Sustainable Fashion Future: Mega trends

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Sustainable Fashion Future: Mega trends

Corporate Citizenship's LBG Co-ordinator shares the four mega trends for sustainable fashion
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Sunday, May 12, 2013 - 2:35pm

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Predicting the future tends not to be a good idea. As topics go it’s pretty vast, and any hopes of proving hypotheses are dashed by an over reliance on a whole raft of unknowns.

A recent report by global sustainability consultancy, Corporate Citizenship, seeks to demystify the future of business and to better prepare businesses by identifying four mega-trends that demand attention, both in terms of CSR and wider business strategy.
 
These trends are not drawn from fantasy, but rather based on observations and analysis of the world as it is. The world now. This is the safest thing we have to go on when it comes to looking ahead.
 
The 4 mega-trends every business needs to prepare for:
CRUNCH
FRAGMENT
CONNECT
RE-BALANCE
 
Whilst all four trends can apply to any business, the first and the last seem to pose both the greatest risks and the greatest opportunities to the business of fashion.
 
Designers and retailers are already adapting to the newly connected digital landscape seemingly well (CONNECT). From the ubiquity of fashion brands on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, to the integration of digital strategy across the entire brand, as seen by the likes of Burberry under the inspired eye of Christopher Bailey or Ralph Lauren known for its pioneering mobile marketing.
 
The second trend, FRAGMENT, the diversification of traditional structures of power, is less directly connected to the fashion industry, although the importance of cultural movements expressed in fashion should not be ignored.
 
But here I want to look at how a growing resource crisis (CRUNCH), and the re-balancing of the global economy (RE-BALANCE) might affect the business of fashion, and specifically of ethical fashion. What do these two trends mean for an industry in which social and environmental issues span from the excessive use of chemicals used to produce cotton to the psychological effects of advertising?
 
Resource CRUNCH
Firstly to the resource CRUNCH. Environmentally sustainable sourcing of raw materials has been one of the leading issues across the ethical fashion landscape. This is not to say that all fashion houses and high street stores source sustainably, far from it, but companies such a People Tree, set up in 2001, show the early take up of ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’ as sourcing requirements.
 
Less quick to catch on have been the more innovative approaches to sourcing raw materials. Puma is a good example of this, with its InCycle range (using innovative new materials such as APINATbio, a biodegradable plastic) , or Levis with its ‘Water-less’ jeans. In fact, a number of these companies represent best practice across a broad range of industries, far beyond fashion.
 
As well as addressing the environmental impact of their raw materials, designers and retailers are also increasingly looking at the entire life of a product as a way to reduce resource use.
 
Patagonia is a great example of a clothing company looking to take charge of the life cycle of a product, encouraging customers to return their clothes to Patagonia stores, to be re-entered in to the supply chain . Of course, extending the life of a product is not a new thing in fashion; look at the services provided by heritage brands such as Barbour, where you can return your much loved coat for treatment as many times as you want, before buying a new one.
 
It may seem that the fashion industry has got CRUNCH covered, but more work is needed. Innovation and thoughtful use of resources remains confined to a limited and familiar roll call of companies; these practices need to spread.
 
Responsibility lies at both ends of the market, with different opportunities for both low-cost and high-value companies in the race for resources. More luxury fashion brands need to start taking this seriously, as the integrity of their products so often relies on the quality of their raw materials.
 
Valentino is one of the few fashion houses to have made commitments to more environmentally sustainable sourcing. Although conglomerates such as LVMH clearly see the value in ethical sourcing, through the acquisition of pioneering ethical luxury brand EDUN, they have failed to address these issues in a more material way.
 
As current trends show, and as tentative predictions for the future suggest, the competition for resources is only going to get tougher. For companies to survive, and flourish, in the future, they must address this and adapt to the challenge.
 
RE-BALANCE of the global economy
The impact of RE-BALANCE, the changing global dynamics created as new nations grow in political, economic and social strength, is less clear cut when it comes to the fashion industry.
 
The influence of emerging markets on trends becomes more obvious season by season, with ‘oriental’ (as troubled as this concept is) styles ever more popular on the catwalk, and models from Asia increasingly featuring in global campaigns.
 
Brazil, China, India and Russia all have their own Vogue editions and every large fashion house has a strategy for expanding into emerging markets and harnessing the profits borne out of their growing consumer power.
 
So far, so positive, but the story becomes more confused when you turn away from mainstream business strategy, to an approach defined by concern for the environmental and social impacts of fashion.
 
I see two streams of influence. Firstly, the possibility of a difference in consumer attitudes to ethical and sustainable sourcing as articulated in new markets. As new markets grow in influence over the fashion industry, it will be interesting to see the effect this has on the currently growing pressure placed on brands by ‘western’ consumers to become more socially and environmentally responsible.
 
As new consumer segments develop, will they too have the same expectations of what responsible fashion is? There is little concrete evidence to suggest an answer to this question, all we do know is that consumers in new markets increasingly crave luxury western brands. We are yet to work out the limits of this appetite.
 
A counter-current to this handful of issues is the impact on citizens of developing countries, of increased engagement with fashion brands based in the ‘west’. How do ‘western’ trends, perceptions of beauty and expectations of behaviour influence the behaviours and perceptions of potential consumers in new markets?
 
Some have argued that with the increased penetration of a globalised fashion industry, local ideals about beauty are considered ‘provincial’ or ‘backward’ and so are changed or discarded altogether in favour of conformity to the global ideal. Stories from Asia about girls having painful leg lengthening surgery, or double eyelid surgery to ‘westernise’ their eyes, as well as the ubiquity of face-whitening cream in the global south are often used as evidence in this argument.
 
Equally the extent to which ‘western’ brands are willing to adapt to sometimes distasteful cultural norms, such as a bias against women, also deserves attention. Brands are clearly yet to find a strategy for negotiating these moral quagmires, as was seen in the furore last year when IKEA removed images of women from catalogues distributed in Saudi Arabia. Although not a fashion brand, the experience of IKEA is a telling example of how a consumer facing company can get it wrong when it comes to negotiating cultural difference. Fashion, almost more than any other sector, has a huge scope to get it right.
 
Facing future challenges
What conclusions then, from a hasty look at some of the issues facing the fashion industry today, are likely to increase in importance in the future?
 
Clearly the scope for opportunity is vast. Innovative sourcing of raw materials, and inspired design to integrate and develop sustainable resources and materials will allow forward looking brands to leap frog their competitors, set new trends, and avoid risk.
 
The flip side of this is also true; companies that refuse to address issues of resource scarcity (CRUNCH), whether they are at the high or the low end of fashion, will only sink in an increasingly competitive market.
 
When it comes to the RE-BALANCE trend, companies must tread a less certain path. Social and cultural perceptions and influence are less material, and less simple to pin down.
 
The first step in facing these challenges is to recognise they exist, and respond, as any responsible company should, in a considered and sensitive way. Questions of gender, perceptions of beauty and consumer consciousness all feature strongly in the issues that the fashion industry faces. An increasingly globalised commercial context merely makes these questions all the more urgent.
Keywords: Responsible Production & Consumption | Corporate Citizenship | Innovation & Technology | Responsible Business & Employee Engagement | connect | crunch | csr | fragment | future trends | re-blanace | sustainability

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