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How to Talk About Sustainability Without Turning It Into the S-Word

For brands and retailers that are still feeling their way around sustainability, communicating a greener ethos to their customers can feel like a double-edged sword.

They’re scared to come out of the shadows and say, ‘We’re doing this,’” said Amber Valletta, a model, entrepreneur and activist who spoke at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit this past May. “Because if they’re not doing enough, they’re afraid that they’re going to get some sort of backlash.”

Certainly the attendees of the annual pow-wow needed no convincing of sustainability’s merits; they were there for a reason after all. But what about people outside the room? How, exactly, should companies present sustainability—sometimes disparagingly known as the S-word—as part of their new, enlightened approach to doing business?

“I’ve founded a few companies and worked with lots of companies that put social responsibility or sustainability at their core,” said Lily Cole, the model-turned-advocate who kick-started the innovation incubator “And in every instance, it’s been a battle of how to communicate—if to communicate—that, because you can turn people by being too preachy or [by presenting] an idea that you’re perfect when no company is perfect and no solution is perfect.”

At the same time, Cole believes that a “seismic shift” has occurred in consumer awareness over the past decade, and that we’re at a tipping point where the industry is finally turning a gimlet eye toward its social and environmental impact.  

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“Maybe I’m being naive, but I feel like it’s actually becoming sexier, and it’s becoming something that more people do care about, do think about, and doesn’t get associated with hemp and the S-word vibe,” Cole said.

It’s true that 2015 Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report found that 66 percent of global consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable brands, up from 55 percent in 2014. At the same time, at least one study has shown that consumers can “willfully misremember” facts about products that were made in less than ethical ways. It’s a coping mechanism, researchers said, one that makes our lives—and purchases—easier.

Storytelling might be the key to making messages stick. Valletta, who is developing “The Changing Room,” a short film about a shopper who meets a bevy of sustainably-minded celebrities through a magical changing-room mirror, thinks that edutainment is one way forward.

“It’s vital to get the message out about sustainability in a way that makes it interesting and fun and really clear,” she said. “And leaves the audience with a sense of hope, purpose and solution.”

And if there’s one play the fashion industry can borrow from the food movement, Cole said, it’s the simplicity of its messaging in the face of an equally vast, labyrinthine enterprise.

“You have fair trade, you have organic, you have often the provenance of the country the food comes from,” she said. “I feel like the challenge for fashion is how to communicate really complex supply chains, where you might have cotton from India that’s being sewn together in Bangladesh, that’s being dyed somewhere else, and the zipper’s been added in Italy. How do you communicate what fairness is and what sustainability is in a way that’s really easy for the customer to understand?”

Working on a data-mapping project at, Cole found that the more information people received, the more overwhelmed and alienated they became. Who else—besides shareholders, policy wonks and retail journalists, that is—wants to dive into those hefty corporate sustainability reports?

“What we honed in on is storytelling and photographs,” Cole said. “If you see the images of the people making the clothes, if you see the places they come from, that seems to be a more engaging way for people to understand.”

Perhaps this is the secret to Stella McCartney’s success. While granular information about the brand’s sustainability initiatives are readily available on her website, should a customer so desire it, the principles behind her offerings can be summed up in two words: Luxury and cruelty-free.

McCartney, who shared a stage with former Vanity Fair chief Graydon Carter at the summit, relayed an anecdote that cinches this: “Recently, a woman said to me, ‘You know what I love about you? I can come into your stores and you’ve done all the work for me.’”