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Industry Aug 15, 2012 5 min read

Fashion's conscience: making sustainable attainable

“It’s quite incredible to think that we might be able to save the world through fashion” said Dame Vivienne Westwood last year. It’s a paradox parts of the...

“It’s quite incredible to think that we might be able to save the world through fashion” said Dame Vivienne Westwood last year. It’s a paradox parts of the industry struggle with. How do you make seasonal product, lure customers to update their wardrobes and improve sales figures whilst not stuffing Planet Earth up too much? Has sustainable fashion broken free from it’s neutral-toned, hessian image? And do consumers really care?

Fashion is a wasteful industry; the resources and by-products of manufacture, the transportation of goods and the millions of unwanted garments that go into landfill each year. So what are brands doing to make their impact as gentle as possible? There are many niche ethical and organic labels doing a great job of educating consumers into making greener choices – but they aren’t the ones causing the damage. It’s when big, global businesses start to look at their processes that things get really interesting.

American outdoor clothing specialist, Patagonia have an interesting way of thinking. They teamed up with eBay, collaborating on their Common Threads Initiative which enables the sale and purchase of used Patagonia garments. Patagonia even have a used clothing section on their site, which links to the eBay vendors. Rick Ridgeway, the VP of Environmental Initiatives is pioneering the idea of ‘don’t buy our stuff unless you really need it.’ And do customers still need it? Well it’s still selling! The £65 Nine Trails Gilet at Zalandos which arrived instore on the 1st July, was out of stock in all four sizes by the 8th August. The women’s Nomander trousers arrived instore at Zalandos on the 2nd July at £55. They were increased in price to £75 on 18th July and currently sit out of stock in three of their four sizes.

Other big brands making an effort include Levis, who nearly two years ago introduced their Water<Less™ campaign which reduces the amount of water used in manufacture between 28 and 96 percent (it differs across styles). Their Levis 501 skinny men’s jeans from the Water<Less™ range arrived instore at Urban Industry for £79.99 on the 25th July and are already awaiting restock on four sizes. With product selling and adding nearly 1.5 million new online followers in the last quarter, they’re doing something right!

Marks & Spencer, for all their recent faults, are very committed to reducing their impact. They were the first retailer to bring in pay-for plastic bags, and in May they launched a ‘Schwopping’ campaign fronted by Joanna Lumley. Rather than add to landfill sites, customers are encouraged to donate an old item of clothing in return for a £5 voucher to spend on their next fashion purchase. Over half a million garments were donated in the first six weeks of the campaign. This sort of action really begins to change the way people think about purchases; M&S choose this approach over organic or Fair Trade product – the retailer’s Greener Living webpage has no garments in it currently.

ASOS are making waves too. For the past two years they’ve had a ‘Green Room’ on their site, showcasing product from ethical, organic or Fair Trade brands. Each season their launch a collection from their own Fair Trade range, ASOS Africa, which is produced in Kenya through SOKO who offer training and fair working conditions to the local community. And boy do they sell! Their S/S ’12 collection has seen no discounting, every style bar one has seen size sell outs and much of the first drop sold out in weeks. Where ASOS excel is that they apply their design sensibilities to sustainable product: garments which appeal to fashion lovers, not just earth lovers.

This is something Stella McCartney has worked flawlessly into her business model too: acquiring supreme fashion status where the ethics are almost a byline. It works because it creates a product demand; it just so happens that product’s manufacture is a healthy one. Looking at a price distribution of McCartney’s products shows a huge, and fairly even, spread. People committed to her brand and ethics are able to access it across price points. There is product for them for right through from (luxe) everyday wear with her lingerie, and aspirational occasion-wear. Compare this to Vivienne Westwood, who despairs of the high street and consumer behaviour. Interestingly, her price distribution doesn’t reflect her attitude, with the bulk of products sitting at an affordable and consumable £59-£113.

Eco or ethical ranges don’t work for everyone. As one of the world’s largest manufacturers of clothing, H&M’s Conscious range uses organic hemp, cotton and recycled polyester. A specially designed gown was worn by Michelle Williams to the BAFTAs this year. However, much of the range sees discounting before it sells through. Take the £2o recycled polyester printed shorts. They arrived online on the 12th April, were reduced by 50% after two months and now, four months later, are still instock in four of the sizes at £6.99. The problem for H&M? Perhaps their customer isn’t interested. They may like to look at the M&S route of changing internal processes rather than product.

So, how much do customers care? Of the different categorisations of sustainable fashion, ‘organic’ is by far the most talked about online, with 50,135 mentions last month and a stable pattern of consumer sentiment over the last 12 months. ‘Eco fashion’ gets far fewer mentions and has an erratic pattern of consumer sentiment.  Sentiment peaked mid October 2011, when Vancouver Eco Fashion Week was taking place. However, volume of chatter peaked dramatically in early June for Russian Eco Fashion Week – Russia’s first and a potential emerging market.

What’s clear is that fashion’s consumers aren’t especially interested in talking about hemp or lyocell, that sustainable fashion’s spokespeople are just that – individuals trying to inspire social change. Yet everyone working in the fashion industry has a responsibility to try and limit the damage. Rather than have fast-fashion retailers churning out token ‘eco’ collections which baffle the consumer, why not address the problem by making fewer mistakes? By listening to consumers and applying data the industry can avoid the huge volume of discounted goods, which the consumer then disposes of so easily. Be selective over the stock you buy and rather than hunt out an organic cotton line just to tick the box, internalise the commitment to the cause. A more efficient industry, will in turn cut out the unpredictable orders factories receive which create such bad working conditions and long hours for their workers.

Crowd-sourced design, the correct assortment and the right price first time? Now that’s got to be a good place to start.