Fashion’s Green challenge - Part 2

08 Oct 2019

Fashion’s Green challenge - Part 2

As fashion brands aim to improve their sustainability credentials, what’s the best strategy and just where does leadership fit into any plans to do the right thing?

In 2019, Odgers Berndtson staged a roundtable event to discuss sustainability and its impact. It invited senior figures representing leading brands, retailers, e-tailers and global platforms within fashion and luxury. The key finding? The importance of a selective approach over, for example, a strategy that tries to cover off too many topics.

Companies do well when they demonstrably stand for something selective in sustainability, like a commitment to eliminating plastic, boycotting animal products, using organic cotton or reducing synthetic materials. Conversely, firms that try to cover too many bases, risk not standing for any.

This clarity of vision works well for brands such as Stella McCartney, whose products are all vegan, meaning consumers can be certain of several things. Not only are there no skins, fur, angora or feathers in the collection, but also the glues used in bags and shoes are not derived from animal origins and none of the brand’s cosmetics have been tested on animals.

Toms, the California-based ethical shoe brand, has given away 60 million pairs of shoes to children through humanitarian organisations while ensuring much of its range is vegan.

Eileen Fisher’s Waste No More programme is equally clear: consumers can bring back items from the brand’s range they no longer wear and get vouchers in return. The clothing is then cleaned and resold through the company’s Renew programme.

French luxury conglomerate LVMH – which brings together brands such as Fendi, Dior and Givenchy – has entered into a five-year partnership with UNESCO to safeguard biodiversity across the planet. Board member Antoine Arnault said of the initiative: “This partnership marks a significant step forward along the path on which the LVMH group has already embarked to safeguard biodiversity. We are delighted to have this opportunity to work closely with UNESCO on these essential issues.”

Small is sustainable

It is often smaller brands with hands-on founders which lead the way when it comes to end-to-end sustainability, ensuring ethical decision-making from source to shelf.

A desire to create products that have minimal impact on the environment is often key to why these brands were launched.

French company Veja’s sneakers are designed in France and made in Brazil from recycled plastic bottles, organic cotton and natural rubber. Founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion worked in investment banks for a short while after graduating college. Then they started an NGO which audited French companies’ supply chains, looking primarily at environmental and socio-economic issues.

Based on what they saw, they launched Veja and the brand has become massively on-trend, synonymous with sustainable fashion and incredibly successful. This is doubly impressive as the brand has never advertised. Speaking to the fashion website Make it Last, Kopp said: “Veja’s secret to transparency and sustainability is to go into the field – to know what we’re talking about.”

“Sustainability is not a Powerpoint, it is more the mud of the Amazonian forest, understanding the problems of reality.”

Catherine Broome, who leads executive search assignments within Odgers Berndtson’s global consumer practice in London, specialising in senior and C-suite roles within the fashion and luxury industries believes larger brands have much to learn from the likes of Veja.

“Smaller brands,” she says, “definitely have the agility to react more quickly to hot topics or areas of concern. Larger brands are not structured in that way and so are slower to react.

“The key is direct communication with consumers. Often, very small brands will say, ‘we’ve noticed this and this is what we are doing about it’. Larger brands will be slower to process changes in consumer feeling, in world events, in hot topics. What they can learn from smaller brands is that direct and honest communication with the consumer is key.”

Fast fashion is changing slowly

Spanish company Zara, the largest fast-fashion retailer in the world, produces 450 million garments and 20,000 new designs every year. However, the company recently pledged that all its cotton, linen and polyester will be organic, sustainable or recycled by 2025.

Marta Ortega, daughter of Amancio Ortega, founder of Zara’s parent company Inditex, and a member of the Zara women’s design team explained more.

“It’s something that we all feel really passionately about as individuals, as well as in a work capacity. [We are] always looking for ways in which we can do better: working on new technologies, new ways to work with recycled materials, and helping create new fabrics that our designers, as well as others in the industry, can work with in the future.”

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s an approach that we’re absolutely committed to.”

UK brand Toast does things differently in an effort to counter the throwaway culture, encouraging sustained long-term use of pieces from its clothing range. It even runs regular mending workshops for customers keen to avoid making further unnecessary purchases.

Leadership is key to change

With consumers increasingly demanding more sustainable clothing within a greener supply chain, getting the leadership structure working well will be vital to future business success. Governments, consumers and brands themselves are increasingly demanding that fashion takes a firmer stance on environmental issues and responsible sustainability policies look set to become a key driver to staying on-trend. 

Catherine Broome believes the structure of sustainability teams will be key to making these changes. She says: “All teams are made of three key elements and the leadership of that team needs to be visionary.

“They have to be a very resilient diplomat, who can create buy-in and have enough gravitas to enforce strategies. Underneath that, you need a strategist, who can work out how the implementation is possible in line with the current organisation or, if changes need to be made, how that will be possible and what impact it will have on the rest of the company.

“Then, at the grassroots level of the team, you need innovators who need to be protected so as to allow them to be as creative as possible.”

Read Part 1 of this article here.

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