Sustainability and Branding in the 2020s

Is sustainability a niche subject and is fashion in a state of transition? I spoke to Zia Patel who is a brand strategist operating at the intersection of business, design and technology. Over fifteen years she has worked at a mixture of high profile agencies- Wolff Olins, R/GA and AKQA. Her projects are often about helping clients find new areas of growth. In India, those clients include Airtel, Dr. Reddy’s and Ashok Leyland.

How does one move a full generation from fast fashion to slow fashion?

Your question about slow fashion is about changing behaviour. This is hard when the behaviour is ingrained, in effect, a habit formed over the years. If we think about a generational shift towards slow fashion, let’s make two further assumptions. Firstly, the change will be staggered, with perhaps 20 per cent being early adopters, 60 per cent mass followers, and the remaining 20 per cent of the market not budging at all. Secondly, this kind of change will be slow. The early adopters might change in a few years, but the mass could take a decade or two. Think about the pattern with other types of consumption, such as veganism, no-low alcohol, tv streaming. Is fashion so different?

To get people to change, we need The Game Changers for the fashion world
Fashion brands need to educate customers that it is okay to repeat clothes. Education and awareness ought to come from the industry. But, sadly, this will not happen. It will take an activist to educate people. The industry needs the equivalent of “The Game Changer”. A documentary of this sort will supercharge awareness of the category, get conversations going for people to understand how they too have a role in saving the planet.

We are in a transition at the moment
Moving people from not giving a damn about sustainability to considering it crucial is a big bridge to cross. Traceability, authenticity or even slow fashion are not yet on most people’s radar. The early adopters tend to be millennials. They will demand that companies behave in a certain way. But if I look at it from a macro point of view today, I believe the idea is still niche.

People rely on brands to do the decent thing
Whether you live in Brooklyn or Bandra, authenticity, traceability, etc. make for fascinating conversations at dinner parties. But what people say and what they do are often quite different. Let’s assume for a moment that slow fashion does catch on amongst early adopters, even then I believe the mass followers will rely on clothing brands to take care of all these things for them. Because the brands people choose to wear and how much they pay for their clothes are statements, people decide to make about themselves.

For instance, if a brand gets into hot water for the use of child labour, public opinion shames it into improving its behaviour. People do not think much about the subject until it comes in the news again. Sadly, this is the reality!

Wardrobe carbon footprint, fashion revolution, green retailing, and so forth will likely fall into the broader pattern we have seen; where brands are expected to behave decently and punished when they don’t. What decency means is also evolving; today, it means no child labour, paying workers well, safe working environment. Decency will soon mean that companies don’t grossly pollute the environment, whether it’s the air or nature.

A new category of brands will emerge in the 2020s
The core of these brands will be humanity centred. Not just built around, and for, me as an individual. That’s what human-centred design has given us. The next evolution will be to take account of how brands affect us collectively, whether or not we, as individuals, even use a particular brand. So, the focus of such brands will not just be my relationship with the company and its products. My impact on others and even society as a whole will take priority. I would point out that what remains common is that the brand is in some sense a statement about me but that statement shifts from my taste to my values.

In the past brands were around purpose, their relationship with me
In the last decade, we have seen the success of brands like Amazon, Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and Spotify. Each one of them carefully designed to fit me, my behaviour and a particular need. Their success quickly disrupted their respective categories.

Less dramatic in their growth, but equally impressive in their potential, are brands like Patagonia, Whole Foods and the whole B Corp movement. These brands have a broader sense of their role in society beyond the products they offer. They try to answer more significant questions, such as: What is the societal and environmental cost of the product? Or what happens to the product at the end of its life?

In the 2020s brands will be about their contribution to society
In this coming decade, it will no longer be enough for a brand to describe its relationship with me based on its role in my life. People are going to ask: What is the brand’s relationship with society as a whole?

If I am right, this could have a significant impact on the fashion industry. We’ve always known that fashion is different from most other industries. But will it be different in regard to this shift towards brands becoming humanity centric? Maybe, but then it will revert to being an industry for the few.

When I think of, “What creates value in a fashion brand?”. What comes to my mind is that the value of a fashion brand has three parts:
– the first is taste, making me look chic. Obviously.
– the second is scarcity. Designer X creates a limited edition.
– the third is transience. This outfit may be perfect this season but it will be passé next season. Gone like a butterfly!

The trend for brands to become humanity centric could challenge one, two or even all three of these foundational elements of the fashion industry.

For example, as regards taste, is it too far-fetched to imagine a brand like Patagonia that already has impeccable sustainability creds introducing a stylish line and taking on a more premium label like Moncler which currently sells garments of similar function but at four times the price?

In terms of scarcity, could we imagine a new market for high quality re-loved or pre-loved products? This is a big opportunity for a brand to seize.

As regards transience, could we move from treating clothes and accessories as a product to be bought, used and discarded, to instead, treating clothes as a service? Rather like Warby Parker has done for eyewear?

These examples all point to the need to re-design the industry’s business model, rather than optimising parts of its production or distribution or packaging process. And they all suggest that it may be players in adjacent categories that initiate change.

On brands and social media
For now, we are perhaps in a transition period from brands not giving a damn about their impact on society to the idea becoming table stakes. Early adopters already care and search the brand to learn more. In due course, the mass of consumers will want the brand to carry that load, and they will expect brands to behave decently.

This creates an exciting opportunity for everyday fashion brands to use sustainability, recycled waste, locally produced, and so on as a marketing tool in the interim period and perhaps even the core of their positioning. But sooner or later, this brand positioning may not be distinctive. It will become table stakes – that’s if you share my view that fashion will end up following the pattern of other industries.

To transform themselves and bring customers on board, brands will start by speaking to early adopters, a niche set of consumers through social media. Let me give you an example.

Everlane makes big statements about radical transparency, and it’s doing really, really well. Their whole brand positioning is around that promise and they talk to consumers about everything around traceability. All their Instagram and other social media stories encourage conversations around transparency of materials, price, labour, transport and so forth.

2020s – The Decade of Humanity Centred Design
If I go decade by decade, service design was very big in the noughties. In the 2010s, it became human-centred. In the 2020’s we’re going to see much more of humanity centred design.

The big change, as I have argued in this piece, is that human-centred design was focussed on an individual person. Whereas humanity centred design means designing around all of us.

Human-centred design was when brands had a purpose based on their role in my life. Humanity centred brands will have a purpose based on their place in society. I believe these brands look at the bigger picture. They have and will continue to help us build a more inclusive and better world.