How to communicate sustainability11 March 2022
Avoiding greenwashing and building consumers' trust.
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Communicating sustainability is one of the biggest challenges that many fashion brands are facing. Genuine communication around sustainability can easily be lost in an ocean of greenwashing. Every brand, from big fashion giants to small startups, wants to be part of the sustainable conversation.The demand is bigger than ever and consumers are becoming increasingly savvy in spotting misleading sustainable claims.
Sustainability can no longer be a marketing ploy but has to be incorporated as a core value of businesses who want to succeed. It’s not just conscious consumers who are pushing brands to step up with their sustainability, legislation all over the world is also catching up.
The US Federal Trade Commission is due to review its Green Guides in 2022, while in the UK , the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating greenwashing. The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) also released “5 rules of thumb” for environmental claims in January last year. After the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) found that as many as 40% of environmental claims could be misleading consumers, new regulations are more than necessary.
Any fashion brand that wants to thrive in the current environment, needs to nail their sustainability efforts and learn how to communicate them properly. Not just to attract more customers, but to make sure their supply chain is solid and efficient and able to withstand regulatory pressures and changes in the climate which will inevitably impact the industry. Sustainability communication if done well represents a huge competitive advantage which can increase brand loyalty and make a brand really stand out.
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To measure and communicate sustainability most fashion brands have either turned to certifications or non-regulated freeform sustainability communications and marketing efforts that are developed internally. The former is more expensive to obtain and many small brands cannot afford certifications such as Öeko-Tex label or the GOTS label, furthermore there is no certification in fashion which encompasses all aspects of sustainability. Certifications are also based on a binary logic, brands either have a label or they don’t, they don’t offer a graded scale that would allow for more nuance in assessing brands’ sustainability efforts. On the other hand brands’ own sustainability communication is not as trustworthy and is often met with scepticism. It’s important for brands to have a holistic approach to sustainability that can consider all aspects and take into consideration both people and planet.
Having a shorter, more localised supply chain might help monitor the impacts and therefore manage them with more ease.
The first step for fashion communicators to promote sustainability efforts, is to educate themselves, particularly on the brand’s supply chain. For this to happen collaboration between the different actors involved is key. Communicating with suppliers, tracking the different steps garments go through and controlling the operations all the way from the raw material to the finished garment is essential to be able to communicate the journey of clothes to the end consumer. What’s not measured can’t be improved and optimised so the first step is to have a transparent supply chain, so impacts can be reduced every step of the way.
The fast pace of the industry that’s been so focused on quick turnaround and huge production volumes is in itself an antithesis with sustainability. Brands need to focus less on newness, and more on solutions and improvements, on quality and durability rather than quantity. Decoupling value from volume growth is essential to achieve real sustainability. Changing the narrative is a difficult endeavour when the large industry players are fast fashion brands, but brands that want to be known for their sustainability can no longer solely be driven by a profit motive.
Clear, specific and substantiated claims are important for brands to build credibility. It’s easy to label clothes ‘eco-friendly’, ‘conscious’ or just ‘sustainable’, but with no further explanation and accurate data to back up those claims, they’re not enough on their own. Honesty is important in this step, with the fashion industry being rife with misinformation, sharing precise and exact facts and figures is crucial. Avoid exaggerations or emissions to appear more environmentally friendly, it’s important to be realistic about any shortcomings or areas that need improvements. When communicating sustainability it’s good practice to make it accessible, many brands hide their sustainability reports away or fill them with jargon making them difficult to comprehend for the average consumer. If information is easy to understand - without oversimplification - a brand’s sustainability efforts can reach the masses and guide individuals in their purchasing choices. It’s also worth noting that no sustainability measurement is static but it should be constantly evolving and improving, and so should sustainability communication, as new data is gathered and different aspects of sustainability explored.
Advertising products need to be done in a way that doesn’t promote overconsumption. Brands’ communication can no longer be centred around new trends, buy now and must haves. Messages tied to shopping as a reward - like retail therapy - or markdown cycles of excessive discounts are in deep contrast with true sustainability that should encourage longevity and clothing care to extend the life of garments. Demonstrating solutions to help individuals live more sustainable lifestyles should be a priority for brands who are truly committed. This can be done by offering clear instructions on how to wash and dry clothes, how to repair and mend in case of damage and guiding them in disposing of their clothes properly at the end of their life, perhaps even in your store.