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The future of fashion is sustainable

In this step, Ethical Fashion Forum shares some of the latest research on why sustainability is so important to the future of fashion.
luxury contemporary knitwear from Yala Mandala
© Yala Mandala

Being a brand with values is increasingly important. Havas Media produces a bi-annual report interviewing 300,000 people across 34 countries about their attitudes and behaviours when it comes to over 1,000 brands in 12 countries.

The research showed one big thing: for the most part, people don’t trust brands anymore. By and large, consumers are now sceptics. Why the mistrust? Rana Plaza, the angora fur controversy, the banking crisis, the horse meat scandal and the FIFA corruption are just a few of the incidents that have ravaged public trust in business.

Consumers now expect that business exists to serve society: on an individual and the collective level. People expect brands to help make our daily routines easier — by helping us stay healthy, by better connecting us to our loved ones and by helping us make informed, smart decisions.

We also expect brands to play bigger roles in our communities through event sponsorships or corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives that help support our collective well-being. Individual value at the expense of the society or the environment is increasingly seen as an empty tradeoff.

Havas Media Lab Director, Umair Tarique says: “If you’re still seeing your business essentially as a giant factory producing outputs, instead of as a system that creates real, positive human outcomes—you’re stuck in the industrial age, while the rest of the world, especially your customers, are beginning to take a quantum leap into the human age—an era where a life meaningfully well lived is what really counts.”

And it is not just in Europe or other western markets. The 2012 Edelman Good Purpose report surveyed 8,000 consumers in 16 countries and discovered that 80% of Chinese respondents and 71% of Indian respondents said they were willing to pay a premium for brands with a social or environmental commitment, compared to 28% in the UK and 40% globally.

Sustainability has business benefits too

Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise analysed more than 190 academic studies, industry reports, newspaper articles, and books and found a remarkable correlation between thoughtful, sustainable business practices and economic performance, especially stock price performance.

In 2012, a Harvard Business Review study found that ‘resource efficient’ companies (those that use less energy and water and create less waste) tend to produce higher investment returns. While the Institute of Business Ethics also found that companies with strong ethical commitments have historically outperformed the average on the Standard & Poor 500 and FTSE 100 every year from 2005 to 2010.

In 2014/15, UK retailer Marks & Spencer reported a £160 million net benefit from their sustainability efforts, outlined in their Plan A 2020 Vision. On a smaller scale, Los Angeles based brand Reformation has seen some impressive success – tripling its sales year on year since launching in 2009. Reformation has sustainability built into its brand DNA. Reformation is a vertically-integrated operation, meaning almost everything happens under one roof — its management office, factory, studio, warehouse and logistics. And they source everything as locally as possible — using almost exclusively deadstock fabrics, repurposed vintage clothing and sustainable natural fibres.

Optional further reading:

Sustainable fashion future, Trends and mega-trends (EFF, 2013)
Setting the Scene on Sustainability (EFF, 2014)

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How to Build a Sustainable Fashion Business

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