Customers are beginning to hold retailers to account when it comes to sustainability. But how can fashion retailers communicate their progress without appearing disingenuous or being accused of “greenwashing”?
That fashion has a huge social and environmental debt to settle is old news. The issue now is how brands and retailers approach repaying that debt – under the scrutiny of knowledgeable and uncompromising consumers.
A key question for fashion businesses is how best to communicate their sustainability efforts to customers. Retailers are caught in a difficult situation. On the one hand, customers are demanding more information on what businesses are doing to tackle the escalating environmental emergency.
But those who misjudge how to talk about sustainability risk being accused of jumping on the bandwagon or, worse, “greenwashing”. Brands also need to strike a balance between communicating technical terminology around complex sustainability issues with accessible, relevant language.
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For many, communication starts internally.
“One crucial communication channel is our 80,000 colleagues,” says Carmel McQuaid, head of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer. “For example, we want all our colleagues to feel comfortable explaining [to our customers] that 100% of the cotton for our clothing, including denim, is sustainably sourced.
“It’s important they know what this means: in partnership with BCI [the Better Cotton Initiative], smallholder farmers have been trained to produce cotton with less water and fewer chemicals, which results in better livelihoods.”
Root and branch
Valérie Martin is vice-president, communications, culture and CSR at footwear retailer Aldo, which holds quarterly discussions to communicate progress and next steps in social responsibility.
“We believe CSR needs to be embedded in the entire organisation where we put an associate engagement plan in place and track our progress,” she says. “We inspire our associates to think of CSR in everything they do.”
Sara Brennan, head of corporate responsibility at Pentland Brands, agrees: “The only way we can really do this is through an energised employee movement acting, thinking, designing and working in a sustainable way. Sustainability doesn’t come as a department. We have a long-term investment in a dedicated team of experts to help people incorporate sustainability into their day-to-day jobs – eight in the UK and four in Asia.”
Brands, retailers and commentators all agree that transparency is the route to good communication, arguing that businesses should take a ‘show don’t tell’ approach.
“Consumers are wising up to the ‘we’re not perfect, but we’re trying’ approach. A lot of brands are putting out a blanket statement across the business as a kind of ’get out of jail free’ card,” says Emily Ames, co-founder of content and communications agency Sonder & Tell.
“If you are genuinely making real change, then set goals and targets, and allow your customers to see where you are winning and failing.”
She urges retailers to invest in specialists who can drive real change, rather than on glossy advertising campaigns that attempt to draw a veil over the issues: “Spend money on the actual sustainability experts. Be willing to lose out on profit to implement long-standing changes in your company.
“Don’t spend huge amounts of money on an ad campaign around recycling when you’re the worst plastic polluter in the world.”
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This is a perfect example of greenwashing: placing focus or budget into a relatively small part of the business that is operating in a sustainable way, while the rest leaves much to be desired.
It is a concept that is now “more prevalent”, says Brennan, and one close to the heart of Venetia La Manna, a campaigner against fast fashion.
“I haven’t seen a single fast fashion brand do enough work to convince me that they’re taking authentic steps,” she tells Drapers. “If a fast fashion brand is boasting about a ‘conscious’ line, while churning out new collections every week, that’s greenwashing.”
Retailers need to be aware of the risks of mixed messaging when communicating new sustainability initiatives.
La Manna believes New Look’s “vegan range” of shoes and bags, which launched last year, is “confusing”: ”They’re making affordable, cruelty-free clothing that is accessible to the majority of vegans. But this range was made almost entirely from plastic and doesn’t make up for the sheer amount of unethical product the brand makes.”
New Look argues that the vegan range, the first high street collaboration to be backed by The Vegan Society, was created as a direct result of listening to its customers.
“The range is reliant on us having a transparent supply chain to verify the absence of animal products from the likes of glues, waxes and finishes,” explains a spokesperson. “While our vegan products do use man-made materials, we are using more and more recycled and water-based materials to make the range more sustainable into 2020.”
New Look adds that Kind, a range it launched last year to reduce negative “impact on the planet”, is an example of a long-term investment in sustainability. Initially, it made up 10% of the autumn 19 collection, but this will rise to 30% for spring 20 and be expanded further for autumn 20.
Scale of balance
Larger retailers communicating new action on sustainability – particularly in the fast fashion sphere – also leave themselves open to accusations of hypocrisy.
Earlier this month, La Manna also publicly criticised H&M over its plans to start making clothes from Circulose – a fabric made from up-cycled clothing and fashion waste.
She said in an Instagram post to her 75,000 followers that “the sheer amount of product H&M churns out is causing irreversible harm to both people and planet, and completely outweighs their sustainability efforts”.
Giorgina Waltier, H&M’s sustainability manager, defends the retailer’s position: “The size and scale of our business operations is often conflated with our sustainability developments, but the truth is that these are two separate issues,” she explains.
“Our aim is to move to a fully circular business, meaning that the scale of our production won’t have the environmental impact it has had in the past. Circulose is one of the most sustainable fabrics in the world, but it needs support to become scalable. If one of the world’s largest fashion brands isn’t the right organisation to invest in this innovation, who is?”
For M&S, which launched its Plan A sustainability strategy in 2007, demonstrating progress is vital.
“We’re pushing further on the issues we know really matter to our customers – from sourcing more sustainable raw materials and taking action on climate change to measuring water usage in factories and dyehouses – and some of these are complex areas where there is a lot more to do,” explains McQuaid. “We talk about our long intent and are open about the fact that in many cases we’re not there yet, but we are committed to achieving those aims and making change happen.”
At Aldo, the approach is scientific. The group’s sustainability team includes a lawyer with CSR reporting expertise and a PhD in climate science, as well as a chemical engineer and life-cycle assessment expert. An in-house team calculates the retailer’s carbon footprint.
“We started our climate journey in 2013 but didn’t really tell our story externally until now because we wanted to ensure we’d measured our own carbon footprint, which ranges from operations to our products,” explains Martin. “This set a baseline of how we can improve, and the steps we’re taking to improve it. It’s important for us to communicate not only what we’re doing, but what we want to achieve. This allows our associates, customers and partners to hold each other accountable.”
How brands communicate these steps varies largely, depending on their customers and how far along the journey they are. M&S hosts an interactive supplier map on its corporate website, which provides detailed information on its factories.
H&M opened up its supply chain last year: shoppers can access information including suppliers’ names, production countries, factory names and addresses across all garments. Customers can view the information online or by using the retailer’s app to scan price tags.
Aldo also has a public-facing website with all its CSR initiatives. Social media is key for talking to the retailer’s millennial and Generation Z consumers.
“They are leading the conversation in saving the planet,” says Martin. “So like everything we do at the Aldo Group, when we want to engage with our customers, we use social media, influencers, store activations and store websites
As for tone of voice, opinions range from “collaborative” and “informative” to “exciting”, but the underlying theme is of consistency.
“Consumers notice when a tone of voice is erratic or inconsistent, and this speaks to the earlier question about greenwashing,” says Pentland’s Brennan. “The tone of voice should reflect the reality of the brand values. Consumers are smart – they can spot when sustainability isn’t at the heart of the company.”
Indeed. And this pressure will only grow. Jemma Finch, co-founder of storytelling agency Stories Behind Things, which focuses on sustainability, cites Patagonia, Allbirds, Noah, Reformation and Riley Studio as brands that strike a balance between communicating complex terminology with accessible, on-brand language.
“Consumers need to remain curious, ask questions, email brands, shout them out on social media, and hold them accountable to share information on ethical certificates, how much they pay their staff and exactly where their clothes are made,” she says.
“In terms of brands, it’s inspiring to see so many treading new radical pathways of communicating honestly with their community to reveal their supply chain details and educating their consumers on why they operate the way they do.”
Ultimately, how brands and retailers communicate these steps to their customers shouldn’t be difficult at all – provided they have something to say in the first place. Style over substance will get you into all sorts of trouble.