BY ZAIN HASAN
Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed an increasingly connected world - and for better or worse, a more exposed world. Our connectivity knows few boundaries, and big brands with loud voices and sizable followings overshadow the smaller yet profound names. This is especially evident in the world of sustainable and ethical fashion.
Without naming them, newer brands often start off small utilizing social media as their vehicle for success. With connectivity, influencers, and effective marketing, they rapidly gain momentum and, in the process, brand focus their shifts on aesthetics, and they take precedence over purpose.
Effective marketing and PR, while potent tools to memorialize a brand, often tend to exploit buzzwords, trends, and hashtags. In a world of instant gratification and succinctness, consumer behavior is influenced by shaping and leveraging these buzzwords.
While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, as it is necessary for business success, when it comes to sustainability and ethical fashion, consumer knowledge has been shackled by popular nomenclature. This is evidenced in Jacquelyn Ottman’s book, The New Rules of Green Marketing, “The recent explosion of green media, products, services, and marketing has brought with it a sea of confusion and a lack of trust, all of which risk undermining the entire green movement and returning us to an era of consumer apathy.”
“Going Green”, “Eco-Friendly”, “Vegan”, “Reused/Recycled” – all have become synonymous with sustainability. In fact, to the average consumer, when you say "sustainable product", the first thing that usually comes to mind is “green”. But is that enough, and is that all there is to sustainability in the realm of fashion and apparel? What is that even?
Typically but not always, we are made to think it is the materials, or the ingredients used in the making of a product. The consumer sees it on a product details page, some endearing pictures, sees the word “eco-friendly” or “biodegradable”, and it automatically becomes an assumption that the purchase being made is ethical. But that does not tell the whole story of ethical fashion and in fact, it should not. It is of vital importance that the materials are as eco-friendly as possible – yes. But what about the whole process and life cycle of the product? The economic and social externalities of creating the product?
As consumers, we are geared to focus on the end-product. i.e., what we receive in our hands. In addition to the feel-good factor of purchasing a sustainable item, there needs to be a shift in how we think about our purchasing decisions.
That comes with shedding light on every facet of how a product is made, packaged, shipped, and delivered. One of the key facilitators that we are now seeing in the world of ethical fashion is “transparent pricing” – where the price of the product illustrates every aspect of where a consumer’s money spent is going, and how it is used. More than just the focus on the materials or ingredients, this mechanism is transparent and shows what goes to labor, shipping, handling costs, mark-ups, etc.
Fast fashion will continue to produce in quantity and likely will not utilize transparent pricing, as it may not benefit their business models. Although with the advent and increased boardroom focus on ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) metrics, this may change – but it will be slow. However, the smaller voices and brands can gain momentum in numbers not only by utilizing a tool like transparent pricing, but also by being clear about the positive externalities of labor and how the communities who make the products are impacted. A lot do this already, but not enough.
At the end of the day, a business goal is to make a profit, and historical fast fashion has shown us that it can come at the cost of basic human civilities. Exploitation by behemoths operating in third-world countries fueled global economic imbalance and instability, but at the same time it shaped the way we consume. i.e., we have become too familiar and used to the idea that this is how things work. A lot of smaller brands are complacent and stuck with that mentality as well. Of course, they would – it is the “rule” and it works for business objectives, especially in the developed world.
Ethical fashion has a golden opportunity to become the new norm by leveraging the same effective marketing and business tools, but instead of “thinking outside the box,” they can be used to “stretch the confines of the box”. Transparency and edification are at the crux of a fundamental consumer mindset shift. If smaller, ethical brands can augment the meaning of the current perception of sustainability without losing their ethos, a better and more balanced world is in sight.