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Sustainable fashion is NOT about changing consumer behaviour – it is about the actions of fashion brands

Words by Circklo team in Sustainability, Fashion & Circular Economy

An article in The Independent analysed the terminology used by the “sustainable” fashion industry and sought to educate the readers to spot the difference between genuine claims and industry jargon.

Olivia Petter, the author of the article, provides the readers with what one could call a sustainable fashion checklist: things to verify before one makes that final purchasing decision, warning us that “we live in an age where virtue signalling is rife, which is why so much greenwashing often takes place on social media.”

Sustainable fashion is only possible with a profound change of mindset across the entire value chain.

In Maria Morais’ – Circklo’s Co-founder- opinion, “it is of little or no use for each individual brand to try and adopt change focusing on consumer behaviour changes only.”

Over the last decade the dominant narrative for digitalisation of businesses was that the customer was at the centre of everything. Billions of dollars were spent year on year to equip fashion brands (from fast to slow fashion and anything in between) with direct to consumer propositions, alongside the design of services to serve what the customer wants, at the right time, through the right channel.

Examples of such services in the fashion industry could include:

  • Endless aisle, so that when a customer goes into a retail store he or she can order a style, colour or size from a product currently not in stock at that particular location;
  • Click and collect (the ability to order online and collect in store);

  • Reverse logistics so that customers can change their mind and exchange or return the product (this service can be very complex because it requires brands to have full visibility of stock and a product good enough to come back to the supply chain if needed);

  • Last mile delivery for next day/same day deliveries. The complexity with this service is that brands need to be able to define rules in their order management system to consider, for example, the possibility to consolidate stock in one order or to split the delivery. It is also fundamental that brands consider how the customer gets informed about the pick/pack and dispatch process.

  • From cradle to grave – which materials are the items made of? Where are they sourced from? Where were they assembled as an item? Which type of businesses were these dispatched to, and in which locations? Where were they sold, and following which order management rules? If not sold, could they be resold as an overstock? If sold and used, can they be disposed of sustainably? Are the items recyclable?

Whilst having the customer at the centre of all business decisions was an important change from the outdated business model in which companies were defining their products and/or services without establishing a dialogue with customers, it would be fair to say that, perhaps, fashion brands may have taken this proposition a bit too far.

And Maria Morais explains why:

For example, the customer may want a product not currently in stock in a particular store but, if the only item available is physically present in Spain and the customer is in a store in the US and lives in the US, how can it be justified (let alone sustainably responsible and environmentally conscious) to fly that item all this distance to satisfy the demands of a customer, any customer for that matter?”

Would the customer decide to get that item if he or she were made aware of the environmental footprint their purchasing decision would make? How about if that customer were asked to pay for the CO2 and methane generated by the journey of that item from Spain all the way to the US? Morais’ example is just the surface of a much more complex story…

To complicate things a bit more, one could also look at the financial aspects of these customer journeys and show how it is extremely difficult for fashion brands to satisfy the demands of the ever-connected-always-on-customer and maintain some degree of profitability in the business.

To add more drama to the story, in 2020 fashion brands with a high dependence on wholesale and/or physical stores models suffered declines in their overall revenue that went between 40 and 90%. Two questions come to mind – what happens to that overstock from 2020? What happens to the previous commitments with factories for the next collection? 

Sustainable fashion is only possible with a profound change of mindset across the entire value chain, and that includes a change in the way media operates.

And Morais has some advice for the media outlets:

To talk about sustainable fashion became extremely fashionable, a trend for the masses to follow and become obsessed about…. Brands try to feed the media with stories, stories that they know the media will be talking about, never too deep, never too complicated, because it needs to be easy for consumers to understand, and engage and consume…

Whilst many fashion brands are doing real efforts to streamline the supply chain and making it as transparent and simple as it can possibly be, what are the stories that the media is looking for? Is it possible that the media is asking the wrong spokespeople right questions? But who, after all, should own sustainability in a fashion brand?

There is not sustainable fashion without digitalisation of the value chain. So, the person at the board level responsible for the digitalisation of the business is the one that the media should be asking the questions… not the marketer, not the customer, but whoever is the “geek” in the room and has the budget to spend on technology.”


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