How to Start Making Your Fashion Company More Sustainable

Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

CEO and Founder,
440 Industries

Introduction

In this post, we’ll start discussing sustainability in strictly practical terms. As we’ve seen in the first chapter about the ‘actionability’ of sustainable fashion, so much can be done to lighten the environmental impact of your production pipeline. With so much choice available the only thing you are required to do is to act.

Let’s look at some numbers. As we proceed through the material we’ll try to make the issues and opportunities connected to fashion sustainability as tangible as possible.

  • The fashion industry is an industry worth 2.4 trillion dollars
  • The fashion industry employs 50 million people worldwide

Many of the issues connected to fashion sustainability in a way are connected to the relevance of the fashion industry to the world economy, and at the same time at the complete lack of traceability of its supply chain. Maybe, upcoming technologies, such as blockchain will help to solve this problem. This is why to study fashion sustainability it is necessary to be informed about fashion business too. Don’t worry, we have you covered, as in this post you can easily understand the basic principles of the fashion industry by analyzing the fashion value chain and the fashion pipeline.

The choices you will need to make need to be aligned with the values you choose to celebrate with your brand and make sustainability a matter of nuances. Whenever you pick a sustainability strategy you have to make compromises. For instance, extending products’ lifecycle by creating a buyback program will positively impact your garments’ end-of-life disposal, but will also induce other carbon-related phenomena by extending the environmental cost of shipping linked to extended product transportation.

This is why the matter of sustainability is not whether or not to be sustainable, it’s more a matter of how to be sustainable. Looking at the bright side, companies who are able to effectively integrate a sound sustainability strategy in their business, ideally associating it to some of the most intimate meanings of your brand.

The importance of sustainable branding cannot be underestimated, considering that through the brand a fashion firm is capable of influencing behaviour and change customers’ perceptions.

It’s the brand’s job to find ways to inform the customer and use sustainability to create a match between the firm’s production decisions and customers’ expectations. Finding the right balance is hard, and this is why sustainability should be pursued through self-reflection and ambition.

In this chapter, we are going to see how a fashion company can pursue a self-aware sustainability strategy
in order to make those environmentally sensitive choices that can both benefit the environment, the firm’s brand equity and its overall profitability.

  1. 4 fronts of sustainability and some basic principles to get started
  2. A 3-step guide to select your sustainable strategy
  3. A case study example for inspiration
  4. Conclusions

1. 4 fronts of sustainability and some basic principles to get started.

This is to help you get started in answering a fundamental question: what can I do? There’s so much that can be done, that – again – the problem is simply picking a battle to fight. In order to simplify this matter, we can break down sustainability initiatives in 4 categories of actions:

  • Environmental Impact.  This account relates to the impact that manufacturing plants have on the nearby natural environment. In order to counter the depletion of natural resources, firms adopt a variety of strategies such as: using fabrics efficiently, avoiding or reusing waste, avoid using chemical dyes on fabrics to avoid waterway pollution or manage transport efficiently lessening their carbon footprint.

  • Use of Natural Resources. Natural resources are finite and in most time non-renewable. As a designer, you are well aware that a product undergoes a variety of stages before being (eventually) purchased by a consumer. Each garment produced by a fashion firm will have an environmental impact which comprises all of its production cost, usage cost and disposal. To limit the waste of natural resources fashion firms have focused their attention on the following approaches: using recycled\renewable fibres, using fibres with low water\energy impact or using efficient and sustainable packaging.

  • Human Health and Wellbeing. This sustainability category actually relates to two human interactions with a fashion product. When we talk about human health we actually talk about the manufacturing plant workers who may be exposed to toxic chemicals during the production process of a garment but we also consider the final product user who will wear a highly chemical garment. Human health is considered holistically, as the circulation of clothing which does not fulfil basic safety standards is a problem which involves everyone. Firms who fight against this issue endorse the use of low chemical dying, low chemical fibres or low chemical bleaching.

  • Social Value. This category of sustainability relates to the respect of human rights and labour conditions for the workers involved in the creation of fashion products. As companies have established global supply chain systems, in many cases they lost accountability for the working conditions of the people involved in their production lines. In order to counter this issue firms can adopt transparent supply chain policies, use fair wages on their employees and employ local artisans.

In many cases concerning luxury brands, the quality of the manufacturing is of primary importance. This is why the Country of Origin Effect is a prominent element of a marketing plan. We discuss this topic in more detail in this post: The Importance of the Country of Origin Effect. 

As we’ve seen, solving the issue of sustainability is a complex matter, which could at first seem overwhelming. On the other hand, by following a step-by-step approach we can both clarify where to act and how to act for the benefit of all of our firm’s stakeholders.

2. A 3-step guide to select your sustainable strategy.

With no intent to oversimplify a complex matter, there are some -relatively- easy steps that your company can pursue in order to identify which goals you should focus on as you develop your brand’s sustainable strategy.

We focus on the link between the intangible growth in value of your brand to the support of sustainability practices, not to overemphasize the branding opportunities that green economies suggest, but to show that despite the high costs involved in putting a company under such (potentially) radical change processes, there is always a business case for environmental awareness.

  • Step 1. Start with extending your brand values to encompass environmental values. The starting point of your journey of sustainability is understanding what your brand stands for, and what environmental priorities it should set for itself. There are many case studies of companies who were able to find a perfect alignment between their brand’s mission and their sustainability effort by understanding what are the intimate reasons that connect them to their customers. The German outdoor brand Vaude is a virtuous example of a firm bearing in mind their end customer decided to implement a strategy where, among other things, the company produces completely PFC-free outdoor clothing made from recycled materials such as polyester, nylon and coffee grounds.

  • Step 2. Think about your customers, being sustainable is an opportunity to serve them better. Identifying and implementing sustainability strategies can be a challenge as it may make you feel as if you are moving into uncharted territory. To help you feel more ‘at home’ consider that sustainability is just another way in which you can serve your customers, and help them see how you care about the same things they care about. This is why some of the choices regarding the ‘battles to fight’ should be inspired by your customer behaviour. As we discuss in this post, customers buy products to get a ‘job done’ and their purchase behaviour and motivations should be a key point of reflection for you to inform your strategy.

  • Step 3. Once you have identified in what ways your brand can be more sustainable conduct research, experiment and make it happen. Obviously understanding what you need to do does not imply that you’ll get it right the first time. If you resort to using recyclable or recycled materials, you’ll need to develop new production techniques, if you decide to use more eco-friendly packaging it will take some time to figure out how to safely ship products preventing damages. This is either an opportunity for you to create your own ‘signature’ way of being sustainable or either take inspiration from other companies who solved the same problem. Remember sustainable is not the opposite of luxurious, especially considering that nowadays luxury is an intangible experience. The Italian fashion conglomerate Gucci created FSC certified paper and cotton handle bags for its prestigious timeless pieces.

Now that we’ve understood the challenges that this process entails it’s time for some inspiration in the next paragraph we’ll look at how Lacoste was able to create a profound sense of environmental awareness with a brilliant communication campaign.

3. A case study example for inspiration

Lacoste is such a popular fashion company, that its brand is now considered almost a synonym of a polo shirt. As seen in the video above, the French company pursued an environmental awareness campaign by creating a limited edition collection of garments representing a selection of animals risking extinction.

Even if this is an example which leverages mostly on the impact of fashion communication, it’s able to show that there are countless ways in which a brand can start its sustainability journey by thinking creatively about any core or non-core element of their company. In this case, for instance, Lacoste was able to show that it could part from its globally recognisable logo to show that for the sake of nature, it could do without its most valuable asset.

4. Conclusions

As we’ve seen, there is a lot that can be done to lighten the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of your company. As for any entrepreneurial challenge, addressing the sustainability needs of a more aware consumer society is a long journey which requires an understanding of the human, environmental and business problems connected to the transition of our economy to a greener economy.

Don’t feel discouraged, fashion is a creative industry and as we’ve seen from some of the examples made in this post, creativity can go a long way to transform a crisis into an opportunity.

Resources for Further Learning

Further Bibliographical References

Web Sources

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How to Start Making Your Fashion Company More Sustainable Starting to develop sustainability strategies for your fashion firm can seem daunting at first, but it's easier to imagine it as a step-by-step process.
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Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

I am an Anglo-Italian business lecturer and consultant based in Florence, Italy. In 2017 I started 440 Industries, an education and training company focused on fashion, music, and technology. Our mission is to help students, entrepreneurs and managers in overcoming the challenges of starting, developing and scaling their business in the creative industries. When there's a will, there's a way!

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