The “Rethinking Fashion Sustainability” event held in Milan on March 7.

MILAN Sustainability has been a trending topic for fashion companies overall and it’s now ready to move toward new frontiers, which include the circular economy, aggressive communication strategies and cooperation to hit consumption habits.

These were the main takeaways at the “Rethinking Fashion Sustainability” event, held here Thursday, which discussed the next phase of the industry’s green journey. The event was organized by American management consultancy firm Fashion Technology Accelerator in partnership with Class Eco Hub, a Milan-based smart material innovation, education, marketing and communication consultancy platform.

Giusy Bettoni, chief executive officer of Class Eco Hub, noted fashion heavyweights should embrace “a three-dimensional approach [to sustainability], merging the design, innovation and responsibility pillars, as consumers want those three things at the same time, within a unique selling proposition.” Bettoni remarked the responsible ethos should be channeled in the company’s values, product development, as well as in what she dubbed as “new values,” such as transparency, traceability, animal welfare and material health.

“Longevity and durability is at the core of our brand proposition,” noted The North Face’s sustainability manager Julian Lings, pointing for example to the VF Corp.-owned brand “Renewed” project launched in July in the U.S. aimed at extending the life span of a product. “Our consumer wants us to have a stance, to have an opinion and we’re stepping up on climate change and protection of public land,” Lings explained, noting a $60 beanie crafted from wool marketed “climate beneficial” was “the third fastest-selling item on our e-commerce.”

Putting efforts into materials research and development is key to move the companies past the recycling economy and toward a fully circular one. “OVS employs a lot of cotton, it’s a circular fiber by nature but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily sustainable,” noted Simone Colombo, head of corporate sustainability at retailer OVS. Starting from the fall 2019 collection, the company’s “polar fleece” will also employ recycled polyester only.

Colombo suggested that keeping a broader picture in mind is always pivotal to successful eco-friendly initiatives. “We are living in a spaceship, in a closed environment and every time we forget about that, we’re missing the opportunity to understand what the sustainable principles we should channel in our business practices are.”

Lings also underscored that “from a supply-chain side, the area where we should impact more is consumption,” he said, noting some 100 billion garments are produced each year globally. Zalando’s team lead sustainability and corporate social responsibility Dennis Hoenig-Ohnsorg agreed, pointing to data that show the consumption of garments will grow by 65 percent each year until 2030.

Although fashion players and garment makers’ efforts have already set the foundations for a greener industry over the past 10 years, Bettoni underscored that “only 34 percent of Millennials actually buy sustainable products because brands are not offering items designed with the lifestyle of customers [in mind] and their communication does not provide reliable information about sustainability.”

To this end, Zalando’s Hoenig-Ohnsorg stressed that in order to engage consumers to face the issue, fashion companies should embrace a storytelling approach. “Data need to be accurate and analyzed to generate information, but when you have so much [information] it’s difficult not to overwhelm the customers with an overload of it,” he said, noting “transparency is the base for the next step of green economy.”

“Sustainability is not just about products, if we don’t tell a story consumers are not going to understand: today [the green economy] is about storytelling combined with story-making,” Bettoni concurred.

As an independent company still run by its founders, Mathilde Cathiard-Thomas and her husband Bertrand Thomas, French beauty label Caudalie is also aware of and banking on the importance of storytelling as a tool to engage customers toward the topic. Giovanni Veronesi, Italy’s country manager of the brand, pointed to a green initiative called “1% for the Planet,” with which the beauty brand pledges to donate 1 percent of its global sales to nongovernmental organizations that work to protect the environment. As part of the initiative, eight million trees will be planted around the world by 2021, which will result in the company becoming “carbon negative,” meaning its carbon dioxide emissions will be more than counterbalanced.

Also key to the industry’s shift toward more environmental responsible actions is cooperation. “So many companies believe that sustainability is about giving back [to the planet], but in fact it’s important to be sustainable from the very beginning of the supply chain,” Hoenig-Ohnsorg explained, and invited his peers to embrace the green economy by “doing their bit” and according to a “you don’t need to change the world” mind-set. Zalando — which Hoenig-Ohnsorg remarked is not only a fashion-tech company, but also has logistics infrastructures — has been involved with its Zimpact program, which offers visibility, funding and expertise to industry start-ups that use digital technology to increase supply-chain transparency.

As part of the event, a group of university students also conceived and presented a manifesto called “Circularity Ideathon,” which highlights the notions Millennials consider key to develop a circular business model delivering appealing fashion. The project, spearheaded by Milano Fashion Institute teacher and sustainable fashion expert Francesca Romana Rinaldi, was supported by OVS and included students from Milan’s Politecnico, Bocconi and Cattolica universities, as well as from Milano Fashion Institute.