Worn Out: How Fashion Can Inspire Sustainable Consumption

May 8, 2012
  • Jonathan Morris portrait

    Jonathan Morris

    Associate Director, Technology Sectors, BSR

Last November, Paris-based PPR unveiled the world's first complete environmental profit-and-loss account for its Puma brand, offering consumers a behind-the-catwalk glimpse into some of the sustainability impacts of their trainers and tracksuits. The company has now committed to extend the practice to all of its luxury, sports, and lifestyle brands, including iconic luxury houses Gucci, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, and Bottega Veneta, by 2015. H&M, one of the bastions of fast fashion, is pushing its new Conscious Collection, with pieces made from organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles. These are just two examples of the latest movement in fashion to shine the spotlight on itself and examine its sustainability impacts.

Why is fashion concerned?

The industry has reached a tipping point: After years of molding consumer behavior to refresh their wardrobes with inexpensive and accessible clothing every change of season, the fashion sector is now trying to buck that trend. Yet the industry has run into difficulty when engaging the consumer, who are either confused about sustainable options or don't buy sustainable products, even when they say they want to. For several months, BSR has been working with the Danish Fashion Institute on the NICE Consumer project to inspire changes in government policies and business practices to help consumers make more sustainable choices in the purchase, use, care for, and disposal of fashion items. What follows are our insights based on detailed research, consultations, and webinars with key actors from business, civil society, and government.

Last week, we delivered a framework summarizing our recommendations to Connie Hedegaard, the European Commission's climate action commissioner and representative of the Danish EU Presidency, in order to engage government and offer eight industry-inspired policy recommendations to foster more sustainable fashion. ##NICE Consumer Insights What's old is new again. Fashion doesn't have to invent a more sustainable model--it can simply borrow from the past. Quality, longevity, repair, and reuse of garments have been part of a fashion heritage that dates back to pre-industrial times, and studies show that consumers are ready to revive these values. A recent Young and Rubicam report revealed that consumers are beginning to reject "cheap and more"--and the fashion industry can capitalize on this by offering higher-quality but fewer options every season. Honest By, which claims to be a "100 percent transparent" brand, designs couture products of high quality and provides full access to the material source, labor cost, and environmental impacts of its clothing. They have a struck a nerve: Founder Bruno Pieters has received emails from customers who have rejected more frequent purchases to save money and invest in Honest By garments.

One desired behavior, many communication vehiclesDefining a desired consumer behavior helps to guide industry activity, but promoting that behavior among demographics that can be divided by age, gender, income level, and geography requires different marketing strategies. There is still work to be done to think through how sustainability messaging is best communicated in fashion.

Education is key--in classrooms, boardrooms, and storefronts. Brands, designers, and nonprofits alike have emphasized the need for education on sustainability, and not just for consumers. Stakeholders are pushing for curricula in primary schools on the importance of sustainable consumption, for the inclusion of extra-financial information in boardroom decisions, and for sustainability training among retail store staff to help guide consumer decisions.

Labeling has received plenty of attention, but consumers are still confused. Fashion stakeholders agree that more does not mean better, at least when it comes to labeling. As the number of sustainable fashion labels and certifications grows, consumers and retail stores carrying brands with these labels have become confused--or cynical--about those messages.

The seeds are sown, but collaboration is needed to cultivate them. One of the largest insights to be drawn from our NICE Consumer work is that the many initiatives in the realm of sustainable fashion have produced just as many different ideas on terminology, targets, standards, and measurements about what sustainable fashion is. Continued collaboration, coordination, and oversight of these various efforts are key in driving sustainable choice for consumers. What's Next in Sustainable Fashion Consumption On May 3, during the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the NICE Consumer team delivered eight policy recommendations to the EU presidency, highlighting government's role in fostering more sustainable fashion.

These recommendations cover, among other things, the integration of sustainable fashion curriculum into all levels of education, the support of product-transparency disclosures, and the stimulation of voluntary agreements covering extended producer responsibility. But the fashion industry is not content to stop there. Picking up on the momentum gained in these past few months, the participants of the NICE Consumer have discussed next steps toward sustainable fashion consumption. The recently released "Framework for Achieving Sustainable Fashion Consumption Through Collaboration" serves as a starting point for defining stakeholder roles, but the hardest work is yet to come. Last week's Copenhagen Fashion Summit only reinforced this point. The need is urgent. Fashion stakeholders now must now come together on next steps: Perform baseline studies to understand how far they have come to date, establish time-bound goals and targets, and start measuring progress. Collaboration will continue to be critical in these discussions, and the NICE Consumer is ready to help.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

Contact Us

You Might Also Like

Sorry, no related articles have been published, yet.