What Does Sustainability Really Mean in the Fashion Industry?

When I first completed my PhD, I was invited to teach Fashion Business Strategy at London College of Fashion. I was told the school would be focusing on sustainability, and I needed to incorporate that into my classes. At that time, 15 years ago to be exact, sustainability was not exactly the buzzword that is today, but I remember very clearly, also around the same time, popping in to the newly opened Stella McCartney shop and discovering that she was using non-leather in her accessories and shoes. It was then that I started to read about and do more research on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and ethics in the fashion industry. It became clear to me that brands that were following such a strategy were perceived as inferior in quality, and unable to reach the margins that a fashion business needs to reach in order to become profitable. In fact, when I worked with UK-based fashion designers as part of the British Fashion Council master classes I was conducting, I noticed a reluctance among the designers to emphasize they were using repurposed textiles, or forgoing leather when making bags and purses. I understood, because I was in this boat myself. When I was drafting the branding copy of my leather goods label, Neri Karra, it did not seem important to me to emphasize that we employ mainly women refugees, use water-based glue, work only with by-product raw leather of the food industry, and go to painstaking measures to visit every single supplier to see how our raw material is produced. It did not occur to me that this was a part of sustainability measures, and needed to be emphasized in branding. In the last decade or so, however, a lot has changed when it comes to sustainability and fashion. Now, sustainability is thrown around like confetti, and there is not a single fashion brand that doesn’t incorporate it into its strategy, at best, or into its PR campaign at the very least. While there is an increased awareness around sustainability as a concept, there is also the question of whether fashion can really be sustainable, and what sustainability really means. Stella McCartney, one of the pioneers of sustainability asks a similar question: “The majority of people who say they’re doing a sustainable thing, if you ask one question, it will pretty much fall down at the first hurdle. … It’s a bit tiring to see people’s overuse of these terms and really not have any substance to back it up.” So, what is sustainability, and can it ever be achieved in the fashion industry? Let’s look at four key considerations: 1. Intention: Are you really serious about sustainability? Are you implementing it because you believe it is the right thing to do, or are you doing it because everyone else is, or because it’s a means of differentiating yourself, or a way to gain social credibility? Because if it’s not coming from your soul, sooner or later, customers will be able to tell. It will fall at the first hurdle, as Stella McCartney says. Your customer today is much more socially and environmentally aware and wants to buy products and support brands that match that increasing awareness. And that ties back into the issue of intention: today’s consumers are also demanding authenticity from the brands they support. If a brand is merely paying lip service to sustainability, consumers are quick to spot the behavior as inauthentic and lose trust. And perhaps, buy elsewhere. 2. Commit to sustainability as the guide for the entire value chain, including the CEO and the designer: This means organizational culture has to support it; this means transparency at all levels; this means using the tools and technology available to educate, implement practices, and track progress. And for many organizations, this likely means a large-scale change initiative. Adherence to sound change management principles will help guide your course of action and build alignment with the vision. Involving leaders, managers, and people at all levels during change is crucial, because involvement leads to commitment. 3. Honest and open conversation: Admit when you don’t know and when you still have a way to go. Luxury brand parent company Kering has taken a leading role in and is recognized for its sustainability efforts, including its commitment to avoid and reduce its environmental footprint across the supply chain. Yet even this company has made missteps or failed to reach its target sustainability and environmental goals—and has acknowledged that fact. Companies (and their leaders) who openly acknowledge when they’ve made an error or haven’t achieved what they set out to achieve will in no way diminish confidence. On the contract, they will gain trust and respect. 4. It’s about so much more than eco textiles: Sustainability encompasses quality, longevity, transparency, producing in your own factory, employees and the way you treat them, corporate integrity, and social responsibility. Is the item fast fashion, produced to be worn for a season, or made to be worn and carried for the long term, to “spark joy,” as Marie Kondo might say. This to me is what sustainability really means. It’s about how we can reduce the overall corporate footprint. Because producing more, even if done with some measure of sustainability, is not going to help the carbon footprint. A broad, all-encompassing perspective is a necessity. And to finish off with an anecdote, I did meet Stella McCartney in her store that day 15 years ago when I walked in for the first time, and of course, I was dressed head to toe in her brand. She was absolutely lovely; she complimented me on my style and we talked—naturally—about fashion. I walked out of there on Cloud 9. Later, I was pleased to participate in her sustainability market research. I can attest that she is, and was even in those early days, the real deal.

Here you can listen to the founder of Moda Métiers – Neri Karra and hear her perspective on What is sustainability in the fashion industry.