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The Pillars of a Sustainable Fashion Business Model

by Jackie Lewis

by Jackie Lewis

Course Development Director, MOTIF

Part 1 – PEOPLE

Our last post challenged the advent of sustainability, the language, and the science; we stripped the conversation back and asked, ‘is sustainability the new buzz word for efficiency’?

Maybe this point of view is too simplistic, too narrow; surely there is more to consider than just efficiency. Is sustainability linked to what we do or how we do it, or both? Next, we look at the broader impact of sustainable business strategies, the pillars for success and explain how knowledge, education and perseverance will help us to make informed choices, driving a step change and future proofing the fashion industry.


The role of people, what can I do?

With 75 million people employed in our wonderful industry surely our first consideration should be PEOPLE, the preservation of jobs and livelihoods alongside education. This must be the primary focus which underpins any sustainable business model: building a support structure which informs and educates, allows us to understand the role we can play and encourages us to take responsibility.

I recall the inspiring story of the two college friends Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze who during a post-college surfing trip to Bali in 2015, found the beaches buried in plastic. This disheartening experience, led them to found 4Ocean, a for-profit business that pulls plastic and glass waste from oceans around the world and makes bracelets out of the recycled materials. 4Ocean now sells bracelets for $20 with the promise that the money from each purchase will fund one pound of trash removal.

I suppose Cooper and Schulze could have just enjoyed the surf and, despite being troubled by what they had witnessed, returned to Florida non-committal. But NO. They decided to make their own personal contribution to closing the loop and protecting our oceans. In the words of Schulze, “It’s our opportunity to do something now to have a better future for everybody.”

“Well done boys” I hear you cry. Perhaps you’re even inspired to support the cause and rush out and buy a bracelet; after all $20 isn’t much if you are helping to save the world. Or maybe you could do something truly worthy of praise. To explain myself, I feel obliged to share a personal conundrum, a sustainability challenge literally in my own BACK YARD………

Bearing in mind that I like to set myself apart from most of my friends and colleagues as somebody with more than a basic level of knowledge in the subject matter, you might be surprised and disappointed to find that my little family unit produces a weekly waste mountain of plastic water bottles, wine bottles, packaging and aluminum cans. Like other modern-day families we pride ourselves in the fact that we recycle and choose sustainable or fair-trade produce, but my key question is how do we consume so much, and is this not the underlying problem that drives waste in our oceans? Armed with this thought, the concept of minimalisation or de-cluttering my life came to mind, and I looked to the Kondo’s method of organising, otherwise known as the KonMari method, for inspiration. This involves putting a category of belongings together and only keeping the things that “spark joy” (ときめくtokimeku, which means “flutter, throb, palpitate”) in Japanese, and having a dedicated place for everything from then on.

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Kondo states “Treasuring what you have; treating the objects you own as not disposable, but valuable, no matter their actual monetary worth; and creating displays so you can value each individual object are all essentially Shinto ways of living.”

This lifestyle concept draws parallels with the Arts and Crafts movement of the 20th Century which was famously defined by William Morris in his quote “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Basically, your personal sustainability motto for life could simply be ‘have less and use what you have more’, a principle which translates perfectly in our personal lives and business alike. Let’s explore further!

Is there a desire for change?

So, what holds us back? The answer for me is based in a fundamental lack of desire for change, the age-old question ‘what’s in it for me’Let’s assume we’ve presented a compelling argument, that sustainability is both positive for people the planet and profit, how do we then begin to shape a sustainable business model? What are the pillars for success? Businesses need some practical advice on how to mobilise change. Let’s start with the foundation, the role of PEOPLE.

What drives us as human beings is so important in the context of this conversation. The ability to relate to an issue naturally creates a desire for change, forms commitment to the challenge and provides clarity around people and training. However, the emotive subjectivity of sustainability challenges our principles and choices: it’s like saying ‘chocolate tastes great but it’s really bad for you’. We’re compelled to feel guilty but carry on regardless, particularly if our choices are limited while everywhere we turn we are presented with damming statistics about the impact fashion has on our planet, and headlines such as ‘Dirty Fashion’ hit home take the joy out of that new purchase! Sometimes it feels like the industry has invented a new commandment ‘thou shall not buy fashion unless it’s made from organic cotton, recycled or recyclable and bio-degradable’, a tough ask for most of us!!

And here’s why…We have already talked about the fact that Clothing has always been a basic need for human beings as defined by Maslow “a physical requirement for survival” but it’s more than that! The physiologic need for fashion is critical as it underpins wellbeing and self-fulfilment, drives confidence or status, and facilitates our ability to fit into cultures and society. If we take this point and relate to some of the language which is being used around sustainability, we might be able to learn more about the right and wrong ways to connect with our audience, PEOPLE.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

How do we create the ultimate Sustainability hook and create a desire to change? Let’s watch a short video based on Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and see if it could inform our reflection.

The context here is business and transactional selling strategies but the methodology still resonates with our challenge, in that it explores how to change habit-forming behaviour, the triggers and positive re-enforcement. Creating the hook for action from a consumer point of view is based in anticipation of the reward, ease of doing it and the motivation to do it! One example used by Eyal, which explains the concept of positive re-enforcement, is the scenario of painkillers vs vitamins and the play off between dealing with the functional rather than the emotional need of the audience.

Painkillers solve an obvious need, relieving a specific pain, and often have quantifiable markets.”

Vitamins, by contrast, do not necessarily solve an obvious pain point. Instead they appeal to users’ emotional rather than functional needs.”

“We feel satisfied that we are doing something good for our bodies— even if we can’t tell how much good it is actually doing us.”

For me, it’s about taking something real and tangible such as my BACK-YARD waste mountain and creating that emotional connection, by identifying what People really care about, what affects them day to day and how even the smallest changes can positively impact their lifestyle and environment, to drive momentum. Here, I think about Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who is raising awareness around Climate change citing ‘our house is falling down while politicians do nothing’. Out of the mouths of babes, I hear Greta and her army of followers saying: “you are stealing my future”!!

Once the audience is hooked or even just compelled to listen, we can begin to answer some of their un-answered questions. Questions such as:

1. Help us understand the facts, the truth – is it really that bad?

2. Who do we need to educate to drive long-term change?

3. If we want to learn, is there training available?

Education and empowerment for sustainability

Beyond seeking the empathy of the citizen and apparel consumer that is in each of us, professionals of the industry, to ignite a strong will for change, we need to empower people to make the change happen. Let’s dive into the last 2 questions.

The ‘Who to educate to drive long term change’ one is like a real chicken and egg situation. Who do we need to educate to drive long term change? Is it the business leaders of today, the young designers new to our industry or the consumer? It’s all of them, but surely, we need to prioritise and establish who has the biggest role to play in driving the sustainability agenda?

Importance of training

Understanding the facts is critical as a lack of knowledge drives mistrust and inhibits progress, but how does that play out in our industry today? The fashion industry is changing rapidly, propelled by the new era of digitisation.

Conceptually, businesses are starting to ask the right questions, designers are more informed about sustainability and aware that they hold the key. It’s a well-known fact that 60-80% of the product impact on sustainability lies in the choices made at design and development stage. However, without technical or production knowledge, our ability to deliver a sustainable commercial product is minimised, or negated. We face a real issue, in that very few people now have the right skills to support sustainability initiatives on the ground. Where do we find the textile and production engineers and technical designers who can take a sustainable design concept forward and deliver it in a production or commercial environment? The race for cheaper prices, off-shoring and a move away from traditional technical education has resulted in a skills gap which is now impacting our ability to respond to the sustainability challenge.

From a business point of view, whether we choose to take the line of people or process, the overarching issue is the lack of training; acknowledging and responding to this fact will be a bridge to success. But before we answer the specific question around skills gap, knowledge and sustainability, it’s important to recognise that for any business to be sustainable and sustained today, it’s imperative to have a People strategy.

How we treat our colleagues has a direct correlation with employee engagement, with employees commonly citing the importance of equal pay and opportunities, flexible working hours and diversity as base line expectations. Such factors are now viewed as the minimum standard for any business deemed as a socially responsible employer. However, this approach is merely tactical. What sets aside the progressive, is an ability to truly recognise people as individuals, creating opportunities for career progression and continuous learning supported by the rights tools to do the job. It’s the sensible thing to do if you consider people to be an asset and retention of talent is key to your organisation, but how does this help the bottom-line you might ask?

Well, providing people with the knowledge and know-how to function at their best drives productivity, while continuous learning drives engagement and innovative thinking. Ultimately ensuring retention and providing organisations with a competitive edge, this approach sustains a future for the individual and business alike.

Another key consideration easily overlooked, is the simple fact that employees of today expect a career plan and if they don’t get it, they are likely to work elsewhere.  LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report, states ‘a whopping 93% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers’  Retention of your people drives business continuity and negates cost with the cost of a vacancy impacting bottom line, which is often cited as being in the hundreds of US$ per day.

As the old saying goes, people are your greatest asset, so nurture them; and if training is a base line for employee engagement, retention and productivity, how do we take this principle and apply it to the fashion industry’s sustainability challenge? What’s happening to educate the industry about Sustainability?

Education and training offering

It’s probably safe to say that specific Sustainability in Design courses have been offered by universities and fashion education bodies for at least 5 years now, offering degrees or certificate programs, and post graduate qualifications, for example:

– The California College of Arts’ BFA in Fashion Design, one of the longest running in the US.

– The ESMOD (Berlin)’s International Masters in Sustainability in Fashion offered since 2011 and cited as “One of most holistic in Europe”.

More and more fashion schools are now threading Sustainability throughout their whole degree programs, an approach that is taken by Parsons which does not have a specific program that specializes in sustainable fashion design preferring instead to build sustainability into “everything they do.” This is when we know something is moving into the mainstream consciousness, when it no longer is a separate course, but is taught throughout all curriculum. So, newcomers to the industry are so much more informed today, a basis to be optimistic.

As the momentum builds, education and training programs are popping up in many forms, not just in academic institutions. Training is being provided by associations or non-profits organisation based on a new type of corporate / academic partnership targeted at people who are already employed in the industry and can thus already make an impact today. Associations such Fashion for Good (Amsterdam), Cradle to Cradle, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and the Global Fashion Agenda to name a few are all supporting industry in the fundamentals and concepts of operating sustainably.

Motif, as an apparel knowledge and eLearning hub, contributes to educating professionals in the industry by offering a Sustainability in Fashion course taught around the BF+DA’s Sustainable Fashion Roadmap which teaches designers how to think about the whole lifecycle of a product from concept to reuse or recycle stage from a sustainability lense. The course also introduces concepts such as product innovation (multi-function, modular design) low impact materials, manufacturing, optimising product life and end of life strategies.

Although encouraging there’s still so much to do, as generally the level of understanding about sustainability at an executive level within our industry and at a consumer level is still quite poor. There is so much information out there, people struggle to articulate what sustainability means and what to do next.

The concept of circular economy for example involves end to end understanding of the levers which can affect sustainability. Recently I was talking to my fabulous designer friend Della and I asked what were her thoughts on the circular economy. She replied: “Isn’t that an accountancy term”? After a delay of 10 minutes punctuated by a reference to the internet she came back with a marvellous quote “it’s wonderfully idealistic darling and essentially about producing good quality again which the consumer pays more for and doesn’t want to throw away, then recycling it to make the world good again”!

Bravo, we now have our mantra for business and life. In our next article we look at how to translate the idea into a reality as we discuss how to build a strategy for success.

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