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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

The Trouble with ‘Sustainable’ Fashion

Fashion’s favourite term means everything and nothing, creating confusion and potential liabilities for the brands that want to be seen as environmentally friendly.
Dôen's Floret Dress | Source: Dôen

In late March, Dôen, a California-based brand known for its prairie-dress silhouettes and vintage-floral prints, made an unusual admission on its website: “We do not consider ourselves to be slow fashion or a sustainable brand.”

The statement came as a shock to some of the label’s customers. Dôen’s website and social media accounts had, for five years, told a compelling story of an anti-corporate contemporary label infused with feminist values, highlighting how most of its foreign factories were owned or co-owned by women, and that its vintage-inspired pieces were made primarily from natural fabrics. When the brand partnered with The RealReal in 2019, Dôen’s founders told the reseller’s blog that sustainability was a top priority.

By last year, Dôen had pulled off the near impossible for a digital brand: it was both growing fast and turning a profit, with a passionate fan base eager to buy its $700 flowing silk dresses and $200 ruffled blouses. Customers were often willing to overlook frequent shipping delays — pieces sold via pre-order could take several months to arrive. That timetable only grew longer during the pandemic.

The casual shopper who might have stumbled across Dôen in a Telegraph article describing the brand as “the grown-up sister to Reformation,” may have brushed off the disclosure that the shipping delays were just the usual supply chain snarls rather than an eco-conscious effort to reduce overproduction. But for some of the brand’s passionate online followers, the March statement was a betrayal.

“Honestly disgusted by the lies and gaslighting of this statement,” one commenter wrote below a Dôen Instagram post referencing the March post. “I’ve been following the brand [for] a long time giving you the benefit of the doubt and waiting for you to do better … You’ve lost me as a customer forever.”

Chief executive Margaret Kleveland, who founded Doen with her sister Katherine, its chief creative officer, and five other women in 2016, apologised in an Instagram video, adding that the brand planned to publish a report on its social and environmental practices soon.

“We are not claiming to be a sustainable brand when we are, in fact, a seasonal fashion brand that is working towards environmental responsibility,” she said.

Ambiguity and Confusion

Suddenly one of Dôen’s strengths had become a liability. What happened?

Sustainability is fashion’s word of the moment, encompassing any effort by a brand to operate more responsibly. Its definition, therefore, is hazy. Often, brands don’t need to use the word “sustainable” at all to communicate a moral high ground to their customers. Marketing images set in nature, product descriptions that emphasise natural fibres and talk of timeless styles are among the signals that have come to imply environmentally responsibility.

Brands don’t need to use the word “sustainable” at all to communicate a moral high ground to their customers.

“Sustainability has become an aesthetic,” said Maxine Bédat, the founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a database and innovation hub intended to help the industry adopt better practices.

The ambiguity works to the advantage of fashion brands. Sustainability has become a luxury signifier, often allowing a label to charge higher prices. Businesses that are seen as sustainable appeal to like-minded customers, who rarely look into the details. One survey of young European consumers by Zalando found that 60 percent said supply chain transparency was important to them, but only 20 percent actively researched the topic ahead of a purchase.

Greenwashing

When sustainability marketing goes wrong, it can lead to charges of greenwashing, also a nebulous term used to describe pro-environment slogans and mission statements with little real-world action to back them up.

Fashion brands rarely face consequences for accusations of greenwashing, beyond flurries of online backlash. Activists point to fast-fashion brands that release the occasional “sustainable” collection, or luxury brands that hold environmental-themed shows without making commitments to change their manufacturing practices, but there is little evidence this criticism has a significant impact on their bottom line.

Andreas Åhrman, the co-founder and chief executive at Swedish-American fashion label Amendi, is hoping government regulation can help shift the industry’s bad habits. His brand joined the lobbying organisation PoliticallyInFashion to launch a petition asking the US Federal Trade Commission to update its guidelines on environmental marketing claims.

“When we started there were all these claims of being more sustainable, like buy these jeans and save the planet, and we got really tired of hearing all that,” he said. Amendi’s website has a sustainability glossary to clarify how the brand defines industry terms, and lists out how and where each product is made.

“We’re not perfect,” it reads. “No business is.”

Meanwhile, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers & Markets announced on Monday that it is investigating over 70 companies for misleading sustainability claims, including an unnamed online retailer that offers a sustainable fashion category without explaining what the term means.

People are more informed than they have ever been.

But now that sustainability marketing has become commonplace, there are signs that consumers are getting savvier. More brands are disclosing more information about where and how clothes are manufactured, raising the bar for rivals.

“People are more informed than they have ever been,” said Bédat.

Everlane, for instance, faced a storm of criticism from some consumers and employees in 2020 over its treatment of Black employees, which led to criticism about its approach to marketing sustainability. The brand has since pledged to “double-down” on its goals.

It’s unclear if the fallout will have any financial impact on Everlane, which expects sales to grow by 25 percent in 2021 after a difficult stretch during the early months of the pandemic. But the backlash provides a lesson for other businesses: even the brand that wrote the playbook on transparency can be susceptible to accusations of greenwashing.

Dôen’s founders say they have learned some lessons about their approach to sustainability since the company launched nearly five years ago. One is that their focus on one area – factory workplace conditions – implied other types of progress.

“We really realised that being socially responsible is totally inextricable from also being environmentally responsible,” said Margaret Kleveland.

Another shift is that customers today expect much more information and transparency from brands, about everything from their workplace conditions to environmental advocacy.

Dôen plans to release a comprehensive “resolutions report” that shares more details about its supply chain and employee conditions than ever before. The documents covers raw materials (31 percent of its cotton and cotton blends were organic in 2020), production traceability (in 2021, it aims to be able to trace 80 percent of its raw materials, up from 2 percent in 2020), factory auditors, the wages of factory workers at its primary fiactories, employee benefits, anti-racism efforts as well as its efforts to reduce plastic packaging, among other topics. Doen plans to hire a director of impact in 2021 to lead its efforts to collect more data.

The Klevelands said the brand plans to publish the full document online on its website, and share sections from the report in more a digestible format on Instagram.

For the customers who care more about getting their clothes on time than how they were made, Dôen is planning some changes as well. Instead of offering pre-orders, it will show forthcoming styles as “coming soon” and notify customers when they are available. It also plans to move to a system where customers aren’t charged for items until they ship.

“We just need to understand that there is, every six months, a new 100,000 followers on Instagram [and] we have to continue to keep everybody updated,” said Katherine Kleveland. “The customers that really want that information will get it.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Kent.

Related Articles:

These Designers Want to Fight Climate Change. Just Don’t Call Them ‘Sustainable’

When ‘Mea Culpa’ Is the Best Marketing

How to Avoid the Greenwashing Trap

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