Guest Post: Making Sense of Sustainability & Ethics in Fashion – Fran Sheldon

Fashion sustainability and Ethics | Onwards and Up

What I love most about working in fashion education is being at the forefront of pure creativity. I delight in seeing students free from the constraints of a balance sheet, or shareholder meetings crafting new business models, and re-appropriating the fashion business toward their own generation. It’s the sandpit of tomorrow’s fashion systems.

I’ve been working for the Business School for the Creative Industries since 2018, and before that have worked within sectors including trend analysis, retail and consumer insights, worked in retail visual and marketing teams and starting out in research and content creation for Fashion Revolution and alternative fashion shows, (and many moons ago working as an apprentice in costume construction).

Working in higher education you meet other like-minded souls on the daily; fashionistas that whilst they love fashion for what it could be, they no longer work within the sector because it is at odds with their own ethics and values. The stories of everyone’s ‘moment’ when they began to question the current fashion system is fascinating, and I will always make a point of asking about it. Each story is individual but connected by one significant similarity; everyone knows they have only just started.

Problem-solving the fashion industry is a journey we’re all on, but unlike most journeys, if you join later down the path you’ve not made it easier on yourself. It’s far more complex now than it ever has been.

A quick Google Trends search and it’s easy to see that people are increasingly curious about sustainability, searching for ‘sustainability’ is up 26% for the first week in March 2020 compared to 2019, and the question ‘what is sustainable fashion?’ gets a floor-stomping 180% surge in interest from last year (see images below).

Here we can see the year-on-year growth in interest. Despite the seasonal dips in interest around Christmas week, we generally see queries peak around fashion weeks, earth day, and fashion revolution and extinction rebellion campaigns.

In the seven months from September 2019 the overwhelming trend for searching ‘sustainability’ has been up on last year’s searches. Past the first week of March this year though, the interest has declined, we can only assume taking a back-seat to COVID 19 searches.

Today sustainability is ‘in’. It is refreshing to see that the relevance of the topic is now mainstream and high on the agenda. We now have quite a travelling circus on this journey with us. Therefore it is not making it any easier to navigate.

We most definitely will not be able to solve the issue with Climate Credits and textile bins alone. Deciding to be a ‘sustainable brand’ is the easy part; the difficulty comes in navigating the vast opportunities and deciding the right ethos for your brand, your product, and your customer, then putting it to action.

You can’t be everyone’s ‘flavour’ of sustainability and ethics, and nor should you try to be. Instead, give yourself a focus, and a distinct ethos. This will help to make everything from branding to marketing strategies way easier on yourself.

To help you quantify the different approaches out there I’ve mapped out the ‘sustainability landscape’ for you, all you need to do is figure out where seems like a good home for what you’re trying to create.

Ethics (v/&/or) Sustainability

First things first, your ethics and your approach to sustainability are different concepts. You’ll see them used in place of each other, but they are different. Often sustainability is not the term of choice for any new-brand-on-the-block just because its overused, wrongly-used, and feels exhaustingly corporate.

My go-to concept here is based on the Native American belief that every decision made should be considered from the perspective of 7 generations ahead of your own. A cleaning brand Seventh Generation have utilised this concept as the core of its brand ethos.

The main thing about being sustainable is to be able to sustain, an obvious concept perhaps, but the key take-away is to make decisions that balance what we need to be able to thrive today without jeopardising what we need to be able to thrive tomorrow, or a decade later, or a century later.

The ‘what we need’ part is crucial here, as we’re talking about resource protection and living within our planetary boundaries. Think strategies that aim to slow/stop linear consumption, through initiatives like the sharing economy or circularity.

Lets Talk About Ethics

Ethics is more an alignment of a set of morals and principles. This aims to maximise benefits for people and planet and minimise damage. There are plenty of ethical values that align with sustainability, and vice-versa. However, a good example to demonstrate how ethics and sustainability are different is Veganism in fashion.

A product copy of choice in recent times, we have seen anything from vegan shoes to vegan knickers. To decide to make shoes of virgin plastics instead of leather is a great example of an ethical decision. This is not a sustainable decision. This is because the plastics are destined to add to our synthetic landfill problem of the non-biodegradable product.

Add a circular scheme into the mix and perhaps there is a sustainable solution after all. Other ethical considerations might include philanthropy, cause awareness, handmaid/artisanal protection. All are fantastic initiatives which may have elements of future-proofing but are primarily a moral standpoint.

Looking at these concepts separately it will help you decipher what you most align with. There is no right and wrong answer here. As long as whatever ethos you choose you to aim to build into every decision you make. Do this by designing a transparent belief structure; defining clearly if you are sustainable – then how? if you are ethical – then how? Once you have this straight in your own mind you need to figure out how to get that message to your customer, your shareholders, your team.

Creating Brand Values

List out the values that are at the core of your brand. For example, if your focus and passion are for a premium product with quality and longevity at its heart it might be that you need to source your fabrics from Japan, or your hand embroidery must be based in India.

From a purely sustainable standpoint, the distance and carbon footprint involved is a worry. From an ethos standpoint if you can keep that pair of jeans from landfill, or if you can provide a generation of female workers in India, job security, upwards mobility through well-paid work, education and childcare through benefits, and protection and funding of their community hand-craft these are just as valid as Carbon Footprint.

There may be some decisions that put ethics and sustainability at odds with one another. Your clear ethos will help you decide the right direction for the brand. I visited Blackhorse Lane Ateliers workshop late last year and discussed this exact conundrum with Annie Gurney. Annie their fantastic Workshop Co-ordinator confirmed that having a clear belief structure makes decision-making less about profit and more about prosperity.

Inside Blackhorse Lane Ateliers Workshop
Inside Blackhorse Lane Ateliers Workshop

Sustainability and Ethics, Things to Consider

Let’s have a look at the main areas of ethics and sustainability you might want to subscribe to.

  • Resource efficiency & considered design (includes but not limited to traceability, water-saving processes, green and clean production, repair schemes, made-to-order, zero-waste design, upcycling, lowering carbon footprint through near-shoring or vertical supply chains, biodegradable packaging)
  • New consumption models (includes but not limited to closed-loop and circular schemes, rental schemes, second-hand and vintage, resale market esp. luxury and limited-edition items, AR clothing)
  • Fair & ethical (includes but not limited to animal welfare, Fairtrade and worker protection and support initiatives, protection of artisanal or cultural craft, environmental protection through organic and chemical-free processes, donations and contributions to causes with a shared value).

The Importance of Brand Story in Ethics and Sustainability

Putting an ethos first and knowing where your brand/project fits into the wider fashion landscape. This will enable you to create a genuine brand story to connect with your consumers, workers, and community.

Communicating your belief structure will vary hugely. This will depend on your product, target consumer, brand values, tone of voice, brand identity, your marketing & communications platforms. Below are some examples of communications approaches:

  1. Relatedness & accessibility – be playful a la Reformation
  2. Storytelling through Shared values – O’Neill knows exactly what its customers care about…clean surfing!
  3. Desirability at the centre – the customer still needs to love the product to make any of your hard work sourcing it, making it, marketing it worthwhile. Stella McCartney does a great job of making her ethics covetable.
  4. Affiliate marketing, use of models and collaboration – don’t fall at the final hurdle. Make sure who you align yourself with visually matches up to your beliefs.
  5. Education – the majority of people out there that don’t work in this industry have no idea where their products come from. Take the opportunity to take them on the journey of your product and what you are trying to achieve like Patagonia.
  6. Be alternative, carve your own space! Take a consumerist/fast-fashion narrative and use it to differentiate your brand and product. Brands like Allbirds flipped Black Friday on its head in November, and there are more opportunities to hack into consumer culture all year round.

I hope this helps you realise you do not need to be everything to everyone. Find your own groove when it comes to being ethical and/or sustainable. Finding a focus is far more rewarding and important in the long-run. It’s going to lead you to like-minded consumers. People who want to work with you as an employee or collaborate. Even perhaps people that want to help fund you. By carving your own brand ethos you will also be able to ensure every part of what you do from sourcing to packaging matches-up.

Be unique, and let that guide everything you do!

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