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Redress founder Christina Dean on the next gen of sustainable fashion

Consumers are paying more attention to sustainable fashion now than ever before. Yet is the concept being oversold by brands – and the industry at large?  “The word sustainable is horribly overused,” says Christina Dean, founder of the Redress Design Awards, a global program to inspire young designers to innovate in eco-friendly fashion design.  “No one understands what it means. It’s such a boring word.  “Buying sustainable fashion doesn’t mean consumers should go hell-

go hell-bent into the shops, because there’s still huge [environmental] impact that comes with that piece of clothing,” she tells Inside Retail. 

When Dean hears the word ‘sustainable’ used to describe apparel, often she prefers to call it ‘less polluting’. 

Defining sustainable fashion 

Referred to by some as “fast fashion’s enemy” the phrase sustainable fashion was born as an antidote to the oft-described wasteful mainstream fashion industry. Sustainable fashion typically addresses three core criteria, ‘the three Es’: Ecology, Economics, and social Equity. In this context, sustainability refers to more than just environmental preservation – it’s all about a company striking a balance between the needs of its customers, its employees, and community ideals.

Dean argues that customers are easily swayed by trends, particularly fashion trends. That’s problematic because psychology drives desire and attraction, which fuels purchasing impulses. 

“The most sustainable garment you’ve got is the one that’s already in your wardrobe,” explains Dean.

“We need to buy fewer clothes, buy better quality clothes, wear our clothes for longer, and support circular economy models. That means buying secondhand clothing, using rentals, swapping, repairing, and cleaning. That is actually what we need to do.” 

So it is that sustainable fashion appears contrary to the traditional idea of fashion – to update constantly, follow the newest seasonal styles and keep on consuming. For years, those have been core business tactics of the industry: developing custom collections to drive sales growth. Those tactics have made the fashion industry extremely profitable and the growing sustainable fashion movement which emphasises the use of natural materials, recycling and reusing runs counterintuitive to those traditional business strategies. 

But it has also made the industry one of the main causes of climate change. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the fashion business consumes 215 trillion litres of water annually and emits 3.3 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse emissions. 

The rise of small sustainable fashion brands 

As more progressive established brands try to preserve their market share and brand reputation by designing products for consumers embracing more sustainable lifestyles, they are being joined by a growing number of new emerging companies. 

Nowadays, finding clothing produced from waste materials such as plastic bottles, or backpacks made from waste firehoses, fishing nets or truck tarpaulins is fairly easy. Such innovative solutions are drawing attention for their originality and thus encouraging sustainable fashion trends. 

However, barriers like materials costs, and the challenge of developing a viable business model make it tough for smaller sustainable fashion startups to gain traction, attract consumer attention and scale to become mainstream. 

Creating a truly sustainable fashion brand is expensive. It involves investment in environmental protection measures to reduce the volume of hazardous chemicals released during production or in cutting-edge production methods to prevent or repurpose waste. 

However, Dean says not all new sustainable players necessarily want to become mainstream. 

“There are many pieces of cake in the total industry and for some of these new fashion businesses their price points their sourcing or their ethical position won’t allow it.” 

Such barriers should not prevent the development of sustainable fashion labels because, ultimately, she says, their main goal is to teach people about sustainability rather than to pursue profits. 

“The power these designers have within their own fashion brands is much bigger than their market,” Dean adds. 

“I would like to see more diversification in the types of fashion brands that are out there and I don’t believe that going mainstream is always what they need or want.” 

How traditional apparel retailers are responding 

Mainstream fashion brands entering the sustainable fashion space are doing so through a combination of eco-friendly products or business models – like offering resale and repair services. 

“We know there is real tension around the challenge of making your fashion business more sustainable whilst growing it,” says Dean. 

“But despite that, we know fashion businesses are taking sustainability seriously because they know their customers care about it.” 

McKinsey, in its recent “State of Fashion” report, referred to fashion companies setting up grants and venture funds specifically targeting sustainability challenges – across both their own operations and in their supply chains. 

Stella McCartney was the first luxury brand to label itself as ‘vegan,’ as it did not use leather, fur, or skins. Its most recent release is the world’s first vegan, lab-grown Mylo mushroom leather clothing. Bolt Threads, a San Francisco-based company working in the research and development of new alternative materials and a longtime collaborator with Stella McCartney (they released vegan Microsilk together in 2017), invented Mylo, a sustainable alternative to leather. Adidas, Kering, Lululemon, and Stella McCartney are among Mylo investors. 

Both Nike and Adidas are producing goods created from recycled materials. Nike is using recycled polyester yarn in its famous Nike Air Force 1 and Adidas has collaborated with Parley for the Oceans to make shoes made from ocean plastic trash. 

Many multinational fashion businesses are increasingly focusing their efforts on the resale market, which is growing at a rate 11 times faster than traditional retail. Consignment expert ThredUp predicts the sector will be worth US$53 billion by next year. While thrifting is not a new phenomenon, its recent embrace by brands and online marketplaces over the internet has given the category a makeover and allowed it to be rediscovered by a far larger audience, particularly Gen Zs. 

Mainstream pureplay fashion marketplace Farfetch, for example, boosted the market share of its own resale platform Second Life last year by purchasing Luxclusif, which prior to that had sourced and supplied for well-known resale platforms including Vestiaire Collective and Tradesy. 

“These big fashion businesses are helping by educating, informing and exciting their customers about advancements in sustainable fashion,” says Dean. “And we’ve been seeing for years that the big players do that very, very well. That means they can make sustainable fashion much cooler and much more mainstream than some of the small brands who have tiny marketing budgets.” 

Redress Design Awards – a playground for sustainable designers 

The Redress Design Awards is one of the largest sustainable fashion design competitions in the world. The program – backed by VF Corp’s Timberland – aims to educate aspiring fashion designers worldwide on sustainable design ideas and methodologies to progress circular fashion. 

The winner of this year’s Redress Design Award is Federico Badini Confalonieri from Italy, whose collection ‘Micro – Rain’ uses zero-waste techniques to upcycle waste fabrics from his previous collections, and draws attention to the issue of microplastics in the fashion industry.

Participants embark on an ‘educational adventure’ each annual competition cycle that is packed with theory and design. The competition aims to inform designers about the damaging effects of fashion on the environment while motivating them to employ fundamental sustainable design principles of zero-waste, up-cycling, and rebuilding to eliminate waste from the fashion industry. 

“The problem of sustainable fashion is that it needs to be witnessed, in some ways, for consumers to understand that when we’re talking about rescued, reused recycled materials, etc, that they’re beautiful,” Dean says. 

“People can’t really understand that. So there’s an emotional shift that happens quite powerfully when people engage with these things.” 

Redress, which has a global network spanning more than 50 nations, is more than just a competition; it’s also a place to support the environmental message of sustainable designers, says Dean, who notes these young designers’ passion for what they do comes naturally “because it’s in their blood”. 

“Passion is never a problem for these young designers. Once they come into our network, we continually and continuously find opportunities, media exhibitions, surveys, speaking opportunities, and brand collaborations, so it’s a daily work that we’re doing to bring in collaboration.” 

There is research in the market suggesting that while consumers tell pollsters that they intend to purchase sustainable fashion products, many fail to follow through. More still are reluctant to pay a premium for something, believing it is a brand’s role to be more sustainable. 

Dean hopes the success of the Redress Design Awards and the enthusiasm of the inspired designers who graduate will help change that attitude among consumers. 

She believes the awards are an effective means of educating young designers and helping spread the message among end consumers about the importance of sustainability in fashion.

This story first appeared in the November 2022 issue of Inside Retail Asia Magazine.


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