Top three tips for communicating sustainability in 2019 - Op-Ed by Eleanor O'Leary

Top three tips for communicating sustainability in 2019 - Op-Ed by Eleanor O'Leary

In ten years time, we're going to look at fast fashion in the same way we look at fast food"; this was the quote that I read in a Business Of Fashion article published in 2015 that cemented my belief that the future of fashion had to be sustainable." 

At the time I knew nothing of circular economies or closed loop manufacturing, but the simplicity of this statement told me everything I needed to know. I realised two things: 1) that a more sustainable fashion future was possible if we could reframe the current conversation and 2) to be successful, existing sustainable fashion brands were going to need to start ‘speaking the fashion language’ which included creating signature tone of voice, chicer more editorial-led styling, and an acceptance that often the ‘average consumer’ is probably put off by messages that champion science over style.

From this, I believed that that the biggest challenges facing “sustainable fashion” was the way it was communicated. On a personal level, as much as I wanted to make more conscious choices, the reality was that it felt like I needed a science degree to buy something as basic as a white T Shirt. Was it better to buy organic cotton or sustainable cotton? Which is better - Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or The Soil Association certifications? Should I buy from a local stockist who ships from Turkey or should just swallow the shipping charges and go with Everlane? Some evenings I fell down the rabbit hole of trying to make the right decision and ended up not buying anything (which is of course, the most sustainable option…), but I knew that if someone like me who was actively trying to educate themselves on a ‘better way to buy’ couldn’t access concise and easy-to-digest answers, then there was no way that my friends and colleagues, with their ritualistic Thursday lunchtime trips to Zara and impulse ASOS orders (one can never have enough ‘out out’ tops apparently), were going to change their habits any time soon.

And so I realised that I had to do something about it. I wanted to take responsibility for my part in our consumer culture - after all, PR & Marketing is the engine that drives the media machine and often encourages us to fill our lives with things we don’t really need – and last year launched as The Better Brand Consultant; bringing over a decade of experience to champion emerging sustainable and ethical companies who are proving that there is a better way to do business. 

These businesses - the ones that integrate sustainability at their core, not just their Comms – are going to be the ones that survive in this new era of conscious consumerism. And the brilliant news is that the tide is finally changing; as we embark on 2019, many agree that this year could be a ‘watershed moment for Fashion & Sustainability’ 

So with this in mind, I wanted to share my top three tips what I believe to be the most effective routes to communicating sustainability and changing mindsets over the next 12 months. 

1. PEOPLE ONLY REMEMBER 10% OF WHAT THEY READ…

Innovation within the Sustainable Fashion industry is nothing new, however it’s only recently that we have seen a huge increase in sustainable consumer goods being featured in key lifestyle and shopping segments within national media. Traditionally, textile and innovation breakthroughs would have been reported within the science, tech and occasionally, world affairs pages. But with consumer demand for ‘better brands’ increasing on a grass roots level, and organisations such as Eco Age, Fashion Roundtable and Fashion Revolution putting pressure on the industry from a ‘top down’ approach, we are now seeing sustainable fashion being reported more widely than ever before.

However, the challenge remains the same: by the time you have explained the ‘sustainable alternative’, the issue it’s addressing, why that’s important, and listed information about the product you are promoting and included an image, you have already taken up several paragraphs, and often that is not compatible with the way magazines & websites are laid out, and not effective in retaining the reader’s attention or commercially important ‘time on site’.

Which is why documentaries such as Blue Planet 2, The True Cost and the recent Fashion’s Dirty Secrets have been so impactful in raising awareness around this topic. The medium of film lends itself well for effective storytelling; viewers are taken on the journey and provided with the context and detail to help visually break down some of the complex barriers behind understanding sustainability. Further more, by bringing a more ‘human element’ to the forefront, viewers are engaged on an emotive level that you simply cannot achieve with a few column inches.

My tip for 2019 is that we will see more brands utilising video content as a way to market their products, and documentary makers taking to social media platforms as a way of telling their stories in a digestible format. The recent Fashion4Change docuseries ‘Catwalk To Creation’ is an excellent example of this and can be viewed on the organisation’s Facebook page.

2. COMMUNITY IS KEY

 Social media will remain to be one of the most effective ways to communicate at scale, but the challenge in 2019 will be to cut through the (seemingly relentless) online noise and content generation, and bring people together IRL.

As we start to review the ‘online vs offline’ world, and look at our behaviours and habits, the concept of community will gain momentum again. Fifteen years ago, a community probably meant your local neighbourhood; five years ago it was synonymous with Twitter. Several data breaches, a political Facebook scandal and one GDPR later, we are now reviewing the affects of our ‘always on culture’ and collectively craving a return to human, rather than internet, connectivity.

Sustainable brands encourage a more mindful approach to how we interact with the world and one another, and are therefore perfectly placed to create and nurture authentic online and offline communities. For example, in the past six months alone, there have been several high profile pop-ups within the Old St station unit space in London (hosted by Know The Origin, BICBIM and Ctrl Change respectively), that have integrated panel talks, discussions and crafting events to give visitors an opportunity to switch off, learn and engage with the people behind the brands. 

From a business perspective too, luxury private member’s club The Conduit launched last year with aim of curating a more conscious business community, and co-working space Sustainable Workspaces have two sites that offer the opportunity for start ups with like minded values to sit side by side and share ideas and resources to drive positive change.

The brilliant thing about community is that anyone can create an event – small or large – to spark debate and offer solutions to the issues facing our sustainable fashion industry. Whether it’s attending clothes swap (Stories Behind Things have a great one coming up in the next few months), or keeping an eye on the latest industry events (I’d recommend the upcoming Future Fabrics Expo for EVERYONE working in fashion), switching off your phone and dedicating time to experience sustainability in action is one of the easiest ways to understand it and communicate it within your network. Which brings me nicely to my final point…

3. ACTION IS THE BEST REACTION

As mentioned, if we only retain 10% of the information we READ, it’s important to note that at the other end of the spectrum, we remember 90% of what we DO.

Which is why, when it comes to brands behaving better, ‘sustainability’ needs to not only apply to what’s going on outside the office, but also become integrated on the inside, and truly drive change within company culture.

 The Do Nation is a ‘pledging platform’ that encourages individuals and organisations to adopt new behaviours to create a more sustainable world. By giving each staff member the opportunity to commit to one of their 45 specific and realistic ‘pledges’, The Do Nation challenge people to change their mindsets and reflect of what sustainability means on a personal level. Whether it’s ‘Meat Free Mondays’, switching to a green energy supplier, or creating home made gifts, the small personal changes are the ones that will eventually shift attitudes that affect us on a broader scale.

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