Can clothing companies make sustainability trendy?

Can clothing companies make sustainability trendy?

[Editor's note: We often read about consumers pressuring companies to be more sustainable. But lately we've been hearing examples of the opposite: companies pushing consumers to make greener choices (see Why Walmart wants more consumer pressure for sustainability and Can consumers drive corporate sustainability?) The latest example comes from the fashion industry. Can companies get consumers to actually buy the green products they say they want?]

Leaders in the apparel industry have made important moves to make their operations and designs more environmentally responsible:

• Major fashion houses and labels like Gucci, YSL and Puma have pledged to publicly post environmental profit and loss reports.

• Nike's adopted waterless dyeing techniques.

• Levi's devised greener ways to make and care for jeans.

• Timberland and The North Face are trying to make their materials and manufacturing less of a strain on the planet.

• Marks & Spencer came up with the world's first carbon-neutral brassiere (which spawned a line of sustainable undies).

• Patagonia one-upped the industry by making consumers think twice about buying another article of clothing.

• And posses made up of outdoor wear manufacturers, big-name clothing labels and retailers are developing industry standards with their Eco Index Apparel Tool and Sustainable Apparel Index.

But all that's for naught if consumers won't buy into the idea of greening their tastes in clothing and purchasing habits.

The Danish Fashion Institute and BSR are trying to shift the market to more sustainably-minded practices through their NICE Consumer project. (NICE stands for Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical.) In effect, the initiative seeks to pull together concepts from apparel designers and makers for greening the lifecycle of clothing as well as best practices by retailers to create a framework for sustainable fashion consumption.

Specifically, the initiative aims to "help consumers make more sustainable choices in the purchase, use, care for and disposal of fashion items," BSR and the Danish Fashion Institute say.

The project partners, who recently announced their campaign, want their work to serve as an example for the European Union. To that end, BSR and the fashion institute have held free webinars for the industry, released a report called "The NICE Consumer" (PDF), and will present recommendations to the EU Presidency on May 3 at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which is the largest international event for sustainable fashion.

The NICE Project partners have their work cut out for them given that the prevailing sentiment among fashion consumers -- be they fashionistas or bargainistas -- isn't less is more. It's more is more, and the newer, trendier and snazzier the better. For the most part, the apparel, footwear and outdoor gear industries have built their businesses on -- and abetted -- that unceasing demand.

The groups behind the NICE Consumer project, who point to successful ventures like carsharing, say that the public is ready to think differently about what they buy, when and how they use it.

BSR's Cody Sisco on the NICE Consumer Project

Here's what Cody Sisco, BSR's advisory services manager, replied via email when I asked about the initiative:

Leslie Guevarra: There have been numerous initiatives to overhaul the supply chain for the apparel industry and improve manufacturing, sourcing of raw materials, dyeing, design, consumer care, reuse/recycle and end-of-life handling. How is the NICE initiative different?

Cody Sisco: Every supply chain or design initiative for sustainability in the fashion industry faces the same question and challenge: Do consumers want sustainability and will they pay for it? The answer to the former is absolutely; consumers say they want greener products that are ethically produced. They also say that the products should not cost more.

The NICE Consumer project aims to change the path of consumption so that consumer intentions and behavior are aligned. This is going to require input and action from consumers, designers, retailers, the supply chain and civil society and government to be successful, and for that, you've got to do outreach and you've got to be inclusive to find solutions that work.

Guevarra: How are you going to get the many stakeholders across the fashion industry to play along?

Sisco: We've been really impressed by the amount of activity already happening. Designers are looking into alternative fabrics and how they can design products to be disassembled and recycled. Brands are launching sustainable collections and finding that there is a market for them. And consumers are taking matters into their own hands with do-it-yourself sustainable wardrobe overhauls. There's so much interest in the topic, there really is a broad-based desire among many types of stakeholders to change the business as usual model.

Guevarra: Price and style can stop a well-meaning fashionista in her tracks. And sometimes, when the price is right, the styles are just not wearable: They might be good for a hike, or casual city wear, but generally not good for a professional office and certainly not a boardroom. What's the solution for that?

Sisco: Lucy Siegle talks about this challenge in her book "To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?" In the U.K., consumers are spending more on clothes and they are buying more articles of clothing, but they are also cramming their closets with unwearable items and throwing more away each year. She asks whether they are any better dressed or satisfied with their wardrobes.

The answer could be to shop smarter, with an emphasis on quality, durability and versatility. I think of the analogy with energy efficiency of light bulbs or gas mileage on automobiles. When consumers can see the total cost of the product over its lifetime, we make smarter choices. We need the same mentality with fashion. We should be asking ourselves, "How much is this shirt or that pair of shoes going to make me feel like a million bucks and for how long?" not just, "Is it cheap enough?"

Guevarra: Why the Danish Fashion Institute and not fashion institutes in Paris or Milan? Is it chiefly because the fashion summit has been focused in Copenhagen? What are the other reasons?

Sisco: I have a deep affection for the "Fashion Danes" -- sustainability is really an important part of Danish culture and it's been that way for a long time. It's no surprise they are pushing the agenda on sustainable fashion consumption as it is so linked to design culture and business ethics, as well as sustainable lifestyles.

There might also be something to the openness and innovation that Denmark is renowned for, particularly compared to traditional bastions of Paris and Milan. Though, of course, we welcome input from throughout Europe since the market is becoming more integrated, and what's NICE for one is NICE for all.

Photo of shopper dragging bags by Pincasso via Shutterstock.com