Some time ago I briefly took part in a UN project on sustainable fashion. In the early part of my career, I have been part of (building) the fast-fashion system, so amends were (and are still) in order.
Covid cut short my involvement. But the project made me hyper-aware of both the challenges and opportunities in making the fashion industry sustainable. In which the good news is that ‘it can be done’. Yes, systems change is hard, but once the change momentum reaches its tipping point, developments can go exponentially.
So in this article, I’d like to share four customer experience (related) initiatives that caught my eye. I’m curious about what you think of them.
The most sustainable fashion choice we can make is to walk around naked
But even to my liberal views, that may be a case of too-much-information. Not to mention that Belgian winters can still get nippy.
So the only alternative is to make fashion (more) sustainable.
On the production side, this means factories need to embrace more sustainable methods and materials and reduce production. As consumers, we need to buy fewer clothes.
Both medicines may be hard to swallow.
After all, we still put a premium on new and more stuff. But there are some first initiatives which seem to balance the scales. Which reframe or add to the customer’s experience, so brands can capture value without pushing more volume.
They’re anything but perfect, but let's look at a few steps in the right direction.
#1. G-Star Wear: Make it smart to wear rags
The highest sustainable fashion impact we can all have is to buy (a lot) fewer clothes and wear them longer. By buying less, we reduce our overall impact. By wearing pieces longer, we amortise the impact of what we buy over a longer period. Combine this with smart care for your clothes, and you can go a long way.
However, this requires a consumer mindset change. Buying fewer clothes means not wearing the latest ‘fashion’ every season. Wearing them longer means investing in quality and amortising your purchase over several years (I.e. a €200 piece that lasts 5 years is cheaper than a €25 piece that lasts one season).
Which is why I like this attempt by G-Star to reframe the wear of their jeans as a plus rather than an excuse to buy something new. I don’t know the brand well enough to know what else they are doing. But as an idea to shift our collective minds away from ‘seasonal buying’, it’s promising.
Bonus: the ad also helped me convince my wife that my habit of wearing 15-year-old leather jackets and torn jeans isn’t part of a prolonged midlife crisis. I’m just being sustainable 😉.
#2. Platform-E: Only produce what the customer wants, personalised.
Fashion produces +90 million tonnes of textile waste each year. These unsold or unused clothes are incinerated, dumped in landfills or shipped off to developing countries. If you want to get a feel for the impact, look up Atacama desert landfill on Google (warning: images may disturb).
Which makes Portugal’s Platform E interesting. Backed by the founders of Farfetch and Net-a-Porter, the start-up proposes brands to switch towards a model that only produces what they sell. This reduces overproduction and allows customers to personalise their purchases. It’s early days, but the venture caught my eye.
#3. Patagonia: help customers repair rather than repurchase
Even if you buy durable clothes, they will wear. In the old days, this wasn’t that much a problem as most households had at least someone who could mend them with needle and thread. But these days, that’s not always a given.
Which is where Patagonia’s IronClad Guarantee comes in. In short, it means that (where possible) the brand repairs your clothes free-of-charge. Ideally, with the same fabric they used producing it. But otherwise, with the closest alternative they have available.
While they’ll be the first to admit they still have a long way to go before being sustainable, helping customers ‘buy less’ is a step in the right direction (which doesn’t hurt customer loyalty either).
#4. Dfrktn: turn trash into couture.
While all the above focus on waste reduction, there is already more fabric waste around than we can ever wear (remember those 90+ million tons?). Which makes Dfrktn an interesting experiment to only make clothes from reclaimed fabric which would otherwise go to the landfills.
As fabric selection, reclaiming, garment design, and reconditioning with natural dyes,... are much more labour intensive than regular production, scaling is hard. But the second generation prototypes that work with deadstock from Paris couture houses and second hand ‘throwaways’ are bringing down prices from ‘exorbitant’ to ‘premium'. Combined with a customer journey that makes buying a clothing item into a personal experience, there is a potential business case on the horizon.
Disclaimer: I admit I’m totally biased on this last one as Dfrktn is my son's initiative, in which dad is giving a hand where he can. But family love aside, I think he’s onto something.
So here is the big question: will we take our medicine?
There is still a lot to be invented. But if we’re honest, we already know many of the ‘to do-list’ items to make fashion more sustainable. The problem is that we may not like the taste of this medicine.
As consumers, we enjoy buying that new pair of shoes or new outfit for that party. As producers, only a few CEOs can go to their board with a proposal to reduce sales volume. Not to mention that all those who make a living cutting, sewing, picking, packing,… would like to hang on to their job. Even if it pays a scandalously low wage, that is still better than begging or prostitution.
To me, part of the answer lies in moving from mass-volume to mass value.
Instead of adding customer value through more stuff, brands should make the stuff we wear more valuable. By adding experiences, stories, digital layers, new business models and more.
This will increase the value of the items that are sold to the customer, and thus allow the brands to lower their volume, while still protecting and even growing their business as the overall cake gets smaller. Hopefully securing better pay for everyone involved.
The road is long and I’m curious to see who will be the first big movers.
But I have to admit that with all the despair on TV, I’m getting hopeful as the first outlines of sustainable alternatives present themselves.
To the future!
Do you want to discuss the move from ‘mass volume’ to ‘mass value’?
Then let’s have virtual espresso. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m sure that if we put our heads together, we can identify opportunities to learn, experiment and even grow your business.
Or at least have an interesting conversation!
Alain Thys is an experience architect who helps organisations drive profit and transformation through experience.