drones, Oculus Rift, the ALS #icebucketchallenge, and yet more on wearable tech.

Thank you for reading and see you in 2015!

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Forget Instagram: what has happened to fashion week commentary on Twitter?

This post first appeared on Fashionista.com

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Is it just me or has Twitter become much less inspiring during fashion week season? I say that as an avid user – both personally and profesionally. I peruse posts day to day, and particularly once the shows hit London, Milan and Paris, when I’m watching via livestream from New York. I scroll through my own feed, I consume via social dashboards attached to designers’ websites, and I go back and search using hashtags and brand names afterwards, too.

What I’ve always enjoyed is the live commentary that you gather from those in the front row, but there seems to have been very little of it for the past couple of seasons, and I for one really miss it. Not the tweets that tell me what show they’re waiting for, the fact the first model has appeared/the last model has walked out, or even what color they’re seeing. Those still exist, and I can gather all that from home.

No, what I really want back, is actual commentary. I want to hear from the editors –- the experts no less — about the 1930s theme emerging at Prada and the influence Miuccia drew from film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or the details of the new Bloomsbury-inspired, hand-painted florals at Burberry Prorsum. I want to know what is sashaying down that runway that, from my own 13-inch screen, I can’t quite see.

The images that are posted can be nice, of course, and on occasion insightful (if not blurry, but that’s another issue). But what happened to a wonderfully descriptive annotation along with it? Or better yet a real-time opinion, a review-on-the-spot even? Here are some of the highlights from the Lanvin show Thursday:

Lots of pictures naturally, but did you gather much about the line really? Navy, white and feathers. It’s a start.

Now it’s not that everyone has put their smartphones back in their handbags to focus on the clothes as they come out of course. So what’s going on?

First up, quite obviously: Instagram. During London Fashion Week there were a total of 266,767 mentions on Twitter, and 316,359 posts on Instagram, according to Bell Pottinger, a British public relations and marketing firm. So arguably, much more time is being spent there.

It goes without saying there’s huge benefit in that space of course. But when someone is at at home watching a livestream, or has access to high-res images in near real-time — not to mention backstage ones from the brand themselves — Instagram shots from the front row don’t necessarily offer all that much. They’re a nice-to-have, and for a feel of fashion week in general, a fantastic stream to follow. But for those really wanting to know about the collections themselves, there’s still a gap — an information gap.

The skill of an editor who has worked in the industry for 10 or more years is to be able to quickly deduce what a collection is about, to analyze its importance for trends, to bring contextual knowledge of its applicability to the commercial market and to offer a clear understanding of the technical side (i.e., garment construction and fabrications).

Portraying that over Twitter is no mean feat. I attempted it as a guest Tweeter on behalf of my employer, WGSN, for the @mbfashionweek account during New York at a number of shows and it’s entirely consuming.

But I don’t think the fact few editors or publications seem to be offering anything like this anymore comes down to just not having the time. With social media now reaching maturity, there’s inevitably becoming a greater push in terms of strategy for organizations and individuals alike on what to do and what not to do to achieve audience engagement.

So here’s my question: Is this lack of Twitter commentary as simple as editors just becoming more obsessed with Instagram? Or is there actually a direct decision being made not to give away too much there and then? (The knowledge of these men and women is a valuable commodity — why hand it out on a free platform, when you can rather store it up and post it on your own site for traffic generation later?)

Then again, maybe it’s just as simple as the fact we’re also all just a little bit over it. Or overwhelmed. Or lazy. Still, I’d like it back.