How Brands Can Work Toward Fashion Sustainability

Consumers are demanding more sustainability in fashion brands. Here's how to work toward becoming more sustainable.

September 3, 2021

In the fashion industry — where over-consumption is fueled by season-to-season styles, fads, and “micro-trends" — consumers are doing more research on where their clothing comes from, looking at its environmental and ethical impacts, and choosing to shop slower.

That’s only been accelerated by the pandemic.

A survey from Genomatica found that of consumers who are aware of sustainability problems in the fashion industry, only 38% became knowledgeable within the past year. More than half of those surveyed said they want to shop sustainable fashion — but 48% said they don’t know where to buy it, and 4 in 10 said they don’t know what truly makes clothing sustainable.

That’s where brands come in. For a circular economy to succeed, everyone — including farmers, manufacturers, marketing managers, investors, board members and consumers — needs to take part.

But what makes fashion sustainable? How can brands communicate that to consumers?

By educating themselves on sustainability, implementing best practices and leveraging technology to communicate information to consumers, companies can establish themselves as sustainable brands that conscious shoppers are proud to support.

Sustainable and Ethical Clothing

People often think of sustainable and ethical clothing as being one and the same. Although different, they go hand-in-hand for companies that strive to hold their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles to a high standard.

While there’s no single formula for brands to ensure they’re both sustainable and ethical, here’s a general guide to sustainability so that can companies implement ESG principles:

Sustainable clothing: Sustainable clothing is how clothing relates to the environment, particularly in that it is made with the planet in mind.

  • Clothing is created with a circular design, often using recycled and/or natural materials.
  • Companies design without waste and pollution — and limit it as much as possible — and use recycled or natural materials.
  • Clothes are made to last and there’s a system in place for when a garment is worn out — whether that’s for it to be repaired, recycled into another item or returned to the earth’s natural systems.

In short, sustainable clothing is eco-friendly clothing.

Ethical Clothing: Ethical clothing relates to the labor and fair trade aspects of clothing, particularly in production and manufacturing.

  • In ethical clothing production, brands track the stages of the supply chain and make sure that workers are being paid a fair, livable wage and working under good conditions.
  • There is transparency throughout the supply chain, and brands ideally will conduct independent checks to ensure that workers are being treated fairly.
  • Companies will disclose the factories/manufacturers they use, make that information easily accessible and share it with consumers.

While separate principles, ethical and sustainable clothing are both vital for ESG-focused companies. Consumers who care about sustainable fashion are likely going to prioritize ethical consumption as well — so it’s important for brands to hold themselves to a high standard with both values.

The Problem with Greenwashing

Sometimes, companies appeal to customers and make it seem like they are sustainable or environmentally friendly — when in fact they are not. This is known as “greenwashing.” In short, companies may put on a front that they’re sustainable — but fail to act on it.

Companies may do this with things like offering clothing recycling programs — but then not making their clothing sustainably or letting off massive amounts of waste.

For example, Norwegian watchdog Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) called out H&M in 2019 for its “sustainable style” collection — saying there was insufficient information to show that it did enough to lessen environmental impacts.

While it’s great for companies to take any steps toward fashion sustainability, there’s a line between being truly sustainable and merely trying to appear so with halfhearted efforts. Companies that fail to act on their sustainability standpoints are often called out by consumers and activists, which can harm their reputation and damage relationships with consumers.

It’s important for companies to take sincere, thought-out steps to improve their production processes and play their role in the circular economy.

QR codes in Fashion Sustainability

Technology can play a pivotal role in helping companies track key performance indicators (KPI’s) to ensure they’re being sustainable and share that information with consumers.

QR codes are one key piece of tech that brands can leverage to collect and distribute that information. By placing QR codes on marketing displays, product packaging and clothing tags, brands can transform the items into a digital platform that goes beyond the limits of physical space to share information with consumers.

Just a few key pieces of information regarding fashion sustainability that can be shared with a QR code include:

Farmers, Suppliers and Manufacturers: Transparency is key to both sustainable and ethical fashion — but information on where materials are sourced and how products are manufactured can be difficult to find, especially when companies are utilizing multiple factories for different products. However, by scanning a QR code on a specific display or item, consumers can easily utilize blockchain technology and access secure and trusted information on where the items were sourced and made.

Environmental Impacts and Efforts: Sustainability is focused on the environment — so consumers want to know impacts not just of the individual garment they’re purchasing, but also from the company they’re supporting.

A dynamic digital experience, launched by a QR code, can share a variety of information about fashion sustainability, including:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions: This can include if your company is carbon neutral, carbon-positive and how you’re working to offset emissions.
  • Renewable energy resources: This can include things like using solar energy to power farms, recycling water to dye garments and more.
  • Recycled materials: Maybe your leggings are made from 100% recycled materials, or a t-shirt is created with 50% recycled cotton. This information is especially appealing to consumers and can be easily shared with a QR code.
  • And more: No matter what your company is doing to be sustainable, you can share metrics on how you’ve reduced energy consumption, your future goals to lessen your company’s environmental impacts and much more.

The Consumer’s Role in the Circular Economy: In the circular economy, it’s important for everyone to do their part and ensure products and materials are kept in the loop — rather than following the path of a traditional linear product life cycle.

If your 100% cotton t-shirt is biodegradable, you can tell customers how to properly return it to the earth’s systems when it wears out after years of use. If your company offers lifetime repairs on jeans or allows them to be recycled and swapped for another pair when they wear out over time, you can use a QR code launch a digital experiences that relays this information to consumers.

Creating sustainable products means they’re built to last. Sustainable fashion is meant to stay in the circular design loop — and QR technology helps ensure that your consumers know how to play their role in that.

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