How sustainability in fashion went from the margins to the mainstream

Nearly every apparel marketer is following consumer demand by leaping onto the green wagon

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Credit: Illustration by Helen Friel

Banana Republic is plugging its vegan suede jackets. J. Crew's Madewell brand is urging consumers to turn their "old jeans" into "new homes" through its denim recycling program. Even fast-fashion giants, such as H&M and Uniqlo, which by definition are the opposite of ethically sourced apparel, are touting organic collections or recycling initiatives. Nearly every apparel marketer is following consumer demand by leaping onto the green wagon.

"Sustainability used to be seen as a nice-to-have and a fringe trend, but now it's a core differentiator and a way consumers are really deciding between brands," says Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the Innovation Group and JWTIntelligence.com at Wunderman Thompson. New generations of buyers, specifically millennials and Gen Z, care more about the earth they're poised to inherit and have adjusted their spending accordingly. Indeed, in a recent Nielsen survey, 81 percent of consumers said they felt strongly that companies should help improve the environment.

Of course, incorporating some type of environmentally friendly practices into a label could mean a variety of things. Some brands use recycled materials to produce their wares; others claim to recycle goods after they've been purchased. Uniqlo, for example, has a recycling drop-off bin at its stores for consumers to leave unwanted clothing. Other companies, like direct-to-consumer player Everlane, market radical transparency so shoppers know how goods are produced every step of the way. Sustainability can also mean ethical production, in which workers are treated fairly and paid well, and sourcing materials in an environmentally friendly way.

This lack of a clear definition of terms is proving both beneficial and burdensome for brands grappling with how to best market their environmental consciousness to consumers. Some have gotten in trouble for inauthenticity, or when common practices, like Burberry's burning of excess goods last year, come to light on social media. Meanwhile, new apps for consumers provide brand ratings based on environmental impact, making it even more imperative for brands to get it right with their marketing messaging.

"It's the Wild West out there right now," says Paul Magel, president of the business applications and technology outsourcing division at CGS, a software company that works with retail clients. "Brands can tout what they want to tout. It's not like there's a government-mandated label that says 'To use sustainable, it has to have these tenets.'"

From crunchy to conventional

Historically, brands that dabbled in environmentally friendly practices were considered crunchy and unconventional; in the '60s and '70s, the trend started to gain traction. Some brands, such as sportswear marketer Patagonia and womenswear label Eileen Fisher, have always incorporated green initiatives into their operations, but it was not until the early 2000s that green messaging filtered out into the mainstream, as mass market brands began to notice the potential benefits. In recent years, social campaigns like #fashionrevolution and #slowfashion, which encourage consumers to take a deeper look into how their clothes are made, have helped spread demand for more transparency.

Elvis & Kresse bags made from fire hoses
Elvis & Kresse bags made from fire hoses Credit: Elvis Kresse

Now, brands that aren't up-to-date will be left behind—yet experts warn they need to be careful to avoid the greenwashing that was prominent a decade ago. Consumers are savvier now, and they're demanding complete truth and transparency.

"We have access to so much information now as consumers," says Hannah Phang, marketing and advocacy manager of Futerra, a sustainability strategy agency, noting that companies that are not sustainable face backlash, but brands that claim to be sustainable but are aren't will still endure the same repercussions.

The same Nielsen survey showed that 75 percent of millennials said they're changing their buying habits to benefit the environment. While Nielsen looked at the rise of sustainable products such as food and personal care items, which were on track to grow 20 percent between 2014 and 2018 to $128.5 billion, analysts expect the increases to influence the apparel category as well.

"We believe that brands that are able to distinguish themselves from a sustainability perspective are the best positioned to capture a larger share of the millennial consumer's wallet," wrote Camilo Lyon, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity, in a recent research report analyzing lifestyle brands and retailers including The North Face and vegan bag company Matt & Nat.

Elvis & Kresse, a high-end accessories brand based in Kent, England, has witnessed the evolution firsthand since its 2005 founding. The brand, which reclaims materials such as used fire hoses that were meant for landfills and repurposes them into handbags, belts and wallets, donates 50 percent of its profits to charities. Co-founder Kresse Wesling says that the brand is beginning to see more demand for partnerships and collaborations from larger brands, and the luxury sector in particular, looking to incorporate some of Elvis & Kresse's sustainability into their own business strategies. That's a shift from 14 years ago.

"When we started, people thought we were crazy, quirky and interesting," says Wesling. "But the industry is slowly coming around to the idea that if they're not sustainable, the game is up."

Paying lip service

Brands need to be careful they're not just paying lip service to a trend that consumers are well- equipped to track. Good on You, a mobile app that debuted four years ago after a crowdsourcing campaign, helps consumers figure out how sustainable brands actually are by incorporating each brand's supply chains and certifications such as Fair Trade, organic and vegan into one universal rating system. The Sydney-based company then ranks each company on a score of one to five. Good on You, which recently recruited actress Emma Watson as a public supporter, has rated 2,000 brands so far, and its system is growing, according to co-founder Sandra Capponi.

Last month, the company expanded its searchable directory, making its ratings accessible via desktop computer to its 200,000 users.

"The good thing is that sustainability and ethics are now seen as desirable, marketable qualities for a brand," Capponi says. "The downside is that some brands may overstate their efforts in order to catch the trend."

Indeed, experts warn that consumers have become particularly sensitive to over-exaggeration or PR stunts with marketing when it comes to sustainability. Brands are now under the social media microscope, where one misstep can balloon into a boycott. Such was the case last summer, when consumers discovered that Burberry had burned $37 million worth of unsold goods. Though such a strategy for disposal is common practice among luxury fashion houses keen to keep their apparel exclusive, Burberry still drew widespread outrage, consumer boycotts, and open letters of criticism from other brands. As a result, the luxury brand announced in a press release in September that it was ending the practice of destroying "unsaleable" items. Burberry, which did not return a request for comment, now works with recycling brands such as Elvis & Kresse and says it's trying to invent new sustainable materials. "Modern luxury means being socially and environmentally responsible," CEO Marco Gobbetti said in a statement in September.

Patagonia fair trade certified tags
Patagonia fair trade certified tags Credit: Patagonia

"Brands are in a fishbowl in a way they haven't been before," says Wunderman Thompson's Greene, noting that Gen Z is the most engaged consumer to date. "You have a culture online of people watchdogging brands—if they're culturally appropriating, like Gucci or Prada, or behaving in a sustainably irresponsible way."

While many brands, particularly mass-market retailers, are beginning to collect used clothes for recycling initiatives, it's not always clear to consumers what happens after they donate. Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, says that few materials can actually be turned back into wearable garments—such items have to be 100 percent of one fabric, versus the much more common blends that include Lycra. In addition, all fasteners, such as snaps, zippers, or buttons, must be removed from a garment—an expensive and lengthy process. Brown also questions that there's enough demand in the world for carpet backing or housing insulation to meet the amount of clothing collected. Many brands are promoting such conversions to customers.

"It's really difficult to know what actually happens with all these clothes," says Brown. "At this stage, there's very little that can be recycled back into clothing again."

Tracking the chain

Some brands are turning to software companies, such as New York-based CGS, to gain more visibility into their own supply chain through the use of improved tracking metrics. CGS' Magel says the company has seen increased interest during the last 24 months from brands trying to track down the origin of fabric and cost of labor. CGS has more than 200 retail clients.

"We're seeing more folks wanting to track metrics and have visibility," Magel says, noting it's a way for brands to demonstrate their commitment to the environment. His company, which also runs an annual survey on retail and sustainability, found that 68 percent of Gen Z shoppers have made an eco-friendly purchase during the last year, a figure that Magel says has increased from the year earlier.

Along with authenticity, marketers also need to ensure their messaging makes sense. Sustainability is a complex subject, and often supply chain jargon requires a translator. Some agencies, like 18-year-old Futerra, are beginning to work more with brands to come up with campaigns that not only communicate clearly, but also cut through the clutter of saturation. "Sustainable" might be one of the most overused words in fashion right now, to the point that it means very little to shoppers.

"Brands are experts about communication and getting people excited, building a lifestyle," says Futerra's Phang. "But the funny thing is that when it comes to sustainability, they completely forget their marketing know-how."

Patagonia has baked sustainability into its messaging since the retailer's 1973 founding. More recently, the Ventura, California-based company has focused on the four "R"s of repair, reuse, recycle and reduce, according to Rick Ridgeway, who has worked with the brand for decades on environmental initiatives and currently serves as a spokesman.

"Young people are increasingly aware, and they're looking for companies that want to partner with them in real ways and not just in some sort of surface or really non-transparent or inauthentic way," Ridgeway says.

He agrees that some topics can be challenging, like explaining the environmental impact of materials. "It gets pretty wonky pretty fast," he says. To that end, Patagonia often uses equivalents—for example, the energy used to make a jacket could light a house for three weeks—to be as easy to interpret as possible for most consumers. If a shopper wants to learn more, Patagonia's website has an in-depth The Footprint Chronicles section that provides details on the brand's supply chain and factories. The retailer rarely works with outside agencies, instead relying on its in-house ad agency for marketing and messaging.

"We always felt most comfortable telling our stories ourselves," says Ridgeway. "We've learned how to do it in ways that we feel are deeply authentic."

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