I know I am not alone in my frustration as a conscious fashion consumer. Design led, sustainably produced fashion that a discerning lover of fashion can feel proud to wear (and also afford) is hard to get hold of. As Founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum, you can be sure I'm going to be asked what I'm wearing, wherever I go. Which is wonderful when the clothes I wear have an inspiring story to tell. And, not so great if I'm wearing something from the 99%* of the fashion industry that does not (YET!) integrate exemplary production practices alongside stunning products.
Over the years, I've been known to joyfully tell whoever will listen, "We need to change perceptions around sustainable fashion! We need to prove that the best, most creative designers are tackling the challenges of sustainability!!" Which has created more than a little pressure when I'm going to be on a stage at a fashion event. Wearing my values. That's quite an incentive to get to know the retail platforms that bring together those creative, sustainable designers (like I needed an incentive anyway ;-))
I've spent many happy hours in my quest to wear my values (running an annual showcase of sustainable fashion brands has helped...) I've got to know hundreds of sites, large and small, in my professional role, and had the great privilege of meeting many of the people behind them.
After publishing my recent article "10 huge opportunities for sustainable fashion business" I had a lot of feedback and interest in opportunity no 8: "Multi brand retail - a sustainable ASOS is on the horizon". I decided to take a little time to expand upon the concept in this blog, including what we can learn from ASOS and other platforms in this space, and the four elements that I believe will allow ambitious retail entrepreneurs and owners to scale up.
Hold on.. Isn't ASOS already working towards sustainability?
Of the large online fashion retailers, ASOS has demonstrated leadership when it comes to sustainability. Partnering with SOKO Kenya to produce the ASOS Africa collection (now called ASOS Made in Kenya), and maintaining the partnership since 2010, is ground-breaking for a major retailer. SOKO Kenya is a small ethical production unit creating sustainable livelihoods through fair and fulfilling work.
In 2010 ASOS launched its Green Room, aiming to increase the availability of great, sustainable fashion products. In the beginning, the site was a platform for an inspiring range of pioneering small brands. However over the years I've seen the range of independent products steadily reduce. The "Eco Edit" now brings up a majority of ASOS own-brand products. As a browser of the site, it is not clear why many of these products have been included in the Eco Edit (bar the ASOS Reclaimed collection). A review of materials reveals a lot of polyester and viscose - disappointing - especially given the original ambitions for the Green Room. (If you work for ASOS, and have more info, we'd love to hear from you - email@example.com.)
Nevertheless, what ASOS has achieved, relative to other big online fashion players, is commendable - and it has been made possible thanks to the hard work of individuals on the team, who are passionately dedicated to sustainability. In the last 5 years, at Ethical Fashion Forum, we have seen a movement accelerate amongst experienced fashion professionals who are driven by the opportunity do do meaningful work. To build and run businesses for which sustainability is a part of the founding principles.
If passionate professionals can drive change within the largest online fashion retailer, with the odds stacked against them - imagine what they can achieve within a business whose purpose is to be a force for good. I see a grand opportunity for an online retailer with sustainability at the heart of its ethos - offering a buying experience to match ASOS.
Scaling up Sustainable Fashion Retail - Four Essentials for Success:
As Mintel's research set out, "increased availability of ethical clothing drives demand". With momentum growing in the sustainable fashion movement, and more sustainable brand diversity than ever before, now is a good time for the platforms demonstrating leadership in this arena to scale up.
Below, I set out four essentials for success in online retail, drawing from the ASOS model:
- The Right Team
- Laser Sharp Market Focus
- Diversity of Product, at the Right Price
- An Unrivalled Sales Experience
Setting up a multi-brand fashion retailer and taking it to success is no picnic. It goes without saying that a winning team will need to be led by tough entrepreneurs with the ability to persevere against the odds. The great thing is that there is no shortage of bold and driven entrepreneurs in the sustainable fashion sector. What is much more rare, is to see this combined with serious retail experience on founding teams.
If you're working in a large fashion retailer, and the idea of using your skills to drive better business inspires you, then why not get in touch. We've got a network of retail entrepreneurs and owners who would love to meet you.
"Our core customer is the twenty-something fashion-lover: an avid consumer and communicator who is inspired by friends, celebrities and the media. We are obsessive about understanding them so we can join their conversation and offer them the fashion they want." (ASOS)
The ASOS product is defined by their understanding of the people who buy it. They have matched a huge market with what they want to buy - affordable, trend led fashion products.
The key to laser sharp market focus is as much about who you don't focus on, as who you do. ASOS took a bold decision to focus on this very defined customer range, and it has paid off for them. Three sustainable fashion retail platforms that I believe are nailing their market focus, and you may enjoy browsing, are Reformation, Veja and 69b (if you are anywhere near London, I would absolutely recommend visiting the 69b boutique in person).
Bringing together a large enough range of fashion products, of high quality, at the right price, has to date been one of the biggest challenges faced by multi-brand retailers in the sustainable fashion space. I see two trends that will reduce this challenge over the next 5 years: increased engagement by more brands with sustainability (and we will be using Mysource to help drive this) and growing access to a global pool of quality small brands, increasingly able to promote themselves and fulfil orders online.
I would draw your attention to two platforms that represent many smaller and growing fashion brands and designers: Pernia's Pop up Shop which unites Indian designers, and VIPme which sells products from independent Chinese fashion brands. While neither has any explicit sustainability focus, the Indian platform in particular is interesting in this regard. The platform features many small designers working directly with suppliers, who are able to sell products which incorporate traditional craft and artisanal techniques. Crucially, these brands remain affordable - they are designed, produced, and marketed from India, adding huge value to the supply side beneficiaries, whilst slashing the price of the end product.
ASOS sits apart from its rivals in its online sales experience. All products walk down the catwalk. The photography is consistently high quality. The interface is simple and the customer service is strong. For ASOS, this level of online experience is the result of millions of pounds of investment in the site, and years of development. However, off-the-shelf retail site software is streets ahead of where it was when ASOS began, which makes it easier to get going.
I see many promising retail sites flounder because they are not able to invest in their user experience. Yet, there is more opportunity to raise investment for online retail than ever before. Investors are certainly more likely (from my experience) to back retailers with the ability to scale through numbers, than brands with a traditional own product development model. Wool And The Gang has raised over £4 million in equity funding to date, while sustainable brand platform Zady has raised over £1 million, and fashion marketplace Lyst almost £50 million.
With equity Crowdfunding, raising finance has never been more accessible. Raising investment can be a daunting prospect. But the bottom line is that it will be essential for any sustainable brand platform to gain traction - and to put sustainable fashion on the map. So if you are a retail platform owner or entrepreneur, then I say, lean in to your ambition. Because I believe that the brand that cracks it for sustainable fashion retail will be a game-changer for our industry.
If you are interested in getting involved with the sustainable fashion community, join our mailing list or online network at www.ethicalfashionforum.com. If you are in or near London, join us at our monthly sustainable fashion meetups.
*Mintel Ethical Fashion Market Report, 2009