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Sustainable fashion needs to foster trust and transparency with a good dollop of collaboration thrown-in

For it to flourish sooner rather than later, sustainable fashion needs engagement with the consumer which in turns requires trust and transparency with collaboration. At least that seems to have been the consensus at a recent webinar co-hosted by haysmacintyre and the Great British Entrepreneur Awards.

“Sustainability is something we have been talking about for a long time,” says Alison Lowe MBE,  sustainable fashion guru from Felicities.

There is always a but of course, and Alison Lowe articulated hers: “There was a lot of excitement when we had London Fashion Week, but not much since.”

For sustainable fashion, normal is perhaps not such a good thing. With lockdowns, many of us literally let our hair down, makeup was perhaps applied less often, beards were grown. “But the fashion industry wants to get back to normal,” said Alison, by contrast, sustainable fashion wants to see a normal that is quite new.

She warned there is a lot of talk about sustainability, but what is the reality behind the talk?

And she asked a question: “How do we change the consumer?”

Fast fashion vs sustainable fashion

The key to this change probably entails engaging with consumers, accompanying them on a journey, helping foster a greater understanding of what sustainable fashion means for them.

For many of the shoppers buying their garments at Primark or Boohoo, sustainability does not affect their buying decision.

As Ruby Raut from WUKA, which sells reusable period pants, said: “People who shop in Primark or Boohoo don’t necessarily have so much money.” So, price is vital. If the sustainable fashion industry can compete on price, then maybe its emergence will be inevitable. Or maybe if a sustainable fashion item were just a little bit more expensive than the item it is competing with, consumers would make the switch.

Once again, there is a ‘but’. As fashion entrepreneur and investor Christopher Suarez pointed out: “It is not necessarily possible to create sustainable products for a small price increase.

New matters

There is another issue. People like new. As Isabella West from Hirestreet pointed out, “79% of people feel most confident wearing something they haven’t worn before.”

She was drawing on research conducted by Hirestreet, but then this company has a fix: it is in the fashion rental business. Maybe fashion can become sustainable, cheap and satisfy our desire not to wear the same item of clothing twice, if we see a convergence with the sharing economy.

That is not to everyone’s liking, however.

Mental health

People sometimes talk about retail therapy.  If we are having a hard time, or feeling stressed, then splashing out on some fashionable attire could perhaps alleviate that sense of unease. As Kat Pither, from eco-friendly brand YogiBare reminded us, “a few years ago, we were told to treat ourselves.”

Maybe, however, buying fashionable items to make ourselves feel better is akin to scratching an itch.

Maybe we are stressed because we have to work hard to pay for the treats that we deserve for working hard.

At least, Kat sees it in terms of mental health. “We all have a hole inside of us that we try to fill with things, but a more simple life will probably mean better mental health.”

The philosophy might apply to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Where does fast fashion sit on the hierarchy? Maybe it sits near the top under ‘esteem’. Perhaps fast fashion fosters a sense of prestige. Or maybe it is just a modern-day construct: fast fashion is just a (and excuse the apparent oxymoron) a fashion, that confers superficial needs. For the sake of our mental health, perhaps we need to move on.

You can see how some consumers might buy into that argument.

Trust

For Christopher Suarez, it is about building trust. And building this trust across the entire value chain in a sustainable fashion. “From consumer to raw materials provider.”

He warns, however, that it is hard to persuade the value chain to change it ways,

This is where Covid-19 enters the tale.

“This period has enabled us to have more meaningful conversations.” On the other hand, he warned that in some respects, there has been a reduction in trust, as suppliers ask to be paid on order, for example.

Something is going on, however.

Christopher explained how, in the last two or three years, sustainability has been drilled into public consciousness, but in energy, in personal care, less in fashion.

It seems then that sustainable fashion companies and indeed, startups need to focus on early adopters. “As a small company,” he says, “you can build up your customer base, create it at a granular level.”

Convergence

For Arabella Turek,  from Petit Pli, a London based wearable technology startup there is a convergence aspect — at least there is a convergence of skill sets. Petit Pli was founded by Ryan Mario Yasin, an aeronautical engineer by academic background. Arabella Turek herself studied neuroscience and then sociology.

To be successful, she suggested, “requires getting as many heads in the room.” That’s with quite different backgrounds. She indicated that this is more important, or at least as important, as customer feedback forms.

She makes a point that applies well to many examples of disruptive technology — the customer is often quite late in the game. Kodak’s customer did not tell the company they were going to use smartphones for their photography. When Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive designed the smartphone, they paid scant attention to research suggesting customers didn’t want a touchscreen phone.

Sustainable fashion is disruptive, and that means customers may lag. When the time is right, they will want them.

Disruption is scary

But disruptive technology is scary, especially for the incumbents. Maybe this explains what feels like a certain reluctance by the industry to truly embrace sustainable fashion.

As Arabella Turek said: “How can grass movements ever be supported if top-down institutions are slow to identify, support and fund those businesses?”

Transparency, trust and collaboration 

If sustainable fashion can match the ethical principles that lie behind the concept of sustainability with transparency, they can start to win.

In this way, they can create trust and build the customer base.

As Alison Lowe said: “If we are more honest, we will take the customer with us.”

Then again, there is a fundamental challenge. The competitive landscape between sustainable and traditional fashion is not flat.

As Antonia Timpany from Timpanys pointed out, “there are externalities.” There are costs entailed in fashion that are not borne by the fashion brands. There is an analogy with the energy industry here. Oil companies don’t pay the full cost of energy; that is why there is the concept of a carbon tax.

But the sustainable energy industry partially overcame this via early adopters — think early purchasers of electric cars, for example. But renewable energies also benefited from subsidies.

Maybe that is what sustainable fashion needs — Ruby Raut suggested that authorities should look at a permanent cut in VAT on sustainable fashion.

At this point, Natasha Frangos,  from haysmacintyre, who had been chairing the discussion, pointed out that authorities have done so little to support the sustainable fashion industry.

Maybe then it needs greater collaboration to speak with one voice — to communicate its message, not only to customers and opinion formers but policymakers too.

A cut in VAT on sustainable fashion might just be the rallying call the industry needs.