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What’s wrong with fashion’s sustainability strategy

by Ana Andjelic

The first time you heard that 85 percent of clothing in the U.S. goes into landfills, you probably responded with outrage, resolve or disgust. Then you heard it 20 more times and habituation settled in. It calls to mind the evolving response to the Twitter outbursts of the President of the United States; we tend to get used to, and bored by, terrifying reality.

Fashion is missing a viable, desirable sustainability strategy. The way clothes are made and marketed is nearly the same as it was 50 years ago. Sure, there are green capsule collections and charitable foundations, and there are Kering’s massively ambitious annual sustainability targets (which it repeatedly fails to reach). Aside from the pledges to make raw materials traceable and to produce zero emissions, there’s little about the fashion business that has changed.

On Instagram, there are more than 150 million posts hashtagged #ootd, compared to around 180,000 with #whomademyclothes, a campaign promoting transparency in brands’ supply chains. Evolution is to blame. We react to what we can feel and see, and we are programmed to take immediate threats more seriously than those that may affect our future.

Reports about combatting fashion-induced pollution with eco-yarns and other small-footprint fibers are equally emotionally unexciting, except to mechanical engineers. The presence of unused bioproducts makes for a great Fast Company story, but it’s not a story that seduces consumers.

Fashion consumers are driven by desire, not need. To truly change their behavior, the fashion sustainability conversation needs to inspire consumers to embrace it on the emotional level. The first step in this process is shifting the focus from minimizing shoppers’ guilt to maximizing their desire.

Tesla, The Honest Company and Goop have all successfully entered cultural conversation — and ignited consumers’ passion — seemingly overnight. They’ve turned electric cars, jade eggs and wellness into status symbols, respectively. Today, it is aspirational to buy green and do good, yet fashion at large is strangely absent from this conversation.

Blame the uncomprehending fashion-media complex and its undue grip on the space. Sustainability and technology are more attractive as marketing ploys than as industry-wide realities.

If the reality doesn’t change, Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group project that, by 2030, fashion brands will see their earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) decrease by more than 3 percent.

Traditionally, fashion’s EBIT margins grew through amassing scale, increasing production volumes and opening new stores. This strategy led to overproduction, which is largely to blame for fashion’s dire environmental record. If analysts’ predictions ring true, this strategy will also lead to fashion’s declining business results.

Based on the number of industries affected by Amazon, Tesla, Uber and Airbnb, we know that technology is the ultimate market-maker. It introduces new business models, opens up new revenue streams and transforms everything — from the supply chain and materials used in production, to operations, marketing and merchandising.

Sustainability is fashion’s opportunity to course-correct — but brands must being willing to cannibalize their current businesses in the short-term (think: fewer clothes in the market), and come up with long-term mechanisms for creating value and delivering revenue. Ways to do this include reducing conspicuous production and replacing sustainability pledges with actual R&D departments.

Fashion also needs to stop isolating itself from modern culture and its mechanisms for creating consumer demand, and give sustainability the context and desirability it requires. Cultural demand–creating mechanisms turn Yeezy sneakers, re-tailored Levi’s, Tom’s toothpaste and Tesla cars into status symbols in equal measure. Their allure is not random. It summarizes consumers’ desire, in tangible forms; shows us where their decision-making lies and honors the organization of consumption.

To succeed, fashion’s sustainability strategy needs to move from the domain of marketing and corporate communication to the value chain, including the way the clothes are made and the product teams that make them. This is conversation that involves more commitment and know-how — and considerably less waste.