Some brands have been so preoccupied with sustainability messaging and marketing that they've forgotten to put their money where their mouth is, writes Coats Digital's brand director Stuart McCready-Stocks.
We all know the fashion industry and fashion brands have a bad rap when it comes to sustainability and the environment. We know our industry is the second largest polluter on the planet – responsible for 10% of all global greenhouse gases and 79 billion cubic metres of water every year. Not to mention the 92 million tons of solid waste the industry produces that more often than not ends up as landfill. We know these stats make for stark reading – and we all know we must do so much more to redress this imbalance.
The marketing of sustainable eco-fashion has been widespread and the sentiment is encouraging. But the fact remains that some brands have been so preoccupied on the messaging and marketing around their various sustainability drives that some have simply forgotten to put their money where their mouth is to get the job done. Indeed, the recent cases of a few bad apples that have been lavish with sustainability oaths, which have since been exposed as blatantly untrue – has unfortunately tarnished the whole sector with the spectre of the same greenwashing brush. It is consequently not surprising that consumers are increasingly circumspect about retailers’ sustainability claims. The average consumer admits to not really knowing much about sustainability – let alone the particular issue affecting the fashion industry itself, however they are starting to find out pretty quickly from more informed sources, when the wool has been pulled over their eyes.
The noise around sustainable eco-fashion has been so ubiquitous that it has also raised concerns from regulators and legislators about greenwashing and false advertising. In the US, the Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus has recently provided guidance on how to track metrics and compile evidence to support sustainability claims, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has undertaken a further review of its Green Guides, with the same objectives in mind. In 2021, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it would be investigating environmental claims to ensure that all companies – particularly fashion and textile companies – are complying to consumer protection laws under the new Green Claims Code, which includes a checklist to help determine whether environmental claims are genuine.
Sustainability declarations, especially those focussed on a company’s future ambitions, have been notoriously difficult to substantiate in the past. However, if regulators are now providing guidance on how to use technology to track metrics and compile evidence to both support and expose sustainability claims, then brands must quickly get their act together to show they can play ball. With data around transparency and traceability now being the name of the game – those that embrace new technologies to harvest accurate data that support their sustainability and CSR claims will not only be less likely to fall foul of new incoming legislation, but will ultimately also foster more trust and loyalty from their customers.
The rapid digitisation of the fashion supply chain following Covid – a long-awaited business critical must for all vendors needing to mitigate risk in a consistently precarious world – has meant that brands have often simply relied on their supply chain partners to provide the data needed to support and substantiate their various sustainability and fair wage credentials. Historically, brands have generally dictated the terms of engagement with their suppliers. The brand provides a tech pack, the price it is willing to pay and when it expects delivery. For most brands, cost, speed and quality are the key pillars that inform their business models and design processes. With everything else an afterthought, the responsibility of ensuring sustainable and ethical practices has often been passed squarely on to the shoulders of others – especially if supply chain partners have new data sources to support this.
Supply chain vendors have certainly been capitalising on new technologies to harness data insights that help reduce fabric waste and carbon footprints and ensure fairer wages. This unprecedented access to data now informing accurate costing and planning calculations in the manufacturing process has, subsequently, put vendors in a powerful position to potentially turn the tables on who exactly is dictating terms. Indeed, some vendors are now starting to refuse to engage with retailers that simply expect cost, speed and quality, without factoring in the extra time, cost and infrastructure required to ensure sustainable and ethical practices are also being met.
To remain in the driving seats of their own sustainability agendas brands really must take more ownership of the data and processes required to achieve their CSR targets – at every point in a product’s lifecycle and at every point in the supply chain. It’s no longer about “this is what we are doing or planning to do” – it is increasingly about proving it. And it is certainly not advisable to simply take your third party’s word for it that you are good and green to go – without seeing the data to support this. If your supplier tells you it is paying fair wages and it is publicly exposed as not – then its ultimately your reputation that goes up in smoke – along with your profits.
Brands need to take a more holistic approach by embedding the additional pillars of sustainability, transparency and traceability – on top of its holy trinity of cost, speed and quality, if they want to show they are making, and care about making, a difference.
Working more closely and collaboratively with all supply chain stakeholders
to harvest, monitor and analyse key data insights about workable, sustainable
product designs, the sustainability and potential circularity of raw materials,
energy and water consumption, expected CO2 emissions and fair wages – all
ideally located in one information source in the name of transparency – will be
the only way for brands to truly testify to the platitudinous promise that
sustainability really does lie at the very heart of their businesses.
By Just Style