Ten years ago today, 20 fashion entrepreneurs and business owners sat around a table in London and signed the founding constitution of the Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF). Our remit was to reduce poverty, raise awareness, and respect the environment through better fashion business. Each member of that round table was pioneering best practice in our industry – and we believed that through supporting others to do the same, we could achieve great things.
Over my ten years of running the Ethical Fashion Forum, I have had the great privilege to work with hundreds of inspiring fashion entrepreneurs and businesses from every part of the supply chain and from all over the world. I have seen many great ideas, and great businesses, not achieve their potential – while others have gone way beyond it.
In this article, I’ve taken time to reflect upon what I have learnt from the brands I have worked with, and what makes the leaders stand out, as well as the most exciting opportunities I see for entrepreneurs and business owners over the next 10 years in the global fashion sector.
#1. People want to buy “why” you do what you do
The thing I love most about working with sustainable business owners is that they ALWAYS have a why, and it is usually pretty inspiring. This places them in a great position to win customers for life – if they focus on communicating not “what” they do – but why they do it.
To illustrate this concept, I highly recommend you watch Simon Sinek’s Ted talk: People don’t buy what you do – people buy why you do it. Here is a brief extract to give you the picture:
“Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by “why” I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result.
By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it’s obvious… But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations – regardless of their size, regardless of their industry – all think, act and communicate from the inside out.”
#2. The golden ticket – knowing your customers inside out
At EFF, we have coined the term “3 dimensional business success” to mean the achievement of commercial goals whilst maximising benefits to people behind the product and minimising impact on the environment. For us, this is the ultimate indicator of great business.
Without exception, the businesses I have seen achieve 3D success know their customers inside out, back to front and sideways. They have identified something that these customers need, that they can’t find anywhere else, and they have become the best at delivering it – in 3 Dimensions.
In contrast, the businesses that I have seen flounder have started with an idea or a supply base rather than a researched market opportunity. They try to fabricate a customer base around a product they want to create, instead of identifying a customer need first and single-mindedly pursuing that.
Because so few new fashion businesses really know their customer target inside out, there are huge opportunities for those that do.
#3. “Ethical Fashion” captures less than 1% of the market
Or so says the last comprehensive survey on the topic – back in 2009 by Mintel. We may have to wait for the launch of Mysource next year before we can get an update on that figure, but you can be sure it is still low. My point being that there is huge scope for 3D fashion business to capture a much larger portion of the market.
In particular, there are opportunities in a number of growing market sectors. The majority of fashion brands that we work with cater for a similar market – young women who match the characteristics of their pioneering founders. It is natural to want to produce ranges you would like to wear yourself, and it can be a great tactic. But, in a crowded market, it takes a lot to stand out.
By contrast, there is a lot of room for innovative 3D products in menswear, plus size, mature women, footwear, and many other niche market sectors – especially if business owners take the time, or take on the expertise, to know their customers inside out. (Ref point 2 above.)
#4. There’s a brain drain….
Over the last few years at EFF we have noticed more and more professionals from large brands and retailers attending our events and engaging passionately with our work. Yes! Did this mean that we were really gaining traction with the decision makers within large brands? Unfortunately our elation was short-lived.
Turns out that most of these individuals were engaging in an “unsanctioned” way. To our dismay our hard won, passionate supporters from High St brands have often been on the verge of leaving their corporate roles, looking for meaning (the “why” – ref above!) disillusioned with their ability to drive change from within. The fact that these “leavers” are often the brightest and most brilliant employees should give the large brands some food for thought.
This also presents an enormous opportunity for sustainable fashion business owners and entrepreneurs. There are hundreds of brilliant, hugely experienced professionals out there who would jump at the chance to work for your “why” Get them on board! It could help you to crack 1, 2, and 3 above…
#5. Great photography…in our online world, it changes everything. Yet, it is so rare.
I’m already down to opportunity #5, but sometimes I think this one could sit right there at #1. I’ve seen so many businesses not reach their potential because they scrimp on investment into product photography. And others gain unprecedented coverage through a great campaign. In a competitive, online environment where brands are jostling for attention, imagery is everything. (We have a whole library of fashion shoots taken in the woods starring an attractive friend – I get the reasoning behind it – but the buyers don’t.)
What’s more, if you have great, perception-changing imagery, we’ll do our damnedest to get your products in front of as many people as possible when we launch Mysource.
#6. Crowdfunding – investment is within reach
Traditional routes to investment for smaller fashion businesses are an increasingly remote possibility. No one will invest until you have proven that you are growing fast. But you can’t grow fast until you get investment. That old dilemma again. Crowdfunding has changed the dynamic. Reverting back to point #1… Crowdfunding lets your investors buy into your “why”.
We’ve seen numerous businesses in our network achieve success with Crowdfunding (and others fail…). Like anything worth doing, it’s hard to get right, and easy to get wrong. But businesses that have followed the rules (perhaps the most important being that you need to reach out to your network in advance so that you can “land” at least 30% of your target in the first week) have proven that Crowdfunding is a huge opportunity to further business with a purpose and a cause.
#7. Huge design talent in fashion industry production hubs
This is an exciting one – it is transforming the way the fashion industry operates. Even 10 years ago, our industry was characterised by a global split between where products where mostly produced (Asia, Latin America, North Africa) and where they were mostly designed and sold (the “West”). In fact, this split can be pretty much blamed for the social and environmental exploitation that gained pace across the industry during the 90s. It is the reason EFF was created.
In the last 10 years, this “convention” has been turned on its head. Suppliers have become brands. Sourcing hubs have become major markets, and, in the last 5 years, we have seen a wave of exciting design talent – especially in South Korea, India, and China, and increasingly in Brazil and South Africa.
In the context of sustainable fashion, this has two major implications. First, designers are once again working directly with suppliers. It is easier to have direct and equitable working relationships with them. Secondly, a raft of exciting, affordable, design-led fashion product is beginning to hit the international online fashion platforms. Here lies huge potential – for fashion brand owners to tap into local design talent close to sites of production, as well as for multi brand platforms seeking affordable product that will beat the High St on both design and construction quality.
#8. Multi brand retail – a sustainable ASOS is on the horizon
I’ve lost count of the number of people who have contacted us at EFF to say that they are planning to launch an online retail platform that will become the ASOS for sustainable fashion. I have admired the drive and passion of these brilliant entrepreneurs; many have achieved great things. What they have not done is to create an ASOS for sustainable fashion, and for good reason.
There are 3 pillars to the success of ASOS: 1. Knowing their customers inside out (ref point 2 above), 2. Offering high quality product at low prices, and 3. Offering a massive product range.
The entrepreneurs that are seeking to create a sustainable ASOS have been frustrated by the small number of brands producing affordable, high quality, sustainable product. There simply is not enough product out there to achieve anything close to ASOS yet. This is the reason we have chosen to focus on supporting more great, sustainable fashion businesses through Mysource (rather than creating a retail platform).
However, things are set to change as sustainable fashion becomes more endemic. And, in light of #7 above – I foresee unprecedented opportunities for sustainable fashion retail platforms over the next 10 years.
#9. Ruthless focus is transformational
When you are operating in 3 dimensions (see definition in #3), it is even harder to be ruthlessly focused. Distractions come not just from the direction of product design, sales, and marketing, but also from the perspective of maximising impact for workers… and integrating the latest environmental innovation.
Great brand development and product design is all about what you say “no” to. Very often, it is the brands with the simplest products and approach that we have seen have most immediate success. A hard nut to crack, but for those who do, the opportunities are huge.
#10. Get the ingredients right – and you will earn the spotlight
Of all the brands and suppliers I have engaged with over the years, I would estimate that less than 5% have achieved outstanding 3 Dimensional success.
Because they are so few, these brands have gained widespread press coverage and profile. Here lies the biggest opportunity of all. 3D success is proven – with the right ingredients of product and market focus, clever comms and marketing. I regularly engage with fashion buyers and they tell me that if there was more 3D product out there, they would buy it.
I expect to see momentum gain pace over the next 5- 10 years with sustainable brand pioneers grabbing the international spotlight, and the best creative design minds driving forward sustainable practices in the mainstream.
If you are interested in getting more involved with the sustainable fashion community and the next phase of the Ethical Fashion Forum’s journey, join the mailing list at www.mysource.io. We are moving forward with the design and build of the new Mysource platform with planned launch in 2017.