Laura Ediger, Associate Director, BSR

What options do companies have to make products more sustainable? Of course, they can make sure the factories where products are made have good social and environmental practices. They can minimize the impacts of product transport. And they can actually design products with sustainable materials or techniques embedded in the manufacturing process. Many companies see this as the next frontier—building sustainable attributes directly into products, which requires both some investment in research on innovative materials and techniques and the direct involvement of product designers.

In BSR’s work with the fashion industry, we often hear that the designers reign supreme, and decisions about, say, ethical sourcing of animal skins are ultimately still subject to the yea or nay of the product designer. This is most prominent for high fashion or luxury brands, where the head designer might have celebrity status, both externally and internally.

But what if the designers themselves were inspired to create clothing with techniques that eliminate waste in the cutting process and even rely on “up-cycling” of fabric? It may sound niche, but the Hong Kong-based NGO Redress is taking the concept to the “high street,” awarding the winner of its EcoChic Design Award with not only a turn on the catwalk at Hong Kong Fashion Week next January, but also the chance to design a collection made from recycled textiles for Esprit. The idea is to bring sustainable fashion to the mass market at a competitive price point. To make the whole thing traceable, Redress has also developed an "R Cert" label system that guarantees at least 20 percent recycled fibers and lets customers see exactly what went into their clothes.

Apparel companies have begun testing the potential market for sustainable products, such as Levi’s Water<Less and Waste<Less jeans and H&M’s Conscious Collection. And they’re not the only ones trying to understand how to encourage consumers to make sustainable product choices and adopt sustainable behaviors. BSR’s new Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group brings together companies from the apparel, hospitality, food, beverage, travel, online retail, entertainment, and cosmetic industries to hash out the opportunities to influence and inform consumers to adopt sustainable lifestyles. One of the tricky questions we’re already thinking about is the huge variation in consumers, both by price point and by region—the global companies in this group are well aware that the preferences of their customers are very different in Shanghai, New York, London, and São Paulo.

So, over the next year, we’ll host a series of workshops around the world, and by the time the BSR Conference 2013 rolls around in San Francisco this November, we’ll plan to share our findings with a wider audience. And of course, we’ll be looking forward to seeing the creative ideas that EcoChic’s young designers come up with.

For more information or to inquire about participating in our work, visit our Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group page, or email Consumer Products Associate Director Elisa Niemtzow.