How Can We Shift Sustainable Fashion From Niche to Norm?


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This blog first appeared on Huffington Post Style and the website of sustainable design agency and boutique Charlie + Mary.

How can we put sustainability onto the mainstream fashion agenda? How can smaller brands compete? And who’s to blame for the lack of progress within the industry? Is it consumers and brands, or do we need structural change led by governments and trade unions?

These were some of the hard questions discussed this week as part a new series of talks held at Fashion for Good, Europe’s newest hub for sustainable fashion, led by Amsterdam based initiative the True Fashion Collective.

The inspiration for this series of events was born from an observation by True Fashion Collective (TFC) Co-Founder Marieke Vinck and what she terms as a general feeling of apathy observed by mainstream audiences. “We’ve been pushing this agenda for nearly a decade as part of our work at sustainable agency Charlie + Mary, and we feel as though now the momentum has slowed down.”

She says that while the issue was once perceived as urgent, with so many brands now tagging on with terms such as “organic” and embracing concepts such as “recycle day,” many consumers now think they’re doing enough.

By partnering with Fashion for Good, the TFC hopes to bring a sense of urgency back to the spotlight and the first debate in this series featured industry leaders from TOMS, HoodLamb Hemp, Yumeko and The Terrace, who each shared hard truths on how sustainability can compete against the widespread thirst for fast fashion.

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One of the key messages emphasised by all speakers was that if small brands are to succeed it’s important to keep their sustainability messages simple. While there are many issues to choose from, such as toxic chemicals, poor labour conditions, or creating more durable products, the general consensus among all speakers was that if you’re a small brand starting out, it’s important to stick to one.

Leontine Gast, founding Partner & Managing director of The Terrace stressed that although all issues are important, brands have to ask themselves which value they hold above all others. “At the end of the day, you have to choose for yourself which issue you think is a priority, and this is as true for individuals as it is for large corporations.”

Doug Mignola, Founder of HoodLamb, stressed that from a financial point of view, it’s not sustainable for a small brand to tackle too many issues at once. He said that consumers get lost in the message and stressed that brands need to communicate their story with precision. “You need to think of it like a sword. If you wanna cut through something, you’d better be sharp!”

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For the optimists amongst the crowd, this was a hard pill to swallow and Stephan Zeijlemaker, co-founder of Yumeko, who brings with him over 20 years in advertising, added a dose of Dutch realism to the debate. “Most consumers don’t want to change the world unless you make it really easy,” he said. Nodding heads ensued.

And in this case, what does “really easy” mean? For TOMS Marketing Director Lisa Hogg, certification is the answer. She said, “while some consumers want to get into the details, others just want to see the certification label and move on.” Stephan, ever the realist, made the observation that many brands, such as his own, are facing certification fatigue on the road to redemption.

“We’re proud to have a completely transparent supply chain, but by the way, this is a real pain in the arse, because each year we have to spend a lot of time and money renewing it!”

The second hard dose of realism was Stephan’s observation that the mainstream sustainable consumer just doesn’t exist yet. He said, “for example, in Holland, only 4-5% of the population eat organic food.” While this number is doubling every year, it’s still a minority.

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From a marketing perspective, all brands shared stories of creativity used to garner audience attention and stressed that traditional advertising played a minimal, if non-existent, role in their budgets. Doug shared that every time a magazine approaches HoodLamb to place an ad he rebukes, “We’re not the Ad! We’re the story!”

Leontine changed gears by challenging sustainable brands to think big. She observed that many businesses fail to have a solid growth strategy and stressed that once this plan has been mapped, small brands need to fearlessly pursue collaboration. She said, “you have to be brave enough to knock on the big door!”

Lisa rounded off the event with solid business advice noting that if your sustainable brand really wants to scale, the visionaries, at some stage, need to step aside. Sharing the experience of TOMS, she said that while Founder Blake Mycoskie is still on the board, and still the majority owner, he’s let other people with different areas of expertise come in.

“One word of advice is – make sure you surround yourself with incredibly smart people who know their shit!”

Finally, rousing the activist in all of us, Lisa challenged the audience not to discredit the power of their own voice. She urged: “Be bold, especially when you’re young! While, of course you have to learn to be diplomatic too, if you work within a big corporation, remember that your voice as an employee matters.”
So what’s the answer to pushing sustainability from niche to norm? While the event highlighted the role of individual action, Leontine highlighted that indeed, structural change is needed too. She said, “the pressure on big brands to clean up their supply chain also comes from governments and trade unions too.”

While there’s no simple solution, this kind of raw, unfiltered debate provides reason for hope. As Leontine said, “we’re all humans, and even in boardrooms.” She said, “once people start making decisions on behalf of their grandchildren, then we’ll see real impact.”

With fast fashion now the second most polluting industry on the planet, let’s just hope it’s not too late.