It’s Time for Fashion Brands to Stop Playing It Safe and Lead the Charge in Sustainability

They’re well positioned to create real change

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This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

The G7 leaders were recently joined in the Biarritz, France, summit by over 30 major fashion retailers and brands in a global pact to fight the climate crisis.

Where fashion has always been at the forefront of trend and agenda setting, for the first time it seems like it was playing catch-up to a global agenda. The presence of these brands at G7 and the potential impact of mixing the influence of the fashion industry and the influence of global politics has the potential to lead to major progress in the areas of sustainability and climate change. But this will only occur if fashion brands fully embrace their role and potential as inventive and rebellious agents of change and influence.

Currently, a lot of the big players like H&M and Zara parent company Inditex, are reinforcing expected codes of sustainability, such as renewable energy, sustainable sourcing and zero waste. These are the same things the normally laggard FMCG world has already been talking about for a few years. It is a much-needed positive step, but fashion brands are missing an opportunity to make a deeper, longer-lasting and more engaging impact in the world of sustainability.

After all, fashion brands are influential because people easily understand, relate and aspire to their values, and clothing is part of our daily lives. If the fashion industry changes first, it can have a knock-on effect in other sectors. However, this won’t be achieved if they continue to play it safe.

Only by making their approach and manifestos more fashion-forward and cutting-edge will the industry start building the momentum that is needed.

The opportunity is to make the sustainability and climate change debate much more exciting and engaging, in the way that Extinction Rebellion has done by going beyond expected eco-warrior cues to make the issue feel genuinely uncomfortable, urgent, sexy and rebellious. Right now, fashion is not making their stance on sustainability rebellious enough. Only by making their approach and manifestos more fashion-forward and cutting-edge will the industry start building the momentum that is needed and, in turn, add more value to their brands.

Stella McCartney’s vegan leather accessories are a good example of a brand that leads with beautiful and aspirational fashion items first and foremost, which are reinforced by their ethical choice of materials, rather than leading with a sustainable and worthwhile environmental message. It comes as no surprise that members of the Extinction Rebellion movement are featured in Stella McCartney’s fall 2019 campaign, aligning the brand with the most current developments in sustainability activism.

Another approach fashion brands could use to reframe the sustainability debate might be to look at iconic designer Dieter Rams’ principles of design. In the mid-70s, he already dictated that “good design is long-lasting,” “good design is innovative,” and most famously, “good design is as little as possible,” stating that “only well-executed [useful] objects can be beautiful.”

The global environmental crisis could provide the opportunity for the fashion industry to reframe traditional definitions of beautiful, questioning what it looks like through the lens of being well-executed in terms of the wearer and the environment rather than just at the creative whim of a creative director’s vision. This approach could elevate fashion brands’ stance on sustainability beyond the expected and into the cutting-edge, while still retaining the notions of beauty, desirability and innovation. Layering these new notions of beauty and anchoring them in sustainability over their existing core values could cause a much-needed reset of the whole industry and set a precedent for other sectors to follow.

There is increasing shareholder pressure for fashion brands to truly embrace sustainability as proof of the positive impact that ethical investments can have on the bottom line emerges and powerful players in finance, such as Blackrock, increasingly support the approach. Similarly, the nearly 200 chief executives of the U.S.’ Business Roundtable issued a statement this week, saying companies should no longer advance only the interests of shareholders but also, among other things, “protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.”

While the U.S. is widely seen as being behind with sustainability as a whole and critics have hailed the statement as all talk and no action, big fashion companies are sitting up and taking notice of these developments. As change-makers and industry influencers, fashion brands now have the opportunity to take the lead with sustainability, and if done innovatively and imaginatively, their action stands to have a major knock-on effect in other sectors.

The opportunities to make real impact are all there. It’s now time for fashion brands to make the most of them.