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Ethics in practice: In-store experiences

We learn how ethics can be implemented to ensure consumers are aware of the ethics of a brand when in they visit a physical store.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a monumental shift to remote work and online shopping. As fashion professionals, we know that the link between consumer and producer is critical to company success. The next step discusses how ethics can be implemented to ensure consumers are aware of the ethics of a brand when in they visit a physical store.

The role of the physical store experience in communicating brand ethics

As a professor at The Ohio State University, Rebekah Matheny’s research builds upon her decade of industry experience as an interior designer in brand experience design and consumer strategy. Her research investigates sustainable design strategies, with an emphasis on the design of retail and brand environments to create tangible connections from people to people, people to products, and people to a brand.

This research is designed to identify and explore how the store environment, as a critical link between consumer and producer, can nurture these relationships, redefining the purpose of retail to create a more environmentally and socially sustainable retail culture.

Portrait photograph of Rebekah Matheny’

Rebekah Matheny
Rebekah notes that from her experience in the retail design industry, culturally retail is undergoing a major shift with a focus on Millennials and Gen Z as the primary consumer groups. Retailers and designers have struggled to emotionally connect with the sustainable values of Millennials and Gen Z. These generations’ ethics towards environmentally and socially conscious decision-making has given rise to generous brands, products with purpose, and slow fashion initiatives. However, during her years in practice, Matheny recognized a lack of sustainable design considerations within the practice of retail store design.
Thus, this emerging field of study is critical in understanding how retail store design can strategically leverage the physical environment to empower sustainable consumer behaviors.
In a paper for the 2018 Global Fashion Conference titled “Slow fashion and retail design: Designing experiences to influence sustainable consumers behaviors,” Rebekah states:
Driven by increased demands for ethical responsibility towards environmental and social sustainability by Millennials and Gen Z, the design and purpose of apparel retail stores is transforming. These generations demand authentic and transparent retail storytelling to create a connection between their beliefs and the value they place on the products they purchase.
Kate Fletcher, who introduced the concept of slow fashion, states: “Sustainable fashion is about a strong and nurturing relationship between consumer and producer” (Fletcher, 2008). Rebekah argues that the retail store environment is a critical link in establishing this relationship. However, she notes:
Many slow fashion retailers lack elements within their store design to foster this relationship, missing an opportunity to communicate their sustainable story through the physical space where consumers experience fashion. Therefore, we must broaden slow fashion’s reach, extending into the design of the physical retail environment.

This will establish what she is defining as “slow retail” experience design. Decades of progressive capitalism have led to fast fashion and an abundance of consumer waste. Through her case study analysis, Rebekah is building upon the transformational principles that Fletcher and Grose have established for defining slow fashion, establishing the necessary spatial design elements within the retail environment and a customer touchpoints journey to connect, educate, and influence consumer behavior to be more environmentally and socially responsible.

As part of the Product Lifetimes and the Environment (PLATE) Conference, Rebekah’s paper “Slow fashion in retail environments: Why storytelling is critical for product longevity” looks at three case studies (Shinola Detroit, Levi’s, and The Local by Lululemon) to better understand the role of the retail store. She found that storytelling plays a critical role within a retail environment, providing opportunities to establish product value and promote product longevity. She elaborated by stating that the physical experience must:

  1. Bridge the digital with the physical. Communicating their brand values that are often (buried) on their website in a more transparent and overt manner within the store.
  2. Establish retailer and consumer accountability. Communicating the origins of a product prior to purchase as well as product care instructions and even going as far as providing a repair shop can connect the customer to the product’s journey, illustrating the role the consumer has in extending the product’s life.
  3. Create trust through visual narratives and displays. Visual communication methods such as Levi’s longevity display serve as a testament, reassuring consumers that their product will stand the test of time. Creating transparent authentic, and honest storytelling moments allows consumers to recognize their own beliefs through the store’s projected narrative.
  4. Engage customers through redesigning the retail store. Storytelling is not simply graphic elements; creating connections between the brand, the customer, and store’s function is critical in changing how people consume. This should be done through in-store services that showcase and encourage product longevity initiatives, such as repair shops, tailors, and community rooms.
  5. Let the architecture speak. Developing a physical language that aligns with the values of the company is key. Embracing an aesthetic that is pure and sustainable reinforces the brand’s values.

As consumers we know that an enjoyable physical store experience is essential for company success but as fashion professionals, we know that successful communication of brand ethics is as equally as important. Consumers often take comfort in knowing that the product they are purchasing has been sustainably and ethically sourced while the aesthetics of the store reflect those ethics and values.

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Business and Workplace Ethics in the Fashion Industry

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