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Content Strategy, Sustainability, and the Search for Real Change in the Global Fashion Industry
FSW explores the role that strategy can play in helping the industry adjust the nature of demand for its products towards a more sustainable basis
Fashion & Sustainability: A Well Known Problem
Everyone knows that the global fashion industry has a sustainability problem. How big is it? According to the World Bank, the $2 trillion fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, and they will rise by another 50 percent by 2030. Around 20 percent of wastewater worldwide originates from fabric dyeing and treatment. Of the total stock of fiber created for clothing, 87 percent is incinerated or dumped in a landfill. Each year, half a million tons of plastic microfibers are poured into the ocean (the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles) and these fibers cannot be easily extracted from water and spread throughout the food chain for animals and humans. In short, the fashion industry is not on the trajectory to meet its sustainability targets nor contribute to international standards such as the SDGs, Paris Agreement, or the Kumming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.
Beyond the macro numbers, if you follow the lifecycle of how a single garment is made with Maxine Bédat in her book Unraveled you will travel from chemically ravaged soil in which cotton is grown to chemically drenched manufacturing factories. Ultimately you will visit to landfills where discarded garments are burned. It is a story of pollution, waste, and human and natural suffering.
Looking at the various sectors that make up our economies, fashion is certainly not alone in having a poor environmental record, yet the reasons why are unique. The operating model of the industry is about maintaining an ever-frenetic pace of design and production that both generates and responds to an enormous demand for new clothing. The result is overproduction and excessive demand for products that are orders of magnitude above subsistence on a global basis with large local excesses in advanced economies. Given that fashion is the third largest manufacturing industry in the world (after automobiles and technology), this is a lot of stuff.
Designers at brands from high-end luxury to low-priced fast fashion and everything in between have long been under pressure to deliver collections much more frequently than the old seasonal periodicity. Some fast fashion retailers offer new designs weekly. The average person buys 60 percent more clothing than they did just 20 years ago according to the World Bank. More wardrobe turnover translates into more clothes discarded, which is a major problem as less than 1 percent of clothing is resold or recycled despite the strong push by parts of the industry, such as The RealReal, to accelerate the trend. Global fiber production doubled from 2020 to 2021 despite commitments to reduce production growth.
Recognizing the scale of the challenge, particularly, given increased regulatory scrutiny, there have been numerous efforts to get ahold of the sustainability problem. However, these lack widespread impact and adherence and there is significant inconsistency across brands and countries. Yet, to get an ideas of some of the promising ideas out there, driven by changing consumer preferences and, in some jurisdictions, government action (beginning in 2023, France will require that all clothing sold in the country identify its climate impact), there are an enormous number of public and private sector initiatives to introduce new fabrics that are both less polluting and more durable to reduce waste and encourage recycling. And everyone from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to the UN to private sector initiates such as the 27 private sector partner initiative Cisutac Horizon Europe and countless others. There are numerous catalytic funds, such as the $250 million Aii Fashion Climate Fund, up and running to identify, scale, and measure verified impact solutions. Thanks to some of these efforts, athletic shoes and attire are made out of materials extracted from the plastic dumped into the ocean. Fish skins and natural dyes are replacing chemicals, fruit skins are substituting furs, and backpacks and purses are being made out of discarded canvas and mushrooms. Some companies have a return policy so they can recycle the consumers’ garments after they have worn out.
What is Sustainable Content Strategy?
Getting to the root of putting the industry on a truly sustainable path and moving beyond greenwashing is, of course, complex but content strategy is a necessary, though of course not sufficient, component of the package of changes that are needed. Putting the textiles and fashion industry on sustainable footing that goes beyond marketing and hype will naturally involve long-term action by manufacturers, brands, consumers, and regulators. It involves technical, logistical, design, and supply chain adjustments which need to also be sensitive to the role that a changing industry can have on those whose livelihoods depend on the current business model. Getting the content strategy right will be a critical component of making this adjustment successfully whether that is through changes in transparency and labeling, marketing and communications, and production management.
Content strategy is about aligning changing corporate objectives to the flow of data and messaging, both internally and externally. Ensuring that data is managed across your various distribution channels to consumers (whether this is through digital product advertising or clothing labels that detail its origins and environmental impact) as well as backend to frontend (such as identifying how ESG corporate standards are implemented through each link of the supply chain) is the heart of a good content strategy and will be an essential, though of course not sufficient, condition to move the industry forward on sustainability commitments. Consumers need to know the true environmental impact of their choices and regulators are increasingly demanding it. This information must be accurate and well-aligned with what corporate leaders mandate and the activities of the production process. A content strategy is what unifies these disparate elements.
Most brands have their messaging together when it comes to sustainability vision statements, goals, and even success measures like quantitative targets and KPIs. What is less convincing is the follow-through: what are brands actually doing to combat climate change; what progress are they making towards established sustainability goals; what methodology and data are being used to measure this progress; and how are they keeping the public informed about this progress?
In other words, there is a palpable lack of content strategy behind how brands are implementing sustainability initiatives according to established commitments. Telling authentic, consistent stories and providing updated data at a regular cadence and according to an established methodology are critical for brands to be transparent with both their own industry and the public at large.
At a high level, content strategy comes to play in relation to sustainability across four main areas:
Sustainability Content Vision, Goals, and Target Audiences
Sustainability Storytelling and Value Propositions
Sustainability Content Success Measures
Sustainability Content Publishing Process, Cadence, and Governance
These four pillars of content strategy need to be tailored to the individual needs and audiences of each brand, respectively but collectively offer a more standardized methodology by which to approach building a sustainability content strategy that works and can be scaled. Content strategy not only provides a way for brands to be transparent on sustainability; but it also provides consumers with insights into what brands are doing, written in a common language that anyone can understand.
Content Strategy Can Be a Core Part of Sustainability Storytelling
Content strategy is also a key ingredient in the broader world of creating communications strategies to anchor sustainability messaging and ultimately, by better informing consumers, changing behavior in fashion organizations. In the summer of 2023, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook, lead authored by Rachel Arthur.
The UNEP playbook argues that fashion communicators (broadly defined to include marketers, brand managers, image makers, and FSW has argued CFOs) can help advance the sustainability agenda through four key avenues:
Countering misinformation, including about greenwashing
Educating about the true costs of overconsumption
Redirecting aspiration towards sustainability rather than just acquisition
Empowering consumers to demand better policy and actions from government, regulators, and the industry
These actions are about more than mandating changes in supply chains and transparency though those are important. It is also about modifying the narrative and storytelling that surrounds fashion and, in some ways, makes it unique from other businesses. The pricing power and demand for fashion, particularly in the premium and luxury segments, is grounded in perceived scarcity and signaling yes, but more importantly, in the experience that shopping, buying, and wearing these products create and the feelings that consumers take away from that experience.
Aligning consumer preferences towards more sustainable products therefore requires adjusting that story through narrative, visual images, and experiences—in short, content—so that sustainability becomes a key part of that vector of drivers of demand for fashion.
If fashion is, in part, a way of projecting how we want the world to see us, the trick will be to ensure that the industry is about to accommodate sustainability as part of what consumers can project through their buying habits. Getting the strategy that underpins content planning, production, management, and distribution right is critical to ensuring brands stay compliant, accountable, and transparent when it comes to sustainability initiatives across the board.
Sustainability content strategy is not just a story of what brands are doing now to reduce their negative climate footprint; rather it is a tale of how these brands oversee and scale change for the future, both for themselves and within the industry as a whole.
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