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Does Sustainability Need To Be Sexy To Sell?

06/09/2017 17:24 BST | Updated 07/09/2017 10:27 BST
Yagi-Studio via Getty Images

We're Fallen Creatures

Even if you identify as someone who cares deeply about saving planet Earth, chances are, when you get dressed each morning, you're motivated first and foremost by style. That a product looks good, functions well, and has no negative impact is the goal. But, as the flawed human beings that we are, our decision making process usually follows this logic; design first and impact last.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm a strong believer that a product worn to death is better than buying something "good" that never leaves your wardrobe. But, as time goes on, we simply can't ignore that the issue of fair fashion is urgent. Fashion is the second largest polluting industry in the world, second only to oil, and new reports continue to emerge exposing the unjust working conditions of millions worldwide.

The Challenge to Inspire & Excite

Speaking at last year's Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Director of The New York Times criticised the communication surrounding sustainability blaming it as one of the reasons it's yet to "go big." She said technical, boring language confuses consumers and instead, urged brands to do a better job of exciting and inspiring them.

"Responsible fashion is many things. It's worthy, it's important, it's complicated, it's challenging, it's necessary - but it is not sexy."

Today, there are a range of new brands bucking this trend. Take People Tree, who partner with Fair Trade farmers and each season boast a range of bold prints paired with sleek design. Mud Jeans, who not only encourage consumers to lease rather than own their products, but offer a range of styles from "skinny" to "boyfriend" too. And Sexy Socks, who this week land in the UK, and whose striking, playful designs are not only made from bamboo, but come with the promise that for every pair sold, a second is donated to a child in poverty.

A Re-education of The True Cost

Gwen Cunningham, Circle Textile Lead for Circle Economy, believes brands need to do a better job of articulating the value of sustainable fashion. "Rather than simply expecting the consumer to buy sustainable fashion, because it's sustainable," she said, "they need to really sell this value."

"This may be functional value, for example that it's more durable or provides health benefits, emotional value, for example that it's made locally and supports development, or social value, such as the fact it connects you with a community of like-minded people."

Richard van der Laken, Co-Founder of initiative What Design Can Do believes design can play an important role in encouraging consumers to make better decisions. He points to Tesla as an example of a company that made a strategic choice to launch a cool sports car, that was not only electric, but focussed on the fast and dangerous curves of its power too. "This is an important task for designers," he said, "to make products that seduce people in the most positive sense of the word."

Appealing to The Heart vs. The Mind

At a recent event held at Fashion for Good, Stephan Zeijlemaker, Founder of Yumeko, an organic bedding brand, expressed a dissenting view. He said, "most consumers don't want to change the world, unless you make it really easy for them." By really easy, he means most consumers don't want to feel they're sacrificing too much in terms of style and price in the name of a greater good. A depressing verdict, but one that's potentially true.

While millennials are more motivated than previous generations to base their purchasing decisions on values such as sustainability, as The Business of Fashionreports, this is not yet a mainstream trend. However, as time goes on, and the visibility of an unsustainable industry continues to hit headlines, brands may simply not have a choice, but to adopt a more circular approach to production.

Why All Design Must Be Sustainable

I'd like to imagine we're moving towards a world in which terms such as eco and fair will soon be made redundant. That all fashion will be made with sustainability concerns in mind, especially considering that, according to the Circle Economy, an estimated 80% of a product's environmental and economic impact is determined at design.

While millennials are paving the way, I'd like to imagine we're move towards a point where all consumers will start seeking goods that are "guilt-free" and that products will soon reflect the true cost of production, accounting for both the environmental impact and the cost of fair labour.

In the meantime, it's encouraging to see new business models emerge, and exciting new brands seduce consumers, as Richard said, "in the best sense of the word." While it may feel like an insignificant act to repair a stitch, sew on a button, or choose a better product that does less harm, as the Dalai Lama once said, "if you think you're too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito!"