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