Fashion Week Insiders Call For Sustainability Clarity, Citing Confusing Brand Marketing and “Green-Washing”

Fashion month has come to a close and this season, more than ever, the industry has been under pressure to address its environmental responsibility. There are some steps being taken, whether it is the launch of the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion Initiative in London or Dior‘s zero-waste, plastic-free, fully recyclable set and tree replanting scheme at their Paris show, but what does that mean on the ground? What do the people attending the shows, working in the industry, buying the products and living their day-to-day lives think and feel about the role of sustainability in fashion? We took to the streets at London Fashion Week (LFW) to find out.

To delve deeper, Techstyler gathered a crew to find out exactly what people know about sustainability in fashion and how they integrate it into their daily lives, if at all. Continuing from our pilot research project back in February, this season we partnered with The British School of Fashion to develop a questionnaire that would capture individuals’ attitudes towards sustainability in fashion, consumer behaviours and personal views on the topic. We then interviewed hundreds of attendees of LFW, both inside and outside the official venues, over the five days. 

Image: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

This season saw pressure groups including Extinction Rebellion (XR) and PETA protesting against the environmental and ethical impacts of fashion, culminating in a “funeral” march by XR featuring a coffin inscribed with “RIP LFW 1983-2019” sending a clear message to the BFC and wider industry. While these groups were protesting outside the official LFW venue of 180 The Strand, Techstyler and “parent” company BRIA were inside presenting solutions, seeking to understand the current climate and calling for change, amongst other innovators. There are solutions and designers doing “good”, some of which were showcased in the BFC’s Positive Fashion space including Patrick McDowell, RE;CODE and the global movement supporting the UN sustainable development goals #TOGETHERBAND; but there is also huge consumer confusion which needs to be addressed before we can expect widespread change in sustainable consumption. We wanted to find out what’s actually going on on the ground, and this starts with you (yes, you).

Patrick McDowell at LFW. Image: Techstyler

The study found that the overarching sentiment when it came to sustainability in fashion was a resounding, and slightly concerning, “I don’t know”. When asked “which brands do you see as the most sustainable”, one respondent replied, “Tricky question. How do you define sustainability?”, and that, ladies and gentlemen, sums it up in a neat bow. This commentary could probably end right there, but there’s a lot at stake here. If we are out on the streets fighting for our future, we should probably understand what we are fighting for and our roles in the battle beyond the placards.

Image: Techstyler

After combining this past month’s data with our research from February, it is evident that there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion, and, let’s not forget, that the respondents are not regular consumers on the high street; they are buyers, designers, stylists, journalists and fashion students. In other words, they are those at the forefront of the industry. The answers were incredibly varied, showing a large gap in knowledge, but ultimately a desire to do better. Many simply don’t know how because the messaging is highly confusing; brands can say what they want around sustainability as key terms like “organic” and “natural” aren’t even regulated, never mind the word “sustainability”, which, to be honest, is anyone’s guess at this point. One respondent even said that the term “sustainability” is itself off-putting.

“There is too much negativity arising around the term “sustainable” and a huge part of it comes from the misunderstandings created when communicating it.”

Questionnaire respondent
Image: Techstyler

Respondents were asked to list the brands they see as the most sustainable, at which many reeled off those who are shouting the loudest but are not necessarily backing up their efforts up with facts. When telling us which brands they are wearing, high street fast fashion was ever-present, despite the interviewees claims to be concerned about the issues involved with fast fashion manufacturing and consumption. H&M was one brand that regularly appeared on both the “most sustainable” and “least sustainable” brand lists, thanks to their Conscious Collection campaigns. Eight respondents who said they were wearing Zara at the time of the interview then went on to list it as a least sustainable brand, which is sufficiently revealing alone. Five out of the eight claimed that sustainability was important to them, so there is a clear disconnect here which needs to be addressed. Overall many simply didn’t know what to believe. “I think there is too much green-washing going on with brands and the marketing teams confuse the sustainability message. They make it harder for consumers to understand sustainability,” said one respondent. 

BFC’s Positive Fashion Panel. Image: Instagram

Alongside the confusion there was also positivity around the growth of the sustainability movement and a recognition of our individual responsibility, with one respondent saying “I think [sustainable fashion] has a potential to be huge in the future” and another recognising that, “it is so important to think of your wardrobe and how to make it last longer than a season.”

Many are calling for industry change: for designers to implement sustainable strategies, brands to be truthful and transparent, and fellow consumers to make the “right” choices.  And this sentiment has grown slightly since last season’s research, showing a steady change in attitudes in just a short time; short, but impactful, with the rise of Greta Thunberg and her Global Climate Strikes, XR mobilising groups across the world to call for action, and 150 brands signing up to the G7 fashion pact after a highly publicised 45th Summit in Biarritz. 

“Is there really a place for fashion week anymore? Seems out-dated and pretty distasteful given the current climate crisis… It seems like a parade of excess that isn’t needed”

Questionnaire Respondent
Image: Techstyler

In response to London Fashion Week being well and truly under the microscope this season, the British Fashion Council hosted a panel to discuss the climate crisis and fashion’s role in both causing and, hopefully, reversing it. Panellists including Bel Jacobs representing Extinction Rebellion, Tamsin Lejeune founder of Common Objective, Cameron Saul of Bottletop, and model and activist Arizona Muse were moderated by journalist Tamsin Blanchard on the final day of LFW to debate the best way forward. In an open and honest discussion, Bel Jacobs reiterated XR’s warning that we are “in the middle of the 6th mass extinction”, going on to say “we called for fashion week to be cancelled to use this as a platform to broadcast the climate emergency. Everyone will stop and recognise (the emergency) if the BFC does that. It’s too late for incremental change.” Arizona Muse proposed that “fashion week could be harnessed for good [so that it] reflects a more humane approach.” Fashion Week’s role in this change was agreed to be pivotal and the time is now.

Image: Techstyler

Reflecting on our time at LFW, there was a palpable air of eco-anxiety both inside and outside the venue. Although there was consumer confusion surrounding exactly how they can be part of the solution, there was an encouraging desire to understand and do more. The public are looking to brands and the wider industry for clear indicators and evidence of widespread change, with one saying, “The industry is on the right track [it] just needs to gather momentum”. Experts joining the discussion are calling for major change for the sake of our survival as a species, nevermind the survival of Fashion Week as we know it. Following this initial research, Techstyler and The British School of Fashion will be releasing more detailed reports in the coming months and replicating the study internationally in 2020. The need for change has never been so urgent, and to make these changes sustainable we must understand the issues at a grassroots level. There is still a long way to go, but change is in the air and how these changes manifest next fashion month will be key, as, this time, the world is watching. 

Image: Techstyler

We would like to thank the research crew for volunteering their time over the last two seasons. Keep an eye out for more results from our recent study, and news of the international research on Techstyler’s Instagram, Techstyler.fashion and by signing up to our newsletter.

Techstyler X Avant Habit: Sustainable Business Models Versus ‘Greenwashing’

Sustainability is an inescapable topic of discussion in the fashion industry, but what does it involve? Is it materials? Is it manufacturing processes? Is it recycling? Is it all of these things and more?

The Techstyler X Avat Habit panel discussion on 12th April sought to answer these questions by bringing together sustainable brand founders Sabinna Rachimova of SABINNA, Charlotte Instone of Know The Origin and Shope Delano, Marketing and Communications Manager of Common Objective – a platform providing industry-wide guidance on sustainable business principles and processes.  The audience spanned industry insiders from ASOS and Burberry to founders of fashion startups and sustainability enthusiasts.

Audience members, Techstyler X Avant Habit Sustainable Fashion For Real Business Models
Audience members, Techstyler X Avant Habit Sustainable Fashion For Real Business Models

Addressing the ‘what, how and why’ of holistic sustainable business models and how best to execute brand messaging, the panellists shared business and personal insights based on their experience within businesses that are both Europe and Asia-centric in terms of sourcing and manufacturing.

Know The Origin (KTO) is an online retail platform stocking 70 lifestyle brands that meet sustainability parameters set by founder Charlotte Instone and her team.  These parameters are based on 18 months of intensive ‘on the ground’ research into materials, manufacturing and ethics in Asia and Africa, conducted by Charlotte herself. She launched KTO with her own Fairtrade collection after building partnerships with ethical suppliers and manufacturers in India. This allowed her to put in place a fair and transparent business model for a core range of ‘essential’ clothing. The collections meet her aim of delivering quality and style that is sustainable in terms of people, planet and purpose. Charlotte warned the audience that consumers will not compromise on design or price when it comes to sustainability – “it has to be a given” she said. KTO is an entry point into sustainability and for many consumers it is their first ‘sustainable purchase’, with retail prices ranging from £15 – £55.

Charlotte Instone speaking about Know The Origin
Charlotte Instone speaking about Know The Origin

Charlotte’s in depth understanding of supply chain mechanics, certifications and trade organisations in Asia and Africa led her to create a 30 point sustainability and ethics charter. The brands she stocks on KTO must meet at least six points to qualify as a stocked brand on the retail platform. Recognising that brands must start somewhere when addressing sustainability and ethics, the charter acts as a motivational and transparency tool. Its aim is also to give consumers confidence that they are purchasing from brands with sustainable foundations and strong future intent to produce and sell sustainability and ethically.

Sabinna Rachimova is the founder and head designer at London-based womenswear brand SABINNA.  As a graduate of Central Saint Martins, she explained that her resulting view of establishing a fashion business meant “showing at London Fashion Week” and following the well-trodden route of chasing industry validation and a wholesale sales model.  Eventually, rejecting this traditional approach opened up opportunities to implement ethical and sustainable practices into her business incrementally over the course of the past four seasons, and in the process, an exponential rise in direct to consumer sales.

Sabinna Rachimova of SABINNA speaks about her transparent business model
Sabinna Rachimova of SABINNA speaks about her transparent business model

A great appreciator of craft, Sabinna has long recognised and shared the contributions of all the workers in her supply chain.  She has mapped the sourcing of her materials and the manufacturing locations of all garments in her collections for the past three seasons and transitioned to a direct to consumer business model via sales on her website and through Insta Stories. Whilst this might not sound immediately linked to sustainability, it underpins her ability to promote, sell and make her collections in a fair and transparent way across the entire supply chain.

Key to Sabinna’s business success has been Instagram-based sales campaigns featuring Influencers in place of a traditional London Fashion Week show, saving thousands of pounds on a London Fashion Week venue, show production, PR and models.  By working directly with Influencers to create and share sellable content on Insta Stories she connected directly with consumers in telling her brand’s story and sharing its ‘fair fashion’ values.  This strategy allows her to carefully track sales and manufacture only the quantities needed. Also, the money saved by implementing this campaign (instead of the London Fashion Week show) helped her balance the higher unit price she pays for her garments to be manufactured fairly and ethically in the UK.  This Influencer marketing model saw her sales double, and her sustainability credentials increase to boot.

Shope Delano explained that Common Objective advise and support brands to implement sustainability principles, materials and processes to address all areas of their business. Consideration of end-of-life at the initial stages of design and product development is a key focus, in order to aim for circularity – the ‘holy grail’ of sustainable business models.  Shope provided consumer sustainability insights, explaining that heritage brands with deep-rooted consumer sentiment are protected from long-term damage caused by shocking revelations, like the recent news that Burberry burnt millions of dollars worth of excess stock. On the flip side, lesser-known brands don’t hold such ‘mindset’ power, and an expose’ of this kind can be devastating to them.

Shope Delano of Common Objective speaks about sustainability solutions across the supply chain
Shope Delano of Common Objective speaks about sustainability solutions across the supply chain

An example Shope cites in a follow up conversation is Carcel, whose garments are produced by women in prison in a bid to equip them with skills and job opportunities. They came under fire recently for their ‘made in prison’ ad campaigns. Without context, this led to a big uproar on social media – the main argument being that they are glamourising slave labour. To see how this conversation played out between the brand and its followers check out Instagram and then a follow-up article in the New York Times.

‘Mindset Power’ poses both a risk and an opportunity. Agile brands can conduct in-depth due diligence and work directly with manufacturers to win on transparency and storytelling about how and where their products are made. Selling direct to consumer allows for further transparency over pricing and a greater margin for the brand and manufacturer, balancing the power across the supply chain and removing the traditional hierarchy that often leads to secrecy and exploitation. It’s clear though that the message has to be delivered carefully and authentically.

Audience members, Techstyler X Avant Habit Sustainable Fashion For Real Business Models
Audience members, Techstyler X Avant Habit Sustainable Fashion For Real Business Models

Emerging brands can control the narrative and change direction quickly, explained Shope. Sabinna shared an example of how she did this when she discovered that one of her suppliers in East London was forcing its staff to work under poor conditions without heating in the depths of winter.  When she questioned the manufacturer he protested “what do you expect? You want a cheap price…” She switched manufacturer immediately and adjusted her business model to incorporate the higher prices required to ensure fair conditions for workers.

Closing remarks from the panellists on their advice for initial steps brands and founders should take towards achieving sustainable business models included ‘pay everyone fairly – even interns’ from Sabinna. “Sign up to Common Objective for free advice, supplier contacts and sustainability templates’ was Shope’s advice. Lastly, Charlotte urged the audience to “do your research into trade unions and suppliers in Asia to source responsibly”, reminding us that ethically sourced clothing is not only about the price of the garment.

Noshua Watson of Avant Habit, Brooke Roberts-Islam of Techstyler and Shope Delano of Common Objective
Noshua Watson of Avant Habit, Brooke Roberts-Islam of Techstyler and Shope Delano of Common Objective

The Ethically Woven series by Avant Habit continues at The Ministry in May and June. More details can be found here.

Techstyler X BOTTLETOP: Sustainable Materials for Design

Much is said about ‘sustainable materials’ in apparel and product design, but what makes a material sustainable? How can brands adopt sustainable materials without compromising on aesthetics and function? Why is adopting sustainable materials crucial to both the future of the design industries and commercial success of brands?  These questions formed the basis of the first in a series of panel discussions led by Techstyler in partnership with Bottletop, hosted at their flagship store in London’s Regent street. 

An inherently sustainable brand, Bottletop not only repurposes the tabs on aluminium cans to create its products, but uses only reclaimed and recycled materials in its flagship store interior, making it a fitting home for this speaker series unpacking a range of themes on fashion innovation, beginning with sustainable materials for design.  

Speaking to an audience spanning multiple industries, including fashion, furniture and interior design, the panel addressed common misconceptions around sustainable materials and highlighted opportunities for designers and businesses in adopting sustainable materials and practices.

Key takeaways from the event included insights from Oya Barlas Bingul on Lenzing’s Circular fibre, ‘Refibra’, which is created from 50% cotton off-cuts (pre-consumer waste) and 50% Tencel, creating a 100% virgin fibre that can be recycled in a circular manner using Lenzing’s closed loop process, which does not use harmful solvents and creates no toxic byproducts. 

Qiulae Wong enlightened the audience on brand opportunities and adoption of sustainable practices and materials.  She explained that sustainability efforts are unique to each brand and depend on the products being created, so there is no blueprint for becoming a ‘sustainable’ brand.  In doing so, she highlighted that the desire to become ‘sustainable’ but the confusing nature of ‘sustainability’ (does it mean using organic materials, or is it related to carbon footprint generated by the supply chain, for example) means many brands feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. 

To this end, Common Objective, where Qiulae is the Production and Marketing Manager, helps brands to assess their business on all levels and identify realistic changes they can make to become more sustainable.  This may mean a brand switching the raw materials of their best selling product to the most sustainable materials available, thereby maximising the positive impact in a targeted and manageable way.

Ronan Hayes is the Co-founder of Reflow, which creates sustainable materials for 3D printing from local waste streams, namely PET plastic bottles.  Ronan shared insights on how 3D printing was initially enthusiastically adopted by engineers and is now in widespread use by artists and designers.  As a result, there is now an appetite not just for the original PLA and ABS plastic filaments, but malleable filaments that 3D print soft, moveable objects.  These new filaments are being used to 3D print clothing and Ronan sees opportunities opening up to feed a wider range of polymer waste materials into the filament making process.  Interestingly, he also explained that Reflow are being approached by global brands to create 3D printing filaments from the brands’ single-use plastic waste and then utilise this filament within the business in place of other materials, thereby contributing towards the overall sustainability of the brand.

In defining sustainability, the panel discussed how everything we do as designers and brands creating products utilises resources (electricity, water, raw materials like cotton etc.) and therefore has an impact.  Being sustainable means minimising that impact and extending the life of materials and products or, better still, recycling them.  But how do brands quantify and qualify their sustainability?  How can sustainability be measured?  How can consumers understand which brands are more sustainable than others?

During the Q&A a question was posed by an audience member who had seen Primark on a ‘top sustainable brands’ list as one of the most sustainable brands in the UK.  A Google search didn’t unearth said list, but it did demonstrate very clearly that there is no benchmark or framework for declaring a brand as ‘sustainable’.  Sustainability is broadly used as a marketing and storytelling tool by brands spanning small artisan labels who cite ethical processes as their key pillar of sustainability, to high street giants who create one-off products or small ranges of products with enhanced sustainability credentials (made from recycled cotton, for example).  The reality that brands must start somewhere means it’s hard to criticise any efforts being made, however the greater effort would ideally come from the brands having the most negative environmental and social impact.

In terms of measuring a brand’s sustainability, unfortunately, as yet, there is no industry standard.  This is not to say there are not tools available  that assess sustainability of fashion companies. The Higg Index is one such tool.  It is, however, completely voluntary, self-reported and unverified externally, making it inherently subjective and therefore difficult to apply to the industry as a whole.  

For more insights on sustainable materials for design, listen to the full panel discussion and Q&A on our podcast.

The next panel discussion in this series, ‘Biomaterials and Biodesign – The Next Generation of Sustainable Materials’ takes place on October 8th at the Bottletop Store.  Tickets available here.