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Brands Selling Sustainability Must Earn Consumers’ Trust

Like the apparel industry, consumers are on a sustainable journey. For many, their educators are the brands that they buy, but after years of consuming messages around sustainability, spanning elementary lessons on “reuse, reduce, recycle” to more complex topics about climate change, carbon emissions and waste water, the modern consumer now embodies two defining traits: awareness of the need for sustainability at scale and skepticism of those who claim to embody it.

Now more than ever, it’s crucial for fashion companies to connect with these consumers and gain their trust. In a webinar Thursday, organized by Fashiondex and LIM College, panelists discussed the need for effective marketing and clear communication surrounding fashion’s sustainability efforts—notably, less greenwashing, and more authenticity.

For Ani Wells, Rivet 50 honoree and founder of Simply Suzette, an online platform that bridges the gap between the denim industry and consumers, this means being extra vigilant of the language you’re using with consumers.

“If you don’t fully understand a term like biodegradability, for example, and its long-term implications, you’re playing a dangerous game with your marketing campaigns,” she said. “If you’re making a claim, back it up with proof or certification.”

No one knows this better than Diesel, which fell under scrutiny earlier this year for claims it made regarding its “antiviral” jeans. Despite the fact that the term “antiviral” can be legally used in marketing in certain areas of the world, it carries a different connotation in the U.S. that caused some to dismiss the jeans as nothing more than a “marketing ploy.”

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To avoid—or recover from—similar backlash, Wells suggested communicating with brutal honesty.

“Being honest is the number one best thing to do,” she said. “I’ve seen some brands that I admire actually just come out and admit their failures, but also explain how they’re working to solve the problem.”

Highlighting areas that need improvement is one way of authentically joining the conversation—and for some fashion brands, finding relevant ways to engage in the current climate is the biggest challenge. For those struggling to find a point of entry, Melissa Shea, CEO and cofounder of fashion networking platform Fashion Mingle, suggested turning to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for guidance.

“There’s a goal for everybody,” she said. “No matter where you are in the journey of your business, you can find an SDG that fits for your company and the types of products or services you produce.”

Shea added that Fashion Mingle closely identifies with SDG 8, decent work and economic growth, as the company connects people globally to help them discover new resources and grow their careers.

By incorporating the goals into the company’s marketing messaging, it can more easily explain its mission and how it fits in with the global good. And that’s one of the main reasons the UN developed SDGs in the first place—to create one shared set of goals and educate the world in the process.

As more consumers become educated on sustainability, panelists hope that they will become increasingly mindful of what they buy. “People should have less and love more,” said Daniella Platt, communications and brand strategist at marketing company Looking Good Yaya. “If you’re really passionate about the things that you have, they just become part of your life and you keep them forever.”

But adopting this mindset isn’t just the consumer’s responsibility. Marketers can plant the seed for their audience with strategic messaging that reminds consumers of what’s important. Shea noted that focusing on cost-per-wear, rather than discounting, is an effective strategy that reinforces the need for quality products.

“By discounting clothing, you’re conditioning the consumer to buy based on price,” she said.

By now, many consumers are aware of fast fashion‘s negative effects. However, repetitive messaging is crucial to driving the point home and creating a real shift.

“Marketing is a good way of creating change and moving the needle for consumers,” Wells said. “I think marketing is the most powerful tool in communicating what we need to do in order to create a better industry and world.”