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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

11 October 2014

Mainstreaming Sustainable Fashion - Define

Contributor Lisa Schneider


In a 16-part series, SOURCE Intelligence columnist, Lisa Schneider, gives you several strategies to help communicate sustainability more effectively to the mainstream fashion market. In this 3rd instalment, learn how you should be defining and clarifying your sustainability terminology. Image: Mantis World

Sustainable fashion has an image problem. On the whole, consumers worldwide hold somewhat negative perceptions towards ‘green’ fashion which, of course, affects purchasing behaviour. Sustainability marketing strategies haven’t been very successful in getting mainstream consumers excited about sustainable, ethical fashion.

In the introduction of this series (Mainstreaming Sustainable Fashion – The Issues), we have laid out the issues surrounding sustainable fashion communications and how these factors have kept it from resonating with the mainstream consumer.

This series will offer you 15 strategies and solutions to communicate more effectively and attractively the sustainability story of your company and products, and, ultimately, improve ‘green’ fashion’s rather negative public image.

This is the third instalment and looks at how you should be defining what sustainability means to your brand so that you and your customers are on the same page.


Sustainability is a vague term. There is no general definition of what it is and what it entails in fashion. Even after four decades of its existence, researchers, experts and industry professionals are still struggling with appointing an universal definition to the term of ‘sustainability’.

So what it means to you might not be the same as what it means to your customers. This can create noise in your communication process. People need to understand your starting point and your view on sustainability. If they don’t, they might as well ignore your message.

Ethical Fashion Forum’s definition of sustainable, ethical fashion is “fashion that maximises benefits to communities and minimises impact on the environment.” This might be a good place for you to start defining and therefore communicating what you are doing that is “sustainable.”

1. Clarify

First, be clear on what sustainability means for your company and communicate how your clothes are sustainable. If you market organic cotton, tell your customers what it makes organic and to which proportion. Be honest and transparent.

Because there is no common industry or public consensus, you first need to establish what is important to you, what that means in practice and then bring your customer on the same knowledge level as you are. In this way you can assure your customer is understanding your message they way you intended to.

Before launching their famous ‘Plan A’, Marks & Spencer ran the ‘Look Behind the Label’ campaign to first raise awareness of sustainability issues and to try to establish a common understanding of what these issues mean in practice. Product labels contained information on origin, environmental impact and addressed certain themes such as fair trade, sustainability or washability.

Marks & Spencer – Look Behind The Label Campaign

2. State the facts

Make sure to tell your audience that your ‘recycled collection’ in fact uses only 95% of recycled polyester. That’s an important achievement, but being clear about your fibre mix will help your customer to better understand how your products differentiate. And they can place better trust in what you tell them being true.

Using vague terms such as ‘recycled’ for products which might only contain a fraction of recycled material will not give you a green advantage in the long term. In fact, not being specific can quickly backfire and lead to accusations of greenwash as today’s savvy consumers are eager to find out the whole story. Vagueness may very well result in lower credibility for your brand image.

3. Don’t bombard your customers either

At the point of sale, your customer certainly needs to know how much percent of organic fibres are used in your T-Shirt. So put it on your product label.

At the same time, consumers are easily bored of too much information. They need clear, quick facts and then some customers will choose to go the extra mile to find out more. Better yet, don’t totally bombard your customer with all the detailed information at the point-of-sale, instead aim to spark your customer’s interest in finding out more.

More detailed definitions can be better communicated through other channels, e.g. your website, marketing materials, etc. This will incentivise your customer to engage more deeply in your brand story, driving traffic to your website and hopefully gaining loyalty that will result in repeat sales.

Indigenous has come up with a clever solution to get their customers interested more deeply in their products journey. The Fair Trace Tool™ is a mobile-enabled technology that allows consumers to scan a QR code on the product label that takes them to a mobile site revealing the story behind the garment.

Our next article in the series addresses the importance of proving your facts and “walking your talk” in your green marketing efforts.

This is the third instalment of the Mainstreaming Sustainable fashion series, read the previous piece, here: Research

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