Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry.
Last month this column reported on Zalando’s calls for an industry wide set of environmental definitions to help ease consumers’ confusion. The fashion world undoubtedly faces an uphill battle trying to provide ethical information which is trustworthy, verifiable and independent especially in the face of consumer opinion that is often cynical and doubtful. But there are some glimmers of hope.
Ernst & Young’s recent survey ‘EY Future Consumer Index’ includes the usual and well-rehearsed consumer pledges to buy more sustainably sometime “in the future” that we are all now used to. Putting to one side for the moment the obvious point about our ‘survey self’, which acts a whole lot better than we actually do in real life, at least most of the people in this report (67%) were willing to admit that it is actually the higher relative cost that turns them towards cheaper clothing.
Products that have been sustainably produced will most likely always be more financially expensive than their counterparts which have used more water, not replenished trees felled in their production and have not properly paid the workers who made them and it is probably asking too much of manufacturers to produce clothing ethically and cheaply.
More worrying is the finding that 51% of the 1,000 shoppers who were surveyed did not trust either brands or retailers enough to make those sustainable choices while 56% said that misleading product information was actively putting them off buying ethically. For this cohort of respondees – even if they are the relatively small minority for whom cost is not the issue – sellers do have a responsibility to come up with a trusted and independent way of informing about the relative merits of clothing.
Sadly there are signs that the presentation of this evidence, which is going to be so important, is going down a piecemeal route whereby single retailers are developing their own systems. For completely understandable reasons brands and retailers are tired of waiting for the whole industry to agree on a set of standards and ways of communicating them and they are choosing to go it alone.
Some retailers including Cult Beauty have been working with Provenance – a small but fast growing company that uses blockchain technology to enable all the ethical data points on a product to be securely embedded behind the listing on the retailer’s website. When users click on it they can view – via the Provenance interface – the third-party verification of all that information so they no longer have to take the retailers’ word for it that the factory, for example, was run on ethical lines.
Alternatively there is also the Higg Index model favoured by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which includes some of the biggest fashion retailers in its membership of 250. SAC member H&M is starting a trial using eco-labels that benchmark a small selection of its clothes with grades from one to three depending on the material used.
Critical will be the independence of the information given – and possibly a hybrid model that uses the Provenance blockchain verifications embedded in a SAC label would be a useful joint-venture. If the take-up of the H&M pilot is positive it could turn on a big green light for other retailers in the consortium.
As has often been pointed out the traffic light labelling on food is a very blunt instrument but its great strength is that everyone understands it. The Holy Grail for retailers is a similarly easy-to-use benchmarked label with blockchain verifications behind it for customers to scan. This would lay to rest once and for all the argument that distrust and poor information is the reason why people do not buy sustainably. It’s time for the sellers to call the buyers’ bluff.