Sustainability and the marketing around it may be an undertaking for any brand, but shoppers these days sure seem to like it.
Words like “sustainable,” “green” and “eco” — even leafy packaging or other marketing materials — tend to draw the eyes of consumers bombarded daily with advertising messages. Secondhand shopping and fashion sharing, frequently marketed as a form of eco-consumerism, have gone mainstream, especially with the younger set. And getting behind an issue like sustainability can also ground a brand in something larger than itself (not just consumerism for the sake of it), which shoppers are gravitating toward more as discussion around waste, pollution and other effects of apparel manufacturing becomes more common.
“Purpose helps companies create deeper and longer-lasting bonds with consumers as Americans feel these firms care about them, their communities and the issues that are important to them,” Cone Communications, an affiliate of global marketing firm Porter Novelli, wrote in new branding research. “Here, true brand loyalty is bred and curated.”
A lack of brand loyalty is a hurdle for most consumer-focused companies now, when shoppers, be it for cars, clothes or creams, have access to so many choices and tend to value convenience. Most shoppers are also a couple of clicks away from finding more about any brand, if they wish, and what they see, or sometimes don’t see, has the power now to push them elsewhere.
“If labels say eco-friendly, or [note] sustainably sourced materials, I think people who are more conscious about their choices would like to see these terms on product labels,” Mary Leou, a professor at New York University focused on environmental conservation and education, said.
She also noted that while there is something of a socioeconomic divide between “who can afford what” when it comes to sustainable products, which still typically cost more to produce, a “universal issue” is excess packaging for products.
“If we can use less wrapping and packaging of products, that is something everyone can buy-into,” Leou said. “The less packaging the better.”
Timo Rissanen, associate dean at Parsons School of Design, where he teaches fashion design and sustainability, said words like “organic” (one of the few that actually means something concrete about elements of a product) “sustainable” and even “clean,” at their core function as “proxies of trust.” As understanding around sustainability continues to evolve “we continue to need these proxies,” he noted. “Rather than language for marketing, [these type of words] should be accurate descriptives of products and business practices, and that is where things often currently get muddled.”
Brands may have a few motivations for not being completely clear on what some words they use in marketing actually mean. They may want to appeal to a certain consumer or simply glom onto the trend of cause appreciation. But some working in more sustainable practices, particularly in the luxury space, are facing a sense by shoppers that such changes mean “cheap.” Some may even associate it with a specific earthy aesthetic that doesn’t jibe with an idea of luxury — an either/or, not a combination.
Rissanen said this was essentially the thought several years ago, and while it’s dissipated when it comes to beauty, all but overtaken by wellness, the perception around fashion has a ways to go. But he said the companies should be leading the way.
“Companies should be striving to do the ‘right thing,’ whether their customers care or not,” Rissanen said. “At the same time, those of us who care should pressure the companies whose practices are damaging. We know enough to make the changes — these things are no longer optional.”
For those brands that are doing real work on sustainability but let it go largely unmentioned, there’s a sense that bringing to light advancements will only throw into relief how deep the problems go and what’s left to be done.
“I’ve spoken with a number of brands over the years who are doing really good work on sustainability behind the scenes but who do not talk about it publicly for the fear of being judged for the things they haven’t got to yet,” Rissanen said.
Nevertheless, there is some progress being made and many brands, or the conglomerates behind them, are becoming more public with what they’re advancing on and how. Global Fashion Agenda reported this year in an annual study that sustainability and strategies around it for all operations is a significant priority for a majority of executives working in the fashion industry. But it is still difficult to get strategies off the ground and it’s costly. Interest and action around sustainability of any kind is much less with smaller companies offering lower-priced goods and GFA found these players to be “significantly behind” in the conversation and action.
“The giant companies and luxury players still lead the way, but finding solutions for the unresolved problems is becoming tougher and impact and returns are receding,” the report said.
Sustainability practices like efficient water use and supply chain traceability, which more often are worked into digital marketing campaigns, product launches and events by mid-range brands, are getting more common. But even big fashion players hyper-focused on a long-term sustainable overhaul, like Kering, hit roadblocks — like raw materials that are sustainable but also high-quality. Reducing waste in production and across a long supply chain is also difficult, as is where garments end up after they’re discarded.
“Even under optimistic assumptions, the industry’s existing solutions and business models will not deliver the impact needed to transform the industry,” the Fashion Agenda report said. “Fashion needs a deeper, more systemic change.”
The pinnacle of sustainable production for any industry is a “closed loop,” wherein everything is reused or made from recycled fabrics and materials, but the fashion industry seems a ways off from using any recycled products, much less basing its entire production on them. Everlane recently launched a line of jackets made from recycled plastic (noting in a campaign that once plastic is created, it can never be destroyed) but it’s difficult to see a Chanel or a Balenciaga launching something made from recycled materials — it would take some serious marketing to convince their base of shoppers that such an item would call for the inevitable luxury price tag.
And that may just be the heart of the issue. Consumers seem poised to welcome a “do no harm” mentality on behalf of brands, but companies are naturally thinking about revenue and profits.
“As long as fashion is primarily discussed as something to buy, something to shop, the possibilities will remain very constrained,” Rissanen said. “We’ll still only be in the realm of something less damaging, less bad, rather than creating a completely new system founded on sustainment.”
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