Making sustainability fashionable or fashion sustainable – which would you choose?

  • by helga
  • 03/05/2014

This is the third of my post-Easter posts on Sustainability.

There were two news about fashion and sustainability recently which I wanted to mention here. Firstly, H & M launched a sustainability campaign in April to promote its clothes recycling scheme. Secondly, it was also one year since Rana Plaza’s tragedy in Bangladesh, with much written in the press about lessons learned and what has changed (or not) since then.

H&M clothes recycling had been going on for over a year but not many knew about it, so an ad campaign in The Evening Standard and Metro was launched to promote their range of sustainable clothes alongside the recycling scheme which offers a £5 voucher for a bag of old clothes. I think it’s a great idea, and shows H&M’s willingness to address serious environmental and social issues, something not many fashion brands can brag about!

However, my heart is split in two because H&M is also a promoter of a kind of very fast, very discardable fashion, a resource-intensive approach with its fair share of dire consequences… As a big brand,  being part of the problem and of the solution is probably a good place for H&M to be – by its sheer size and current success it means they have the power to change even further without sacrificing too much,  while affecting the marketplace and perhaps catalysing wider changes in the fashion industry.

Interestingly, in the press release about the campaign, the H&M sustainability manager added the pun “we want to make fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable”, which is an idea I have heard a few times from the fashion industry. The latest occasion had been at the Women in Marketing conference in London, where Positive Luxury presented their concept.

Isn’t it interesting that, within fashion, luxury brands seem somehow more open to adopting the sustainability banner? I haven’t seen hard facts and numbers, but I have the feeling that high end fashion brands like those promoted by Positive Luxury are much more likely to query their supply chains and care about sustainability than cheap, cost-sensitive brands like H&M. I think that’s because luxury brands are used to selling at a premium – if a product is rare, beautiful AND sustainable, then it must be really worth its price, right? Sustainability thus becomes a sort of growing ‘fashion trend’, an expensive quirk appealing to particular niches.

The obvious problem with making sustainability fashionable is that fashion goes ‘out of season’ quite quickly and we can’t really afford that in the long run!

Wouldn’t it be much better if sustainable equated to cheaper, more desirable, more sensible and more useful, and was easily accessible to everyone?

So I vote for making fashion sustainable rather than sustainability fashionable. In the future, we should be able to downplay the sustainability message in brand communications and make a brand’s approach speak for itself.

One would hope that it’s an idea that more and more people will buy into as the real costs of business externalities – pollution, depletion of resources, social inequality, human rights violations, and many others – become evident through disasters like Rana Plaza’s.

Until such time, I have no doubt that innovation and sustainable development will continue to be the best investment for the successful brands of tomorrow.

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