How can fashion make marketing more sustainable?


“I’m trying to cut the habit of wanting new stuff,” says influencer Camille Charrière, totally aware that when she posts on Instagram, her one million followers flock to purchase the products featured. In recent years, she has ended her links with certain fast fashion brands, promoted rental and resale as more sustainable ways of shopping and swapped trend-chasing for timeless classics she regularly rewears.

Charrière has a high-profile platform, but she feels increasingly uncomfortable using it to sell products. “The jargon we’ve created around sustainability allows consumers to shop in a more guilt-free way. If you’re really trying to be sustainable, you need to produce and buy less.”

For fashion brands, promoting newness encourages more purchases, which drives business but conflicts with a shift to more sustainable practices. Sustainability strategies are devised to cover a brand’s operations top to bottom, and that includes what they choose to promote to customers. Some brands are reflecting on this point of tension and responding by changing their relationships with influencers and rethinking other marketing strategies.

The new focus is on knowledge sharing rather than novelty. “Sustainable marketing is the marketing of sustainable products in a sustainable way,” says Nick Spensley, head of PR and marketing at UK-based sister brands Togetherband and Bottletop. “We’re not printing hundreds of flyers and throwing them around the streets; we’re educating consumers so they can make more informed decisions about which products to buy when they need them.” No-holds-barred gifting has been criticised by sustainable marketers, who prefer to ask recipients in advance what they will use most and deliver gifts in compostable or recyclable packaging, offsetting the carbon emissions.

“A business has to sell products to survive,” adds Harriet Vocking, chief brand officer at London sustainability consultancy Eco-Age. “But brands won’t have a long-term business if they don’t become sustainable.”

Truly sustainable claims are specific, humble and transparent

Intersectional environmentalist Leah Thomas, who is a sustainable influencer with 179,000 Instagram followers, worked in PR and communications for Patagonia from 2018 until recently. She points to Patagonia’s 2019 “Everything but the teeth” campaign as a good example of sustainable marketing. It was an upfront admission that there was still work to do before the jacket advertised could be completely recycled. “It showcased how sustainability is a journey,” says Thomas. “No brand is perfect, so sustainable clothing and sustainable marketing will always be oxymorons.”

Marketing has a tendency to exaggerate, but sustainability claims should be humble, says writer and former Dazed Digital head of fashion Emma Hope Allwood, who regularly finds her inbox full of greenwashing press releases. “Many brands go too far down the language of sustainability and activism, giving themselves too much credit.”

With little by way of legal regulation, fashion is more susceptible to greenwashing than other industries, such as food. “Avoid hyperbole and focus on clarity,” advises Eco-Age’s Vocking. “Don’t use the word ‘green’ unless you’re describing a colour. It’s a reputational risk to make claims you can’t substantiate.”

Brands could benefit from sense-checking marketing claims with independent sustainability experts. Emerge consults data analysts and psychologists too. “As a brand, you’re going to believe your own hype because you’re invested in the progress. Always have someone to ask ‘so what?’,” says Harriet Vocking. “We shouldn’t be driving the narrative that a product or brand can be perfectly sustainable.”

Transparency matters. Hannah Levitt, who has worked in marketing for Eco-Age, Mother of Pearl and Stella McCartney, founded UK-based sustainable PR agency Green Banana in September, choosing clients based on their social and environmental credentials. “If someone wants sustainability positioning but can’t give you full transparency, it’s a recipe for disaster,” she says.

“A lot of greenwashing is about omission rather than transparency,” says Birdsong London co-founder Sophie Slater, who personally writes the brand’s marketing emails. Her most recent newsletter was topped with the title “We’re not sustainable”. “We try to answer every question. I think we’re held to a higher standard because we pitch ourselves as a sustainable brand and rightly so.”

Rethinking influencer partnerships

Influencer Leah Thomas recently modelled in Allbirds’s first apparel campaign, alongside other BIPOC activists. She uses brand partnerships to fund her activism and forge relationships with brand leaders, often building consultancy into her contracts to further their progress on sustainability as well as diversity and inclusion, which she believes go hand in hand.

“If a brand isn’t traditionally sustainable but is doing a sustainability initiative, I see that as a step in the right direction, not greenwashing,” says Thomas. “It shows my followers there is a pathway to growth for those companies to rewrite their legacies.”

Jazmine Rogers, a California-based influencer who shares sustainable living tips with her 40,800 Instagram followers, says BIPOC influencers are often held to higher standards and have been historically underpaid. To avoid this, she often spends half a day researching a single brand. As well as asking direct questions, she looks through brands’ tagged photos to see what customers say about their products, checks if people she respects follow them, and scours past press coverage to see how long-term their commitment to sustainability is. “B Corps and Fair Trade are a good sign, but a lot of small and BIPOC-owned brands don’t have the resources to get certifications,” she says.

Birdsong London works with long-term ambassadors, chosen for their critical eye and constructive feedback. The brand’s main objective is to provide living wage jobs to women in East London, so ambassadors do not receive gifts, but are given the option to buy clothing at cost price. As such, there is no obligation to post, but if the makers need more work that month, co-founder Slater might prompt ambassadors for a sales push.

Nick Spensley argues sustainable businesses can learn from luxury marketing. “Products need to be desirable to be sustainable,” he says. “Luxury is very good at marketing the value of craft, so at Bottletop, we emphasise the time it takes to produce our bags by hand at our atelier in Brazil.” These details are shared with influencers, allowing them to post more informed captions.

Simple messages, substantiated

While broad claims and vague terms tend to lead to accusations of greenwashing, brands need to consider how eco-literate the consumer really is. “[While] words like ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’ and ‘local’ may not mean much anymore, they are the most accessible for customers,” explains Slater. One problem, Slater points out, is that large brands with deep pockets can spend more to buy up these SEO keywords, drawing more traffic than smaller but perhaps more sustainable brands.

Celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Lewis Hamilton and Alessandra Ambrosio have endorsed Togetherband, joining its campaign by choosing the UN Sustainable Development Goal they related to most.

© Jerome Duran, Finn Taylor, Connor McDonnell

The most sustainable messages educate consumers rather than peddling products, says Slater. When Covid-19 shut down production in March, Birdsong started a Patreon for customers to pay a monthly subscription to support the brand in exchange for blog posts and exclusive discounts. This further shifted the relationship between customer and brand from one centred around commerce to one focusing on education and shared values. Recent resources include sustainable clothing care, transparent costing and recycled polyester, all designed as shareable posts.

The brands that talk the loudest are often deemed the most progressive, says Emerge PR founder and CEO Emily Austen, who works with many smaller brands and startups. She hopes that will start to shift. “Consumers have been conditioned to make decisions about brand alignment based on how much a business does and how much they shout about it,” she says. “But putting that pressure on small businesses means they might fail, at which point they can’t do anything.”

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