“The world’s first Trillionaire will be someone in climate change”. This is from a very interesting podcast on The Knowledge Project with Chamath Palihapitiya, which covers a wide range of topics. Climate change is a big problem, but most people, including myself, just aren’t educated enough to understand the gravity of the situation we’re in. We don’t see the effects of it on our daily life and mistake the absence of obvious evidence to the non-existance of evidence and carry on with our lives. I’ve heard of the term carbon neutral but never have I paused to think “Do I live a carbon neutral life?” I try and do my part — avoid plastic, take public transport — but truth be told, I have no clue how much of a carbon footprint I’m creating based on my lifestyle and thus have no measure if I want to reduce it.
While I worked in the fashion industry, sustainability was growing to become a big theme. Fashion is the second most pollution industry on the planet and the growth of fast fashion in the last decade has lead to an explosion of production. Clothes have been getting cheaper and cheaper and people have been buying more and more. Unfortunately, it’s the environment who is bearing the cost of this growth in consumption. This isn’t news for most people and while we all agree that we must reduce pollution, we don’t seem to be doing enough.
After attending a few industry conferences, it was quite clear that while everyone cares about sustainability, very few have managed to find a solution. At the core of it all, the most common problem was that in order to be more sustainable, cost of products would increase and consumers did not want to pay for it.
An Economic Problem
Let’s start up the supply chain at the fabric mill and factory. I remember speaking to someone who was responsible for sustainability at one of the largest garment manufacturing group in Sri Lanka, and she said that it was important for them to think about the environmental consequences since as it would impact their own business in the future. She gave me example of a river one fo their factories used to draw water from. Year after year, the water level was reducing and they realised that at the rate they were consuming water, it was unsustainable. They had to make a change, else the nearby villages, which supplied most the labour to the factory would not have enough water. The point I’m trying to make is that most “manufacturing” hubs have suffer from environmental problems and want to become more sustainable. However, the common complaint they have is that brands will negotiate prices down and leave them with ultra thin margins which forces them to resort to unsustainable practices.
Let’s now look at brands. I’d argue that most brands want to be more sustainable because it’s actually good for business. No brand would endorse or even want to deal with factory workers slipping in notes with pleas for help. However, here too, based on my conversations with brands, consumers are not willing to pay more for sustainable clothing. There are many new age brands which are built on sustainability (their product are more expensive) and I feel that while they struggle to acquire customers, once they find their audience, they do well. But it is the brands who have been around for a while, who face the bigger problem. They are struggling to move their customer base from a cheaper non-sustainable option to a more expensive but sustainable option. Further more, fashion is a highly competitive market and there’s always downward pressure on prices. This is translated to the pressure for lower cost of manufacturing and everything which follows
Finally let’s look at us, consumers. Yes, we care about the environment, but unfortunately this is not reflected in our purchasing decisions. We still prefer to buy cheaper clothes as compared to more expensive ones. While this is a problem, in my opinion, it’s not the consumers fault, but the brands. They fail to differentiate sustainable and non-sustainable products effectively as a result, do not give the consumer enough of a reason to switch. By creating a new product category with higher perceived value, brands might be able to get consumers to pay more for sustainable clothing, the benefits of which would move up the supply chain.
How to we decide what clothes to buy?
Let’s double click on the product differentiation part. Today sustainability is sold as a new feature on a product. However, the main selling point of the product continues to be design, style etc. I feel this is a problem. A sustainable product will never score more on the design scale and thus no consumer would pay more to buy that product. Our buying decisions, at least for fashion, are highly influenced by the content we consume. We see ads on social media, follow fashion influencers on Instagram, watch lookbook videos on youtube and all this influences our decision to buy. All these visual mediums do a great job at selling design and style, but unfortunately cannot show consumers if a product is sustainable? I don’t mean a seal or a sign that a given product is sustainable — but a deep insight into HOW a product is sustainable. Fashion influencers will show users how product are stylish by wearing them, pairing them with accessories, which plays a huge role in decision making. The video in the link has 1.3M views and the channel has 3.5M subscribers.
How could you show sustainable?
I believe that visual content can play a key role in increasing adoption of sustainable products. Everlane is one the companies who has been very transparent about their price and factories. This “radical transparency”, in my opinion, is one of the big reasons of their success. Zilingo did some great content, like the ones below, which could play a big role in showing users where their clothes are made and help them understand why they need to pay a few extra bucks for their clothes.
Many people argue that such content is “green washing” and merely a PR gimic used by brands. I don’t completely agree. While it can be used that way, the bigger problem is that most consumers don’t have a clue about how or where their clothes are being made and thus are unable to visualise the problems they themselves are creating by refusing to pay more for sustainable clothing. Most brands argue that lack of consumer awareness towards sustainability is one of the biggest drivers of low adoption, and I believe them. I buy a lot of my products from Nike, and I’ve visited one of their factories (and it was great!), most of their consumers don’t see this!
Now, executing this is very hard. As a fashion company, your brand image is very important and anything off-brand could have a serious impact. Also, you don’t want to end up like most charities and NGOs who slap on sad pictures of people to create a sense of pity and get donations. Content needs to be generated with the goal of increasing awareness and transparency and not with the goal of guilting people into buying products. These videos, like the Everlane factory page, should NOT have a call to action for consumer to buy products.
Brands are not the only one responsible for this. Factories and Mills who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to become more efficient ad sustainable need to do a better job at telling the world this and video can be a great format to reach millions. By being more transparent on the efforts they are taking, it’s likely they will get more business. Factories, like the one below, have been investing in technology and they use videos to market themselves as a supplier of choice.
As consumer, I feel we should demand that the brands we buy from invest in showing us where our products are made. Creating a video and putting it up on youtube is very cheap and all brands could easily do it. For some reason, most have not invested in this.
To wrap up, I feel that we have the tools at our disposal to super charge the adoption of sustainable clothing. Lack of awareness and transparency of the supply chain has alienated consumers from the problem. Using channels and mediums which consumers are comfortable with, video being the main one, can play a big role towards helping them understand the consequences of their decisions and this awareness could move the industry towards a more sustainable future. However, given consumers are so used to having ads thrown at them, it’ll be important for the content to be produced and distributed in manner which doesn’t feel like an ad. Furthermore if brands start using this as marketing and measure its effectiveness by sales, it will lead to disaster. I think it’s a long journey, but it could play a big role in changing the industry
This essay is a part of my 30 day writing challenge. You can read more about why I’m doing it here