Introducing the ‘Nice Consumer’: Can She Lead Us to the Sustainable Consumption of Fashion?

December 16, 2011
  • Cody Sisco

    Former Manager, BSR

Many smart and opinionated people are split on the answer to the question of whether less is more, which has become central to the sustainable consumption debate.

In the fashion industry, there are a few versions of this question: Can we buy, wear, and throw away clothing and accessories every season? Or do we need to consume less, better, smarter? And what does that look like?

At one extreme, the solution to “Go Naked” is not a viable option (not for consumers and not for brands), though it does make for provocative messaging. But between everyone going naked and the current (unsustainable) state, there many opportunities and challenges in moving toward the sustainable consumption of fashion.

To explore this landscape and catalyze changes among business, consumers, civil society, and governments, BSR and the Danish Fashion Institute are kicking off a “Nice Consumer” initiative this month that will help define what the fashion industry could look like and how we can get there.

Our first steps include looking at effective methods for raising awareness with consumers and identifying emerging business models for the sustainable consumption of fashion. Without a precise definition, we’re working under the assumption that “we’ll know it when we see it.” We are only a couple weeks into a six-month project and we are already finding inspiring examples every day.

Marks and Spencer has had a long partnership with Oxfam to take back clothing and resell it to consumers. Now the company has created a coat made from recycled cashmere. This is promising example of “closing the loop” in manufacturing, although we are a long way away from changing the “buy, wear, toss” business model for clothing, particularly in the low-price and fast-fashion market segments.

Patagonia raised eyebrows with an advertisement in the New York Times during the U.S. marketing blitz known as Black Friday. The ad, featuring a comfy-looking jacket with the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” was part of the company’s Common Threads Initiative, which is asking consumers to pledge to “reduce excess consumption and give the planet's vital systems a rest from pollution, resource depletion, and greenhouse gases.” The consumer pledge is matched by Patagonia’s commitment to design better products, to repair damaged products, to take back products, and to continue advocating for sustainable consumption.

In the realm of haute couture, individual designers are at the forefront of experimenting with sustainable materials and concepts. The most commercially successful designer doing this is Stella McCartney, who eschews the use of leather and fur in all her products for animal welfare reasons, and for concerns about environmental impacts of raising livestock and tanning and dying leather.

While these are examples of companies engaging with consumers, there are still important questions about how consumers are responding and empowering themselves to buy, wear, and dispose of clothing sustainably, as well as the role for government and civil society to get involved.

Stay tuned for more on the BSR blog about our “Nice Consumer” initiative, and follow it on Twitter by searching #NICECONSUMER.

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