Customers say they want brands to be more environmentally conscious — but eco-friendly marketing campaigns fall flat.
ustainable fashion — a vision of clothing and accessories that don’t pollute the planet through greenhouse gas emissions, toxic chemicals, or waste — finally seems to have outgrown its hippie reputation and matured into a sexy, popular topic.
“I do feel optimistic that in the last 10, 15 years there’s been a seismic shift … in the consumer’s interest and awareness of this issue,” Lily Cole, a model and socially conscious entrepreneur, said on a panel at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit on May 15 and 16. The panel was a gathering of industry insiders dedicated to figuring out how to clean up the mess the fashion industry has made of the planet. “Maybe I’m being naive, but it’s actually becoming sexier,” she said.
Try telling that to the marketing departments of fashion brands who are flailing in this new, scary world of microfiber pollution and PETA exposés. This question of how to talk about sustainability to consumers hung heavy over the summit, with two panels devoted to the topic, plus questions for almost every other panel besides.
Nobody, it seemed, had an answer, least of all summit co-sponsor H&M, which endured several thinly veiled jabs from panelists for its frequent sustainable marketing campaigns in the past five years.
“[Brands think] this forgives the worst of our behavior,” said Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product Innovation and premium collection design at Levi Strauss & Co., during a panel. “The circularity thing makes it so we can double our business without worrying about things like straining water systems around the world. In fact, no. If six out of 10 garments we produce end up in a landfill or incinerated within the first year of production, should we have made those six?” The audience broke into applause.
It’s not just fast-fashion conglomerates that seem lost, though. Small and medium companies with passionate founders are struggling as well. The founders of several of these companies expressed bewilderment around communicating to their customers about the topic of sustainability and the question of whether it’s worth communicating at all.
“I’ve founded a few companies and worked with lots of companies that have put social responsibility and sustainability at their core,” said Cole, “and in every instance, it’s been a conflict and a battle of how to communicate that, if to communicate that.”
This shouldn’t be so hard. Marketers like to point to surveys in which millennials say they would absolutely pay more for a sustainable product — three out of four respondents in a 2015 Nielsen survey, for example — making it a tempting marketing ploy.
But there’s simply no data or research showing that consumers put their money where their mouth is. Research does show that people just decide to forget about child labor so they can buy what they want. Another recent survey showed that when it comes to key purchasing decisions, millennial consumers rank pretty much everything else — ease of purchase (95 percent of those surveyed), price/value (95 percent), uniqueness of a product (92 percent), and brand name (60 percent) — over sustainability (only 35 percent).
“Of course, there is going to a subset who are really interested in sustainability and want to know where things come from,” said Rachel Arthur, chief intelligence officer at the fashion innovation consultancy TheCurrent. “But even if we are seeing that trajectory increase, I guarantee you the majority of consumers are not interested in wanting to understand your supply chain. They just want to have a nice product at the end of the day.”
So if your marketing plan is to place your product in front of the customer and list all the ways it’s sustainable, you’ll fail. “We’ve found that the more data you give, the more you alienate and overwhelm,” Cole said.
I went into the conference feeling cynical about there being any way to market the sustainability of a fashion line. But after listening to the experts hash it out, I think I might have a sustainable fashion marketing manifesto: Pick a simple message and offer quality clothing.
Buy clothes, not too many, mostly plants
I went around at the conference asking people for an example of a successful sustainable marketing campaign. Without fail, they pointed to Patagonia’s 2011 Don’t Buy This Jacket ad, which urged consumers to buy less stuff and keep it for longer. Telling its customers to buy less seems like a suicide mission for any brand, but counterintuitively, revenues jumped by 30 percent the next year. Consumers, it turned out, wanted to invest in something high-quality that would last a long time.
And then there’s H&M’s Conscious Collections. Every time the brand debuts a new edited selection of clothing made of innovative sustainable materials, consumers stampede the store and clean out the collection within days. (And then resell it for a markup on eBay.)
It seems that fast-fashion lovers are not responding so much to the laundry list of ways the Conscious Collection is sustainable, but the overall promise of the Conscious Collection: Everything in this section is sustainable. Combined with the higher price point and robust resale market, the more subtle but powerful message is, This is all high–quality.
H&M has taken a variety of sustainability initiatives and implemented them across its larger, conventional collections. But it’s having trouble messaging this to customers, who, with good reason, haven’t taken the time to pore over their thick, data-filled sustainability report.
And while H&M’s clothes recycling campaign, which urged consumers to bring in their old clothes to their store to get recycled in return for a discount, certainly was fun, it was filled with images of ripped and torn clothing. The message there? Our clothing is worthless. Come stuff it in a bin so you can buy more worthless stuff. Now H&M finds itself in a position where its stock withers as it struggles with loads of unsold inventory.
And while Fashion Revolution Week inundated fashion social media accounts with #WhoMadeMyClothes requests, the topic of sustainability doesn’t come up with quite as much enthusiasm or frequency.
“We’ve never been asked, no,” said Tobia Sloth, CEO of Norse Projects, when asked if his customers ever inquire about sustainability. “Our customers expect us to be, in a way, automatically sustainable. We manufacture in Europe and we care about the quality of our products. Some of our customers won’t buy certain clothes if they’re not made in Europe.”
Stella McCartney’s site contains plenty of detailed information on the brand’s sustainability initiatives that you can find with just a few clicks, if you’re really looking for it, but her brand’s overall message is quite simple: No animals were harmed in the making of these luxury garments.
Paul Dillinger from Levi Strauss & Co. put forth a different theory. He was wearing a trucker jacket made with extra-long-staple organic cotton from a farm in California’s Central Valley that yielded a denim twice as strong as normal. It was indigo-dyed with a process that saved 70 percent of water compared to the normal process, and then sent to a factory in Haiti that provides clean water infrastructure for the local community.
Debuted this spring on the website of the sustainable men’s clothier Outerknown, it sold out within four days. “We know that a consumer cares about water rights for the planet, wants to hear the full list of that story,” Dillinger said. “It’s a complex narrative that respects their intelligence.”
I disagree. Perhaps Outerknown truly has cultivated a customer base that gets a boner from reading through that whole story. (Admittedly, that is a lot more interesting than trying to explain exactly what the Better Cotton Initiative is.) More likely, though, Outerknown’s customers were hooked by the same simple message that Levi’s has always emphasized: It’s a quality jacket that will last a long, long, long time.
Made in Europe. No animals harmed. It will last forever. These are all simple messages. You can even urge your consumers to buy less stuff, as long as you convince them that your product deserves a spot in their shrinking roster of purchases.
How do I say this…
The channels and precise messaging that work for one brand won’t work for every brand. Patagonia has a customer base of literal tree-hugging environmental activists (hence the political protest campaigns against Donald Trump), while Stella McCartney has a base of well-heeled vegan power lunchers (hence Stella’s frequent interviews and appearances), and Reformation serves coastal cool girls for whom sustainability is neat as long as it doesn’t interfere with their sexy social life (hence the tongue-in-cheek Instagram posts).
What all their successful marketing programs do have in common is that they instill trust in consumers long before they’re in the store (while providing more information on a back page that’s just a few clicks away from the beautiful product photos). So when you arrive at their store, you can relax and have fun shopping instead of treating it like a school research project.
“Recently, a woman said to me, ‘You know what I love about you? I can come into your stores and you’ve done all the work for me,’” McCartney said during an onstage conversation with Graydon Carter at the summit.
Comparing apples to oranges
Barring the far-fetched idea that H&M will ever overhaul its business to focus on fewer, high-quality items (perhaps Arket’s capsule wardrobe-ready style is the brand testing that theory?), there’s another model of sustainability that could provide success for the fast-fashion retailer: food.
Fast fashion is trending toward becoming a consumable good — cheap, disposable, an impulse purchase that is shipped across the globe as quickly as possible before it’s out of date. So consumers who can’t afford a Reformation dress but are concerned about toxic dyes might respond positively to a simplified labeling system on mass-market brands. Think something similar to red/yellow/green food labeling systems, except instead of fat, sugar, and salt, it’s labor, emissions, and toxic chemicals, for example.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an industry-led association trying to standardize ethical and sustainable standards across brands, has been working on coming up with a label for years now.
”If we all join the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and follow the road map to transparency they’ve set up, then that will really drive the change, because consumers can see the same type of data from different brands,” said Frouke Bruinsma, corporate responsibility director of G-Star Raw.
Yes, I’m also skeptical that Forever 21 and Missguided will ever voluntarily join this coalition, because their numbers would surely be horrendous. Plus, they’re doing just fine not talking about sustainability, churning out even cheaper clothing and stealing market share from the companies that have a sliver of conscience.
It made me wonder: Why aren’t H&M and other SAC members in the affordable segment — like Target, ASOS, C&A, Zara, Kohl’s, and Walmart — pouring money into lobbying for some basic standards?
When pressed, SAC vice president of transparency Baptiste Carriere-Pradal pooh-poohed the idea of any legislation or compulsory labeling system while mumbling something about voluntary labeling arriving in the next year. Or maybe he said years; it was hard to hear. That’s bad news for concerned customers pining for a simple way to know with certainty that they aren’t being hypocrites.
”Consumers across the board have a real sense of unease,” Arthur from TheCurrent said. “Consumers are wanting something that supports their values, that reflect them. It comes back to this need for a sense of trust.”Source: racked.com