It has been decades since luxury fashion-designers first toyed with the idea of sustainable apparel, but generic sustainability is no longer enough: Fashion houses and brands like Stella McCartney, Kering, GStar Raw and Everlane are making sustainability their own, using simplicity, authenticity and self-expression. They are finding a purpose that sets them apart, and luxury shoppers will continue abandoning the brands that cannot keep up.

Why Sustainability Is So Important for Fashion Brands

The ugly side of fashion is that it’s a resource-intensive industry, second only to oil and gas. Cotton is a dirty crop, labor violations are rampant and worst of all, many of the 80 billion garments the world buys each year wind up in landfill and consumers are increasingly aware of those issues.

Smart brands are no longer hiding from this truth, and are shaking up the supply-side status quo. They are focusing their inventiveness on the opaque supply web that crosses agriculture, design, manufacture, retail, laundry and recycling. By combining the collective energy of their industry, they believe they can shape a more sustainable and fairer world.

On the consumer side, the conscious fashion movement continues to gain ground, from brands with mass appeal, like H&M’s Conscious Collection and Adidas’ commitment to recycled materials, to the high end, like Maison-de-mode.com, an e-retailer that curates a roster of eco-driven designers. Adidas is also leading the way, with its Ultraboost Parley; a running shoe made with parley ocean plastic™: Preventing plastic from entering the oceans and to transforming it into high-performance sportswear, as Adidas states: “spinning the problem into a solution. The threat into Thread”.

3 Steps to Signature Sustainability for Fashion Brands

Smart and relevant apparel and retail brands recognize that they have the responsibility to capture the imagination of a new ethically conscious generation and as such unlock a broader demand. For these companies, it is not just about offering sustainable products, but also pursuing an ethical purpose in every manner, sourcing eco-friendly materials and promoting fair treatment of workers. And, they are doing so in ways that make the most sense for their brand.

1. Keep the Message Simple

Fashionable consumers care about sustainability, but they also value style, design, quality and convenience. They don’t want to be slowed down by specifics–they assume their preferred brands run their business with integrity. Presenting too much information blunts its impact.

Leading brands with strong eco-fashion credentials keep the message simple. Stella McCartney, for example, uses the easy-to-remember framing: “Made in Europe. No animals harmed. Will last forever.”

2. Make Sustainability a Means of Self-Expression

Understanding social influence is critical to expand consumer awareness and drive behavior change. When brands place sustainability at their core, conscious customers can outwardly express their values through the clothes they wear. This is especially true in China, where conscious fashion can be a powerful way for consumers to show who they are and what they believe, going beyond a materialistic definition of status.

Patagonia is a brand that consumers choose for sustainability. While it makes consumers’ feel good about their choice, it also (and mostly) signals status and social affluence.

3. Be Purposeful, Authentic and Think Long-Term

Sustainability is not a campaign. It must be core to the entire business and tied to the higher purpose of the brand. Framing any sustainability effort as a PR effort will likely be seen as opportunistic. The recent Lacoste “Save Our Species” campaign, for example, generated criticism for using sustainability as a marketing ploy, and not a genuine attempt to reinvent the fashion industry.

In contrast, other young designers and emerging brands have made sustainability their purpose. Edun’s mission is to source production and encourage trade in Africa, and has committed to long-term growth opportunities by partnering with the artists and artisans who make its stunning handbags and jewelry. Bureo, which makes sunglasses and garments out of recycled fishing nets, has built its brand with a clear purpose to protect oceans from plastic waste.

Sustainable fashion also requires a long-term approach and outlook. Kering, the French luxury fashion conglomerate, is building the next generation of designers with its 2025 Strategy “Crafting Tomorrow’s Luxury.” Earlier this year, it partnered with the London College of Fashion to launch the world’s first open-access course in luxury fashion and sustainability, to educate aspiring designers.

Final Thoughts

Fashion brands have a unique opportunity to make a difference in the world through a more sustainable approach to their business. Through their actions, they have the potential to build trust with millennial consumers. It is a unique time for the industry to engage and co-create with consumers to find better solutions. Everlane gets it right on its mission page: “We know our customers are rule breakers and questioners, so we hope our philosophy is palpable in the products and choices we make. And by all means, challenge us too.”

Learn how Prophet can help you create a brand purpose centered on sustainability!

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