What’s next for communicating sustainability in fashion?
From combatting greenwashing to shaping consumer behavior, holding the industry accountable and pushing for policy breakthroughs, the fashion industry is waking up to advertising and marketing’s vital role in its sustainable transition.
The fashion industry accounts for 2% to 8% of all global emissions / Adobe Stock
There is no denying that the fashion industry is one of the world’s most powerful marketing engines. From designers to brands to the media that surrounds it, fashion has a unique influence on the identities and behaviors of millions of people.
Crucially, it also drives their consumption at a great cost to the environment. Fashion is among the most polluting industries active today, estimated to be responsible for between 2% and 8% of all global emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), as well as contributing to significant pollution, water extraction, biodiversity loss and social injustices across its supply chain.
At the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen last week, the UNEP launched its Sustainable Fashion Playbook to offer an informed guide to marketing practitioners across the creative industries on how they effectively communicate fashion’s sustainable transition (without greenwashing), as well as pushing citizens towards more circular habits and lifestyle.
Rachel Arthur, advocacy lead at the UNEP says the organization recognizes that the communications industry has historically been an under-addressed area within the sector’s sustainability efforts and tells The Drum it is “a key enabler in transforming the entire textile value chain”.
Importantly, she adds: “What this work is saying is that while addressing production impacts is essential, it’s not enough alone. Shifting patterns of excess consumption in core markets must also be a priority – which means changing consumption rates, increasing consumer knowledge and shifting consumer behaviors.”
When it comes to addressing the narratives that fashion currently pushes to consumers, the clue is in the name. Consumers buy clothes because fashion brands tell them they should. As Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist and author of the book Big Dress Energy, says: “People shop to express themselves. They’re not just buying clothes, they’re buying into an ideal and an identity.”
The UNEP Playbook identifies that no amount of eco-labeling or circularity messaging will dissuade people from seeking the high of purchase – the fact is, there are too many items being created, sold and disposed of. “Communicators have a key role to play in breaking the cycle of novelty and obsolescence and making sustainable habits and behaviors seem more appealing,” it says.
But, Forbes-Bell adds: ”In this economic climate, people also purchase smaller luxuries to help themselves feel good. These motivations need to be discussed within the wider concept of sustainability: how does it compete with the desire people have to consume?”
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The regulation of environmental claims has often been cited as a crucial step in helping consumers make more sustainable choices, as well as helping brands avoid greenwashing and deceiving consumers in the process.
“10 years ago, it was all about trying to capture the consumer’s attention,” says Baptiste Carriere-Pradal, co-founder and director of PolicyHub, a platform pushing for circularity and a universal legal framework for the apparel industry. “Now, it’s about informing our consumers in a better way that will drive change.
“Citizens want the work to be done by policymakers to ensure that everything that is offered to them is sustainable, therefore across the EU we are pushing for this as well as improved circularity across the sector.”
The EU is currently developing the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) Category Rules for apparel and footwear – a detailed guide to assessing the environmental performance of products throughout their lifecycle (accounting for all the upstream supply chain and downstream activities), following a lifecycle assessment-based methodology. The PEF aims to provide a standardized framework to substantiate, communicate and compare environmental impacts of products. While in the UK, the ASA’s recent update to its green claims guidance included addressing the full lifecycle of a product for the first time.
But the EU similarly recognized in its March 2023 Green Claims Directive, “Addressing the very wide and fast-changing area of environmental claims by means of a single method has its limitations.”
Andrew Martin, executive vice-president of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, says: “The problem is, consumers don’t have enough time when they’re making decisions to understand the details.”
He worries that, by creating too rigid a framework through the policing of terms, consumers will be misled by oversimplification. “For example, synthetics are bad, natural is good, organic is always good. We talk about microplastics being the issue, what about microfiber shedding? When we oversimplify, we create a framework within which consumers make decisions irrespective of what the actual product is.”
The solution, Martin says, is for fashion to communicate effectively through storytelling – by making the technical desirable. “We have a responsibility to create a better societal framework within which consumers can actually influence policymakers to move in the right direction.”
According to Martin, this is where the industry is reliant on marketing professionals. But for an industry that has historically existed to encourage people to spend with a brand, Blake Harrop, president at Wieden+Kennedy, says the challenge is no small feat. “Our job is to compress everything into a message that will live in a 15-second video on YouTube or TikTok. And that same message has to convince the consumer to buy the thing the brand is selling.”
In Harrop’s view, sustainable terms such as ‘vegan leather‘ or ‘organic materials‘ are simply shorthand for customers to understand whether they are making a good or bad decision. ”These are difficult decisions that live alongside ‘Can I afford this?’ ‘Will my daughter enjoy wearing these?’ and ‘Will my friends like them?’”
And marketing, like fashion, is a trend cycle, he says. The purpose-led marketing wave we have seen in recent years has now led to cynicism among consumers over what they can believe from brands – this is where regulation comes in. “But if we treat sustainability as a trend, we are not going to get the results we want,” says Harrop.
The UNEP’s rallying cry to the ad industry, says Arthur, is for storytellers and image-makers to demonstrate alternative models of status and success: “Models that collectively point consumers towards accessible alternatives when it comes to both enjoying and caring for fashion in a way that is line with the sustainability targets of the sector and indeed with the wider sustainable development goals.“
Without redirecting the narrative of this sector, and the patterns of unsustainable production and consumption it is built on, it won’t be possible for it to reach any of those goals.