Sustainability has long been at the forefront of the fashion conversation, with companies at both ends of the industry’s pipeline — including brands, manufacturers, textile firms and machine providers — investing money to make sure their products and processes are more eco-friendly and mirror today’s customers increased attention to the environment.
Yet Giusy Bettoni, founder and chief executive officer of CLASS, a Milan-based international platform that connects the key players in fashion and provides the resources they need to realize sustainability, believes the path to a sustainable future for fashion still has a long way to go.
A lot has to do with the way companies communicate their efforts.
“In the past four to five years, a lot of companies have invested in responsible innovation, but that’s not communicated properly because it is not believed as a value customers would care about,” Bettoni said in an interview with WWD.
“For some reasons I can’t really tell, there’s a lack of communication, a mix and match of different approaches leaving the companies undecided on which steps to take. Each fashion company tells its own story, there isn’t a shared knowledge shining a light on the way to reach the goals,” she contended.
When Bettoni founded CLASS — Creativity, Lifestyle and Sustainable Synergy — in 2007, she proposed herself as an “ingredient branding” expert at a time when “almost no one cared about the composition of a piece of clothing, more than 50 percent of the appeal was ascribable to design, and sustainability was labeled as ugly, expensive and non-performative.”
As for the reasons why customers are drawn to a fashion piece, the design quotient is still very important, as is performance. And yet customers are taking sustainability into greater consideration, making sure that what they wear is not harmful to their health — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — or that businesses safeguard the environment and their workforce.
“Customers are not ignorant at all, it’s been the industry keeping them so for too long,” she said.
But the winds are changing fast: Communicating sustainability both to the market and to end consumers is increasingly pivotal to stay afloat.
“If we lose the three dimensions while communicating, we lose one of the values that could be potentially engaging for the consumer,” she noted, referring to design, performance and sustainability.
This is part of a new way of communicating, which encompasses both storytelling and storymaking, as Bettoni put it, pointing to in-depth information about eco-friendly practices delivered through the companies’ web sites or through new technologies such as VR, smart tags and labels.
“We have to share the number of options we have to be sustainable through educational programs and also on the other end to share our actions with the consumer, which is more challenging, and also to tell our eco-friendly efforts less generically,” thus avoiding green-washing, she mused.
“I’ve never appreciated what’s labeled as a ‘commodity,’ — organic cotton for example — I don’t think it’s valuable to be generic or non-specific when it comes to sustainability,” Bettoni noted.
In her view, responsible fashion is always the byproduct of “responsible innovation,” through which new business models are encouraged and companies can take a broader approach in all phases of creation. This ensures responsibility is embedded at every stage of fashion development and production.
“We need a new vocabulary, new values and new formats….It’s essential to be inclusive and current when we talk about sustainability, embedding the green ethos into the company’s narrative, without it shadowing other values,” which are equally important, she explained.
Likewise, name-dropping certifications no longer represents an effective way to engage customers. Certifications should be complementary to real values, she said, as too often they do not recount the number of efforts — and values — behind the products and processes that bear that seal of approval.
To wit, Bettoni urges fashion companies to think first about values — such as the respect of human rights, the materials and fabrics employed, the amount of saved resources — and how they are tangibly incorporated into collections and products. In her view, corporate communication — which has characterized the way especially bigger brands share their sustainable commitment — should be flanked by information on single products and single collections, in order to meet consumers’ demand for transparency.
To this end, more than 10 years after establishing CLASS, Bettoni acknowledged the need to step up her game, by reshuffling the services her consultancy provides, adding new areas that are in sync with today’s scenario. “The great change comes during the COVID-19 time as we had time to stop and think of a new project that will spearhead our growth in the next decade,” Bettoni commented. The new structure will kick off at the end of June.
Banking on CLASS’ successful “Material Hub” area dedicate to innovative and smart fabrics and yarns, Bettoni has encapsulated it into the “Smart Tools” section, which will provide resources for eco-friendly processes in the “Process x Progress” hub, which includes advice on new generation dyeing and finishing techniques, as well as machinery, such as Italy’s Santoni’s seamless knitting machine that avoids yarn waste; for the circular economy and upcycled fabrics in the “Back in the Loop” section, and for advanced communication tools with the “Future Devices” area, which includes for example a responsive digital technology implemented by Sense-immaterial Reality for CLASS’ iCatalog App, allowing to experience remotely the physical features of textiles, or WeArt, which is similarly focused on virtually providing a sense of the tactile characteristic of fabrics.
Firmly believing in the role of education, Bettoni said “the more a textile company is technologically advanced, the less it acknowledges the role of communication, believing that innovation is sufficient. I think that small and medium-sized textile companies, but also bigger players, are really communicating sustainability in a conventional way without creating value because they share the same approach of fast fashion firms.”
To this end, CLASS will introduce the “Smart Academy” area, a program of events, tutorials, talks and masterclasses — each with a different target — aimed at propelling knowledge and sharing the best practices among industry leaders. Additionally, the “Smart Source” hub already introduced three years ago will represent a hybrid between the two former sections, encompassing a sample e-shop and an educational platform targeting fashion design students, designers and brands who will be granted access to information and to buy small amount of innovative fabrics, for which minimum quantities would be required otherwise.