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Sustainability: The Bait Must Attract the Fish, Not the Fisherman

Walking the summer and fall trade shows in fashion, denim, sportswear and outdoor, it seems like there is only one topic on which the entire industry bets, and that is sustainability. Every fiber, fabric and yarn manufacturer, garment producer, dye factory and finishing supplier is now offering sustainable solutions as a result of the increasing concern about the environmental impact of the textile industry.

While trade show booths, image videos, circular infographics, brochures (should you print any of them anyway if you are a “sustainable company”?), guest-speaking and panel discussions are openly addressing the well-known fact that the textile industry is the second-largest waste producer in the world (to what extent depends on the report you select), the worldwide consumption of textile products per head continues to rise (in number of pieces) and product lifecycles shorten to ever lower number of wears per purchased items before getting dumped into landfills. Over-production and burning of unworn collections by brands, such as Burberry or H&M, throws more oil on the fire.

No doubt, it is great to see that the awareness of the problem has arrived at the center of the industry. The dramatization of the ocean plastic problem has led to many environmental initiatives, like Bojan Slat’s Ocean Clean-Up, which are heavily sponsored and supported by the media. Influencers and conscious consumers are hailing proprietary brand initiatives such as “Parley for the Ocean” or “Raw for the Ocean” as benchmark activities for a circular economy model to come.

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In contrast, it is disappointing to see how little these activities have been converted into attractive and affordable product offerings for consumers. They can only buy what is in the shop, offline and online, and today it is way too little and way too expensive. And probably also way too unsexy. That’s why there is still a huge discrepancy between consumers’ declaration to purchase and pay more for products and services that come from companies committed to sustainability and their actual buying behavior.

Instead of always having the “fishermen” presenting their sustainable product solution at conferences and in B2B panel discussions, it would be interesting to learn more from the “fish,” the consumers. Why are they not “going for the bait” in the first place, demanding and buying more sustainable products?

From the perspective of BRAIND®, the ingredient brand strategy agency I founded, there are five main reasons for the slow market penetration of sustainable textile offerings:

  • Limited offering: The vast majority of sustainable offers are still proprietary, individual brand activities mainly intended to raise the sustainable image of the brand and not aimed at bringing an affordable and broadly available product offering to the audience. Concepts are often presented in capsule collections or as a Brand X Brand cooperation, and they are mainly orientated to achieve great public relations and image effects for the brand on Instagram and in the respective lifestyle media.
  • Lack of credibility: Fast fashion retailers are important drivers of change and can heavily influence millennials and even younger consumers through their marketing power and global store presence. Thus, the share of sustainable fashion they offer in their “conscious collections” is only a fragment of their entire product offering and therefore simply lacks ubiquity in the quick, daily purchase rhythms of the young, fashion-orientated consumer. The “conscious collections” are targeted toward an older and more sophisticated audience as a marketing tool to get well-funded consumers back into the store after they have aged out of the profile of a typical buyer.
  • Population growth: Ethical consumption is a consequence of having reached the top of the Maslow pyramid. The concept of minimalism could only evolve in western society after consumers have realized the emptiness of “having it all” and started to strive for less consumption, better products and a better world. But this to a large degree is still a first-world phenomenon. In many parts of Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, we will continue to see a rise from the bottom of the pyramid into a new middle-class that is as much driven by consumption and individualism as western societies were in the 1980s and 1990s. Those people are primarily focused on improving their individual lives, and consumption of brands and products are an essential part of that new identity. And who can blame them for that?
  • Consumer waste: It is still much easier to buy a new product than to dispose of a used one in a sustainable manner. There are hardly any prominent, large-scale consumer waste recycling programs in place today. Companies have professionalized their pre- and post-industrial waste recycling to improve their environmental footprint, but also for economical reasons. The right to return goods in the store must be the next step, and smart trade-in promotions are already stimulating consumers to trade in their used garments for recycling.
  • Lack of orientation: How can a consumer today compare two T-Shirts from different brands on Amazon regarding their environmental and social impact in order to make an informed decision? The vast majority of market players are forcing their own proprietary sustainable solution. This is leading to a “jungle of labels and certificates” in the marketplace. There are hundreds of labels indicating that a material, a product, a treatment, a production methodology or a service is sustainable or ethical in one way or the other. Without clear consumer guidance through a few globally known and accepted labels, no real breakthrough will be possible.

Returning to the premise that good bait is needed to attract fish, a few criteria must be fulfilled for that to occur: First, it must be clearly visible and recognizable. It needs to be in front of your nose, and the taste must be so irresistible that you immediately want to sink your teeth into it. In other words, it must be clearly identifiable as something you know and as something you love to own.

Transforming this toward a pledge to stimulate conscious consumption of fashion items means we need more highly attractive and fairly priced sustainable products that are broadly available in all retail formats at different price points and in different qualities marked with clearly identifiable and comparable indicators, which allow consumers to judge and compare the authenticity of the sustainable offer. Legally binding product take-backs supported by more trade-in promotions are necessary to reduce textile waste, as consumption in general will continue to rise and product life cycles will be ever shorter.

Only then will all honorable B2B activities also convert into higher consumption.

Tomas Vucurevic, founder and managing director of BRAIND®, is one of the leading global experts for ingredient branding. He is a regular speaker at major trade shows and customer events related to the importance of ingredient branding. Tomas has an incomparable experience in ingredient branding in the textile and fiber industry due to his previous role as a global brand manager for Gore-Tex and various consulting mandates for top ingredient brands and startups, allowing him to deep-dive into new topics such as sustainability and biofabrication.