Fashioning sustainable stories
Much has been written about how we can play our part as conscious global citizens to reduce our collective harm to the planet. You may have signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, be all over the Environmental, Social and Governance standards or simply on the hunt for new inspiration to drive positive impact as an e-commerce brand.
We caught up with Christine Corbin, marketing strategist specialising in brand growth through SEO, email marketing and conversion rate optimisation. A recent Dublin transplant, she spent her corporate career working at a series of fashion and luxury brands in NYC before running her own show. We quizzed her on all things sustainable storytelling to find out what we can learn from the fashion world….
Why is it important for fashion brands to tell better sustainability stories?
The fashion industry is one of the largest drivers of carbon emissions, and is not making changes fast enough to slow climate change.
As sustainability issues become more prevalent, many brands are turning to greenwashing - positioning themselves as more sustainable than they actually are, or even actively covering up practices that harm the planet. This is possible because it is (unfortunately) legal to make marketing claims that don’t align with the reality of a brand’s environmental impact.
Why should you - as a brand owner - care? Besides the obvious ethical reasons, it’s also true that as messaging (and legal) standards shift, it is in a company’s best interest to get ahead of the curve by getting clear on their practices - and how they communicate them - now.
Let’s dive into the principles of sustainable brand communication, which are geared towards fashion brands here but can be applied across industries.
Image source: UN’s Environment Program/Fashion for Climate
Breaking down the principles for sustainable brand communication
#1: Lead with science: what are the facts?
As brand owners, marketers and communicators, we need to be cognizant that the informational level is the starting point that all other messaging has to grow from.
Transparency is a key first step for all brands to take: what are the facts about your brand’s production processes and producer pay? Remember, transparency does not equal sustainability, but it is critical to empower customers with real information.
Another reminder: transparency isn’t about perfection! Share your brand’s journey, shortcomings and future plans so that customers can come along on the journey - after all, we all as consumers have room for improvement.
The ultimate goal is to holistically account for all the impacts your brand has on the environment.
#2: Reimagine values and change behaviour/practices
At the end of the day, providing information to consumers won’t change the fact that the fashion industry is massively overproducing products on a scale that isn’t sustainable for the planet.
Cultural change - helping consumers to change their behaviours and even consider new values for themselves - is the area that will require the most effort and creativity from us as communicators. This type of messaging will look different for every brand.
If it feels overwhelming, remember: as communicators, we create desire for consumers. We are, essentially, trying to harness a power that we already possess and use it for good, not evil.
How can we make the sustainable option look like the most attractive one available? We need to provide social proof that a sustainable future is possible. What could this type of messaging look like for your brand?
Value change can happen when we find new role models to aspire to. Can your brand showcase people who are breaking away from the typical overconsuming influencer mould?
#3: Drive advocacy
The last communication principle, the advocacy level, is focused on the fact that individual change alone will not be enough to halt the climate crisis. Systemic change - in the form of policy shifts and major adjustments to the business ecosystem - will be needed, too. Driving advocacy is about helping consumers to move forward from awareness, and into a place of action. It is also about collaborating and applying broader industry pressure on other businesses and policymakers to enact real change.
A note: your brand can’t reasonably call for consumer advocacy if you aren’t engaging in the first two communication steps. You must be on the ground, providing transparent information and helping to change consumer values, before you can demand that others join in to do advocacy work. If you don’t lay this foundation, people will see through your brand messaging.
Stella McCartney provides admirable transparency about the environmental and social impacts of their products. In 2014, the brand made a decision to stop using virgin cashmere due to its oversized emissions impact, switching to all recycled cashmere.
Patagonia has tangibly increased the lifecycle of their products with a Repair Program, plus DIY repair and care guides to help customers make the most of their pieces.
Allbirds’ M0.0NSHOT shoe is on track to be the world’s first net zero carbon shoe, releasing in Spring ‘24. Allbirds has done an amazing job using precise messaging to demonstrate the exact impact of this, and other, products.
Depop is working to make circularity aspirational with cool branding and lifestyle content.
Any brand that produces products to order, like Miss She’s Got Knits in Dublin:
Made-to-order clothing reduces overconsumption by definition, and gives customers a huge stake in the product’s lifecycle.
When striving for better communication, don’t use these common greenwashing practices:
Suggest that minor improvements have outsized impacts: for example, if all you’ve done is switch to organic cotton for one style in your apparel line, don’t imply that your entire brand is now “organic.”
Similarly, don’t celebrate meeting minimum regulatory requirements as “green.” We all need to do better - the minimum requirements are a minimum for a reason.
Don’t bury sustainability information in hard-to-find areas on your site, or obscure it with jargon that customers can’t understand.
What should you do instead? Take responsibility; be transparent; and design your website so that sustainability information is accessible to all.
Remember - precision of language is key here. From the ASA:
“Carbon neutral and net zero were the most commonly encountered claims, but there was little consensus as to their meaning. There were calls for significant reform to simplify and standardise the definitions of such terms and for claims to be policed by an official body, such as
Participants tended to believe that carbon neutral claims implied that an absolute reduction in carbon emissions had taken place or would take place. When claims relied on offsetting and this was revealed, this could result in consumers feeling that they had been misled. “
Providing information offers lots of opportunities for great marketing, as well: consider creating educational content for your social feeds that consumers can browse at times when they aren’t necessarily in “shopping mode.” What they see from your brand might just stick with them and build brand loyalty/repeat purchases over time.
Next, it’s time to phase out brand messaging that encourages overconsumption. Some ideas on how to do this:
Publish your brand’s production numbers. (Again: transparency is key!)
Show and tell the value of your brand’s products in a way that increases their lifetime value to customers.
Direct consumers towards sustainable or circular alternatives while they’re shopping - for example, your brand’s resale site.
Extract from the ASA: Marketers must base environmental claims on the full life cycle of the advertised product, unless the marketing communication states otherwise, and must make clear the limits of the life cycle. If a general claim cannot be justified, a more limited claim about specific aspects of a product might be justifiable. Marketers must ensure claims that are based on only part of the advertised product's life cycle do not mislead consumers about the product's total environmental impact.
Show how members of your brand team live out the lifestyle you’re promoting. How do they re-wear and repair beloved pieces? What do their closets and buying practices look like?
Continue the communication process throughout the entire lifecycle of a product, rather than forgetting about your customers once they’ve made the purchase. Provide repair and end-of-life options for reusing or recycling products.
Finally, what could driving advocacy look like in practice? Some ideas:
Empower your customers with ways to provide brand feedback. Really listen to how your brand could do better.
Use your brand’s platform to champion wider causes outside of your own marketing initiatives, whether those be civil movements or environmental initiatives.
Be transparent about challenges your brand and industry are facing, and own up to the ways you’re trying to do better.
Collaborate with other brands or organisations to make a larger impact.
Come chat to us if you’re keen to evolve your content strategy in the most sustainable of ways.