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Comment: How can fashion sustain itself as green goes mainstream?

David Stevens, senior strategy director at brand consultancy Wolff Olins, says a green recovery from Covid-19 offers an economic and ecological opportunity.

Fashion retail has been ravaged. But that doesn’t mean that, as profits plummet, the idea of sustainability should be thrown in history’s recycling bin.

Indeed, the pandemic is driving people to think about their lifestyles and livelihoods as well as their impact on society and its systems. This is driving radical behaviour changes.

For example, we’re suddenly discovering the viability and desirability of low-carbon behaviours like ditching flights in favour of Google Meet calls; supporting the NHS through challenges such as activity app Strava’s NHS Active initiative; cutting waste and overcoming feelings of isolation via new neighbourhood platforms like food-sharing app Olio; and delivering food via robots from tech company Starship to isolated residents and key workers without the need for a driver or traditional vehicle.

And as we stay at home and socialise at distance, fast fashion and conspicuous consumption are no longer the order of the day.

So, as politicians, businesses and urban planners seek to power a green recovery and #buildbackbetter, fashion brands should take sustainability seriously, as it represents an economic opportunity, not just an ecological one.

Some online fashion retailers are already well-placed to adapt to these changing attitudes and behaviours.

Outdoorwear brand Patagonia’s website continues to encourage conscious consumption, stating that “As always, we encourage you to buy only what you need, buy local when possible, and repair what you already own.”

Depop, the social shopping app that already has more than 15 million users in 147 countries, also encourages a culture of re-use rather than waste. As Sylvie Mackower, a Depop seller, says: “Not purchasing new items where possible and recycling things you get tired of leaves you with a pretty small consumption footprint.”

This kind of advocacy is the result of an authentic commitment to sustainability – from business model up – and not seeing green marketing as a shiny veneer. Indeed, Depop, which generates revenue via transaction charges, helps its sellers make money and makes users feel better about shopping as they’re supporting enterprising individuals, rather than mass producers of fast fashion destined for landfill.

In all of this, authenticity and transparency are key, as fashion brands are being challenged more and more over elephant-in-the-room issues such as producing too much, not doing enough to improve workers’ low wages and sourcing materials ethically.

For example, US brand Everlane – whose mantra is “radical transparency” and which has a commitment to eradicate all virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021 – was recently called out on Twitter by senator Bernie Sanders. He accused the company of “using this health and economic crisis to union bust” when the company sadly had to lay off a big chunk of its customer service team. So it’s clear that even companies trying to do the right thing are not immune to criticism in this new era.

In practical terms, for online retailers, this means things like not just demanding more from your suppliers, but also educating your consumers in unexpected ways, as Levi’s has done via the creation of its “Water<Less” jeans, which consume far less water as part of the cotton growing and denim finishing process.

Marketing should also be thoughtful and responsible – and wary of promoting luxury to a generation facing mass unemployment. For example, brands should move away from promoting one-time use products, and instead nudge people to explore items that they’ll use again and again. Offering “fast fashion therapy” in the form of mending, sewing and repair tutorials will help customers to extend their clothing’s lifespan and associate your brand with care and ecological credentials. Brands must also question their partnerships by, for example, examining whether they can achieve animal-free supply chains, source more material locally, work with clean energy suppliers and partner distribution networks that use zero-emission or electric vehicles.

All of this is crucial because the best brands don’t just sell something – they mean something to people. Retailers that cotton onto this have a real opportunity to craft something more meaningful in the coming years.

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