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Why sustainability within fashion is crucial for brands

CEO Today

As consumer awareness around the climate crisis and fashion’s heavy impact on it increases, sustainability is a key word on everyone’s lips. It’s crucial for brands to build this direction into their strategies, right from the start, in order to cater to a more knowledgeable and aware consumer.

Vogue Spain’s Fashion Editor, María José Pérez, caught up with, WGSN’s Fashion Director, Francesca Muston, to discuss sustainability and why it’s a necessity within the fashion industry.

Sustainability is a huge topic in fashion right now. There are many actions that can be carried out, but which do you think the (luxury) companies will carry out in the short and medium term?

Luxury businesses are able to introduce innovative sustainable materials which are often too pricey for brands operating at a lower price point. In partnering with fabric start-ups, they’re able to showcase these new innovations and help bring them to market at scale. Stella McCartney is the best example of someone doing this right now, particularly with her work around leather alternatives.

Luxury products are also seen as an investment purchase and so are a good counter to the industry’s issue with disposable fashion and throwaway culture. Promoting the longevity of quality products and good design is important for a sustainable future. One of the best ways we see this happening is through partnerships with the resale market, such as The RealReal. These resale platforms should be seen a strategic opportunity for luxury rather than a threat.

How are high-street brands going to take on the challenge of sustainable and environmentally responsible materials at a reduced sale price?

The high street has a significant challenge associated with the volume of goods. The overall focus is on the move to circularity, as identified by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Great progress has already been made with introducing BCI and GOTS cotton to a high proportion of product assortments, with many brands already at or approaching 100%. The use of recycled polyester is also quickly increasing, although micro-fibre shedding remains a challenge here. Brands have been able to do this without passing cost onto the consumer, although how sustainable this is in terms of price margins remains to be seen.

Trading conditions have been tough in recent years, with high levels of discounting the new normal for many mid-market retailers. Looking for options which can be scaled is key to maintaining price integrity, but so is the ability to communicate value to the consumer.

I’m often asked whether the consumer cares about sustainability, to which my response is “it depends how much consumers know about the issues around sustainability”. If you were to tell someone about the volume of water needed to make a single T-shirt, the average wages and working conditions of a garment worker, the toxic chemicals used to spray cotton, the impact of cotton on the land and the many other challenges around sustainability, they’re likely to give you a different answer on how much they care and are willing to spend.

Educating the consumer and being transparent and honest about your efforts to change is an important part of any sustainability strategy. Circularity and better materials are a great step in the right direction, but ultimately there needs to be some right-sizing of the industry; volumes need to be reduced and prices will need to rise if we are truly going to be more sustainable.

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Are vegan fabrics going to be really popular? What about other environmentally responsible materials?

Vegan fabrics are definitely gaining in popularity. Our WGSN Instock retail data shows a 152% increase in footwear products described as vegan in S/S 19. The challenge is to produce fabrics which are not only cruelty-free, but are also free from the pollutants and plastics which destroy eco-systems and wildlife in other ways.

It is never a straight-forward answer, but more and more brands and retailers are focussing their research and development budgets to find solutions. Biodegradable fabrics can be very intensive in terms of deforestation and agriculture, but new ideas use parts of sustainably managed trees which would be wasted, or parts of a crop which are a harvest by-product. Every day there is a new story about someone creating fabric from something weird and wonderful, from lab-grown diamonds to mushroom leather or seaweed fabrics. Sustainability is a collaborative issue, so often these solutions are open-sourced to ensure they can scale quickly.

Are the fashion shows (especially the big ones) really necessary today? What do they bring to the industry and public in 2019?

Stockholm made a brave and significant decision to cancel their fashion week this year. Greta Thunberg has been uncompromising in her refusal to fly and certainly industry events and fashion weeks contribute significantly to the industry’s air miles and carbon footprint.

As we’re tracking a rise in digital fashion, particularly around the sampling stages, it’s opening up new opportunities for showcasing fashion. The Fabricant is leading the way by digitally visualising the movement of fabric, allowing a virtual fashion show to become a tangible and short-term reality. New retail phasing, more responsive tailor-made production, digital media and online marketplaces, even at luxury level, are developing at speed, meaning the traditional show schedule is ripe for disruption.

Do you think that we will see something new in terms of design this fashion month or will the trends continue to be inspired by the past?

There is always a look forward and a look backwards in any fashion week – there is excitement in novelty and reassurance in nostalgia. The visual language of our digital world is becoming increasingly important as a reference for designers looking to address the void between URL and IRL. WGSN’s colour for 2021 is A.I Aqua, a colour inspired by the high proportion of blues found in the digital world, which will surround us even more closely with the roll out of the 5G network.

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Is the fashion industry, as we know it today, viable in the medium and long term?

It is difficult to talk about the fashion industry as we know it today because already so much has changed beyond recognition. Many department stores are suffering as consumers buy directly from Instagram via their phones, new production technologies use big data and robotics to design and make, and virtual dresses are being sold at eye-watering prices, bringing a new luxury to market. In many ways the fashion industry is antiquated, but it is always full of creativity, innovation with an eye on the future, which has allowed it to disrupt on every level. There is no medium or long term, just a fast evolving industry keeping pace with a new world.

Could you tell us five brands that you follow closely?

I follow the development work of Stella McCartney and brands such as Mother of Pearl are defining a new femininity with sustainability as a core value.

Some of the most interesting disruptions I find as a fashion commentator come from the direct-to-consumer space. Those brands move quickly and place so much focus on innovation and problem solving for the consumer. They are often female-led and purpose-driven businesses, and have the ability to eat up market share in core categories. Ones to watch include Heist, who is turning its attention to reinventing the bra, and Away, who is setting a new standard for luggage. Brands who listen to their customers and are representative of all consumers are the future. Outdoor Voices is a great example of this.

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