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Denim Industry Opts for Less Waste, More Substance in Their Marketing Strategies

While denim brands, suppliers and event organizers have peppered their calendars with digital events for some time now, the pandemic has forced companies to embrace these technologies as a means to stay connected. For some, it allows them to continue to promote product and generate revenue from a distance. And in the midst of this chaos, the sustainable benefits that come with transitioning in-person events to the digital world have become a silver lining.

Those in the denim space, however, know that an industry as tactile, collaborative and, in many ways, traditional as denim will gather once again—albeit in smaller numbers and in scaled-down environments.

In other words: excess is out, and environmentalism is in.

It’s a mindset that began to take shape pre-pandemic as companies sought ways to reduce packaging, plastic and paper used for events and promotional materials—steps that complemented their ever-growing roster of sustainable product lines. And all signs point to sustainable marketing becoming even more important, especially in the current climate that thrives on call-out culture.

From how they engage with influencers, to the type of cutlery provided at events, denim brands that tout eco-friendly manufacturing, and organizations that benefit financially from hosting sustainable events, will be motivated—and pressured—more than ever to look internally at their own wasteful habits.

Thanks, but no thanks

A group of editors from Marie Claire and Bustle pulled a surprise move on PR companies last November, when in the lead up to holiday season they released an open letter urging brands to refrain from “blind gifting” and using excess packaging.

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“While we are grateful for the opportunity to experience new products and brands, we are making the effort to prioritize sustainability both professionally and in our personal closets,” the letter stated.

Though ‘gifting’—a marketing strategy that helps place products in front of influential people like celebrities and editors—has been an industry standard for decades, the era of Instagram and image-driven marketing ushered in a more lavish approach to the giveaways. Influencers, brands and even Depop sellers have built social media fame through ‘unboxing’ videos that showcase products in beautiful but excessive packaging.

Unboxing has evolved from being a differentiator to a must-have tactic designed to earn more social media clout. Expectedly, Kim Kardashian has proven to be a master at unboxing ideas—delivering KKW fragrances in breakable chocolate molds and gifting famous friends with her entire Skims shapewear line. To promote her collaboration with sunglass designer Carolina Lemke, Kardashian sent influencers the $90 frames on a trio of 3D masks of her face, which went viral on social media.

A tipping point, perhaps, was the launch of Adidas’ Ivy Park collection with Beyoncé in January, which rolled out across Instagram. Reese Witherspoon, Yara Shahidi, Laverne Cox, Ellen DeGeneres, Zendaya and Cardi B were among the who’s who of celebrities receiving branded trunks (and in some cases, garment racks, too) filled with the sold-out collection. Would-be consumers took note and shared gripes about the marketing ploy, raising questions about the lack of plus-size influencers who received the gifts and the environmental toll it required to haul the goods across the U.S.

From environmental and ethical standpoints, gifting is increasingly difficult to navigate. “We are all aware that this is extremely wasteful,” said Ani Wells, the founder of Simply Suzette, an online platform that bridges the gap between the denim industry and consumers.

To make gifting a more sustainable process, Wells urges companies to make sure they are choosing their collaborations responsibly and not sending out mass product to expansive PR lists. “This will not only help with waste and emissions, but it will also help with the success of your campaign by only focusing on high potential collaborators,” she said.

Wells’ stance on gifting is that individuals should only accept a gift if they plan to use it personally for a long time, and if it adds value to the message they’re sending. “I personally have never considered myself an influencer, but I do get offered product from time to time,” she said. “Most of the time I decline, as it is not something I need. But, the ones I accept I believe will help me educate my followers and actually allow me to experience the product/brand firsthand before I put my full support behind it.”

Boyish Jeans takes this approach to gifting, too. “We are careful about who we work with in terms of sustainable fashion influencers,” said Boyish marketing director Aubrey Nodarse Christensen. “We can’t expect everyone to be as passionate, but we do know who appreciates the sustainable steps that we’re taking.”

Rather than reach out to influencers with just the offer of free jeans, Nodarse Christensen takes time to educate and explain why Boyish is different. “They want to support this type of movement,” she said, adding that one influencer overseas turned down a pair of jeans because the carbon emissions to get the package to her wouldn’t be worth it for the environment.

Show and tell

“Make sure your message matches your actions,” said Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing.

Though sustainability has become the focal point for exhibitors and programming at trade shows, it was only in the past year that Carey said she started to see events consider waste. “Trade show spaces still tend to be quite wasteful,” she said. “Think about how many resources go into building a raw space into a temporary showroom for two or three days.”

Event organizers, however, toe a delicate line between satisfying exhibitors and attendees and sacrificing flourishes in lieu of creating a smaller environmental footprint.

“Our passion is to provide a unique ambiance with ideal working conditions,” said Sebastian Klinder, Munich Fabric Start (MFS) managing director, adding that MFS works with “great conviction” to implement sustainable measures to create less waste. “To us, sustainability is a mindset which we try to practice as well as possible during the realization of each of our trade shows.”

The company uses recyclable carpets as well as reusable, color neutral and high quality materials for stand and forum constructions. The lighting is primarily energy saving and supplemented by the venue’s solar cells. In terms of catering, the show takes care to source locally and avoid single use tableware. “The product, personal exchange and creating new business opportunities will always remain essential elements of our trade shows,” Klinder said.

Other shows are taking notable steps to go green, too. At the January Coterie event in New York, attendees were given one-of-a-kind tote bags made from upcycled signage from previous shows. Denim Premiere Vision has scaled-down its trend section, requiring fewer samples to show what’s new for the season. And though it was cancelled due to the pandemic, Kingpins Amsterdam had selected a new venue that was built using reclaimed materials.

Focus groups

When it comes to producing sustainability events sustainably, Wells said there’s a dearth of “revolutionary ideas,” but it isn’t due to a lack of caring. Many event and marketing departments are operated by small teams that are often preoccupied with making sure the event functions smoothly.

Waste, Wells added, is usually the lowest priority when this happens. “A lot of the times these marketing activations get thrown together very quickly, and I think we really need to account for more time to put meaningful activations together,” she said.

It’s a scenario that Nodarse Christensen knows all too well, as she manages influencer outreach, events and Cool to Care, Boyish’s philanthropic program that hosts activities like beach cleanups and other forms of activisim. She has come to rely on a team of sustainable vendors to help execute events with a minimal impact on the environment.

In Southern California, for instance, the brand works with a plant-based caterer, Pink Salt, which makes food in a low waste, compostable manner. “We had probably 100 people coming to our event, so you would imagine numerous trash cans filled, but at the end of our event we had just a small little trash bag,” Nodarse Christensen said. “With each event that we do and each effort that we make, we try the next time to be even more sustainable. Obviously, it’s an evolution.”

But small steps don’t go unnoticed. To make an in-person event less wasteful, Wells suggests brands look to what causes the most waste—usually cutlery, plates, cups—and start from there. When possible, use reusable service ware that can be rented from various companies, or look into compostable options, which are growing in number. “Just be sure you are taking your compost waste to a designated composting facility,” she noted.

Denim brands and suppliers that tout eco-friendly products are motivated more than ever to look internally at their own wasteful habits.
Guess Eco breakfast Courtesy

One example of small steps with a big impact, Carey added, was a January event held by Guess in New York City to educate press about its sustainable strategy. The brand’s marketing team collaborated with Guess director of corporate sustainability Jaclyn Allen to develop a concept that mirrored the brand’s environmental values. The breakfast featured an herb potting station, edible centerpieces and organic produce for attendees to take home. Guests were also encouraged to bring at least one piece of clothing to recycle, though many brought bags of duds to discard.

Some companies, however, may not be as well versed in what type of sustainable alternatives exist for their events and marketing efforts. “We haven’t been asked [about sustainable events] from companies as much as we propose sustainable,” said Liron David, founder and CEO of Eventique, a New York City-based event producer.

For David, the first order of business is to hone in on the goal of the event. When he meets with a client, he asks why they want to put on an event, which opens up opportunities to introduce new ideas that are more efficient, innovative and oftentimes less expensive. To make events more environmentally sound, David looks at what is required, how he can eliminate printing and how he can use materials that can be recycled and repurposed for another event. Digital screens, for example, are an easy alternative to traditional signage, not to mention are often more aesthetically pleasing, informative and editable.

Putting on a sustainable event also requires restraint. An event producer needs to be unafraid of checking a client when they lose sight of the purpose of the event. “You can get your message across without necessarily having to spend endless dollars,” he said.

Information is crucial to spreading awareness about sustainability, but how that information is shared is evolving, too.

Companies are scaling back on the number of paper products distributed at events. Carey is encouraged by seeing that some trade shows are enforcing no handouts policies. Lenzing has “dramatically reduced” the number of printed handouts, either by reducing paper size, using recycled paper or opting instead for QR codes, but overall Carey said the company found that customers have stopped taking brochures.

“Keep printouts to a minimum and opt for PDF versions,” Wells said. Plus, digital versions can be easily shared with colleagues and link to hi-res imagery, which content creators need.

And if the health of the planet isn’t enough for companies to evaluate their marketing and event tactics, the financial ramifications and the health guidelines forced by Covid-19 may speed up this ‘less is more’ mantra as budgets will be tightened.

Because of social distancing, instead of inviting “the whole world,” David said companies will have to curate a list of the most important people to have at their event. “You have to make sure those 50 people are the people you need to be in the room versus first come first serve,” he said.

Wells agreed with the sentiment. “When you are clear on what the goal is, you can then invite the right people,” she said. “If there are people participating in your event that do not add value, that is a waste.”