The solution to the sustainable fashion slowdown
Words Sam Narr
The air is crisp and the sun is shining brightly in Södermalm on my 27th birthday as Sweden awakes from its winter slumber. The atmosphere; a chill that comforts, the sun; piercing but not invasive. I’m on the hunt for some new kicks as my New Balance 373’s have had their day and Google tells me that this is the perfect place to find a noble replacement.
I arrived in Stockholm a few days prior with my girlfriend who started a summer placement at Acne Studios. I was lucky enough to join her and work my London-based full-time job remotely. At the time I was a Creative Content Manager with my primary client being Levi’s – a brand I still hold dear to my heart.
When it comes to kicks, as with my clothes, I’m a simple man. I value longevity through quality, a slight edginess from the brand that aligns to me culturally or creatively and nothing too holy-shit-what-is-that-guy-wearing-he-looks-like-he-went-to-Goldsmiths, if you know what I mean. This mental checklist means I have a wardrobe that features a lot of Our Legacy, Folk and Cos.
Back to the clean streets of Stockholm… I don’t hang about, there are 2/3 independent stores for me to hit then I want to bounce and eat cardamom buns. I enter a store named Adisgladis and, as you’d expect, the garments ooze quality. However, surprisingly, I don’t recognise any of the brands in the store which perplexes me. I find some boxy all-white trainers that look like Common Projects and Stan Smith’s and I’m sold. Before I walk out, the store owner stops me to tell me about the brand – all of the materials used to create the trainers are organic, recycled and sourced from the Amazonian rainforest, the brand is Veja. This single moment provided me with what the Swedish call an ‘uppenbarelse’, an epiphany.
For the remainder of my time in Stockholm I observed how the Swedes approached green living on an individual and societal level. Nature is their medicine and it seems like the government knows this too - evident through their transport infrastructure, architecture and number of public holidays in summer.
To quote a hero of mine, John Cooper Clarke: “To convey one’s mood in seventeen syllables is very diffic.” I know it’s a smartarse quote but it resonates and, to me, translates to having a lack of clarity and being overwhelmed and overstimulated to the point where succinct expression is nigh on impossible. I began to scratch the surface and wrestle with the idea of how I could ‘do my bit’ for the environment with the tools I have, how I could work for myself and, more importantly, how can I offer a concept that’s fresh and appealing.
Returning to London, it was blindingly obvious that the city doesn’t consider eco-living as much as our European neighbours – hence the inception of, and the inspiration behind Kibbo Kift Agency, a marketing agency I started specifically for ethical and sustainable brands.
After getting to know the ropes of digital marketing - specifically PR and social media - for global fashion and consumer brands I started to see a clear pathway once my interest in sustainability began to heighten. Initially, I wanted to create my own menswear line (I still might do this) but the lack of capital prevented me from doing so and I decided to use my accumulated skills to help others on their brand-building journeys. The cost for external marketing expertise is high for start-up brands, however, I’ve modelled my marketing agency in the same way a direct-to-consumer brand would model their pricing – removing operating costs such as permanent staff, not renting an office space and I’ve even moved home to Birmingham to save myself from the extortionate cost of renting in London; all for the benefit of providing a lower cost to my clients.
A long-term goal for me in my journey with Kibbo Kift Agency is to aid brands in achieving exposure with people who aren’t already actively engaged with conscious consumerism. I recently created a term mid-conversation a few weeks back, ‘champagne environmentalist’, which fits nicely. This is who I’m not interested in, there’s already enough being done here and it has its limits. Ultimately, how do we intertwine our message with the men and women that fill the terraces of football stadiums nationwide? How can we utilise the power of influencers for under 18s in urban areas? What does our contemporary art and creativity have to say about it all?
I quickly realised, the buzzwords of ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ are minefields to navigate within. Unfortunately, greenwashing is rife so I had to educate myself if I was to represent my vision in its fullest potential. A solid year or so of attending industry events finally led me to a panel talk that featured representatives from Fashion Revolution and People Tree amongst others, it was titled ‘How Do We Get People To Buy Consciously?’. I left infuriated at the lack of solution they offered. In unison, like a clapped out Vauxhall Nova, they haphazardly spluttered to an agreement that for people to buy consciously they needed to start asking questions about where they buy from.
Now… Marketing for Dummies will tell you that being ahead of trends and cementing your position prior is a decent strategy but not when we’ve got a world to save. In the case of sustainable and ethical brands, you have no choice but to try and influence people to buy into your vision (what marketeers call acquisition). To do this, telling people who have never heard of your brand before to question their own buying decisions is nonsensical, dangerous and empowers nobody
An overreaction I hear you say? Ironically, during the same two-week period of this panel talk, The Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report showed that progress in sustainable fashion slowed by a third from 2018 to 2019 as reported by Forbes. The lack of progression has been attributed to the inability for big businesses to scale sustainable initiatives internally but I’d like to challenge this with my experience and suggest that much more needs to be done in the way of driving demand, exposure and importance of this much needed seismic shift. Doing so would engineer a much greater reason to scale at pace.
For me, it’s clear that brands have a responsibility to themselves, their potential audience and the environment to consider new and fresh approaches to how they position themselves with inclusivity to the everyday person in mind. I believe a start-up brand that promotes sustainable and ethical practices shouldn’t behave like a traditional eco-conscious brand unless there is something really unique about their product or they have huge budgets to splash on advertising. The focus instead should be on creating ‘cool’ first in the form of cultural impact with positive eco-friendly messaging as a secondary.
When sustainability is marketed as the norm it becomes much less exclusive and much more accessible. Raeburn, Veja and STORY mfg. are prime examples of this. They obsessively consider their brand, stockists and social content in a way which is approachable and uber cool to their target audience, making them original in the realms of sustainable brands which in turn fuels demand. Huge props also to the US-based brand Entireworld who’s social content is [insert flame emoji x 3] – incredibly unique, nostalgic and impactful. This uniqueness is desirable and ultimately transforms sustainability from drab to sexy and exciting. A clear example of this is to look at how Raeburn collaborates with other fashion and lifestyle brands (The North Face, Umbro, Disney, Fred Perry etc.), this drives new audience recruitment who come pre-loaded with positive sentiment.
The aforementioned brands realise that Jane from Surrey has £300 to spend on something nice for herself or as a gift, she’s not looking for a cool sustainable product, she’s looking for a cool product. Once she’s hooked in by the cool and realises it’s good for the earth, then the jobs a good one and you’ve made a sale and a conversion. It’s exactly what happened to me while I was searching for my New Balance 373 replacements.
On the sheer power of effective brand-building-for-good, Cyrill Gutsch of Parley for the Oceans made a recent omission in Dezeen that encapsulates my rambling perfectly. Gutsch explains that ocean plastic is “eight to ten times more expensive than virgin plastic… If you would sell the material for what it costs, you would not get it into the market. There's no way." So the solution? Build a brand that has enough clout, care and responsibility that being associated with them is a value in itself. Parley for the Oceans get brands to pay to support their mission, with Gutsch continuing: "The Parley brand has certain values, that's the only finance model that works."
Menswear is a specific problem. On one hand, the buying habits of style-conscious men veers perfectly towards shopping with sustainability in mind. I don’t believe the modern man has to know about sustainable fashion to adopt a ‘buy less but better’ approach to consumerism but they should. Currently, there is a saturation of emerging brands who are only creating basics and don’t have the creative vision or storytelling element to their collections which would in fact be more appetising for stockists and consumers. Inspiration is all around us and one thing I constantly refer to is your audience verticals… what other forms of media does your target audience consume and how, as a designer and creator, can you extrapolate this to build a community?
Ultimately, both men and women are much more savvy with their buying habits and the golden carrot of engineering brand loyalty and exposure has to be thought of more philosophically and on a grander scale. Gone are the days of slapping your logo on a t-shirt that’s 100% organic cotton and hoping for the best. This is a responsibility of brands not consumers and it has to be addressed urgently.
To summarise, we’re all aware of the issues but unfortunately there’s much more work to be done to make sustainable fashion desirable. The eco image isn’t driving momentum at the pace we need it to but, positively, there are many ways to be creative. We just need the right people to come along to push the boundaries.