Doing good is the new looking good
Fashion’s sustainability crisis has become … unfashionable. Customers don’t want to be closer to products that hurt the earth. Hannah Kamaie talks through the industry’s purposeful evolution and explains why, for a purpose-driven company to be successful, the mission must align with the core values and needs of its customers.
Managing Director at C Space New York
Hannah Kamaie is the Managing Director of our New York office. A commercial cognoscente and hotshot in the consumer goods sector, Hannah is like the Nate Silver of our world, constantly watching for emerging business trends and figuring out how the customer can be brought into that. She’s leading an office of 40 and is in the midst of hosting a mentorship program (to help low-income students get into college) as well as running a series of sessions for senior women in business. Hannah’s not just a warrior in work, but a warrior on the mat and with the stick – as a trained yoga instructor and retired street-hockey player.
Modern fashion brands that are embodying purpose
Modern Meadow uses bioengineers’ nature-inspired materials, such as lab-grown leather, to minimize the environmental impact of textile production whilst unleashing an abundance of creative possibilities by not being limited to the size of a skin.
Rent the Runway
Rent the Runway’s subscription model lets businesses and consumers maximize the utility of a garment and their clothing budget respectively, whilst allowing fashionistas the liberty of taking (sometimes extreme, but mostly fun) fashion risks.
ThredUp extends a garment’s lifespan by powering resale on a secondary market, turning a humble piece of clothing into an asset, to be invested in and sold on, effectively turning any purchase into a long-term rental.
Six years ago, I took a job at Zara. I knew the brand for its constant rotation of ontrend yet accessible looks, affordable prices and Spanish origins. What I discovered soon after was that the mission behind the company was as important as the clothing on the racks.
You see, when Amancio Ortega founded the company back in 1975, he did so with a clear mission: bring customers closer than ever to the products they want. This was bold, progressive thinking for the 70s! It’s bold in 2019, too. But that mission can’t exist in a happy vacuum to the detriment of all else.
Customers don’t want to be closer to products that hurt the earth. That discriminate. That treat employees unfairly. Purpose is fashion.
With fashion, our decisions on what to buy and what to wear are outward expressions of who we are, consciously and subconsciously. Increasingly, consumers are signaling that they want to be more deliberate in that expression. Because it makes them feel good. It’s not just about rocking that cute new faux-leather jacket. It’s about broadcasting the story of the real you as told through that cute new faux-leather jacket – what you’re all about, what you want other people to think about you, what you value most. It’s cultural, almost tribal, always personal.
I saw this evolution of purpose play out at Zara. As the company pioneered “fast fashion” – restocking its physical and online stores with catwalk-inspired looks every few weeks, as opposed to the traditional fashion calendar of roughly once a season – it expanded its purpose to include an internationally recognized sustainability policy. The company’s parent brand, Inditex, sits on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and in March announced a $4 million deal with MIT to fund research and innovation in meeting global sustainability challenges.
Given the fashion industry’s unenviable (and unfashionable) position as one of the most polluting industries on earth, sustainability is an ongoing challenge that the industry has not yet fully addressed. And as consumers become more aware of and care more about global issues, time is running out for the large fashion brands.
Which is why so many in the industry, like Zara, are investing heavily in innovating their supply chains, distribution and experiences – with the goal of enriching quality of life, improving efficiency and increasing economic value.
Arguably many such innovations bring added value through convenience or price; however, these examples also share a common thread: sustainability makes an impact. So, whilst companies may serve customers with a product and via a business model that meets their needs, there is also real value to having an inherent higher purpose and positioning your business as such. As Kristy Caylor, CEO of For Days, a lifetime t-shirt membership club, succinctly put it, “Customers [are] voting with their values and with value” – a statement supported by the fact that effective communication of a brand’s story and purpose, and the associated emotional attachment, can result in consumers spending up to 75% more. Significant value-add in a $2.4 trillion market.
The apparel companies that truly embody purpose don’t accessorize with it; they wear it from head to toe. They’ve successfully positioned themselves as purpose-driven, choosing to select one core cultural or social tenet on which to build their brand, messaging and relationship with customers.
Like Patagonia. The outdoor apparel brand is famous for encouraging you not to buy their products and instead to reduce, reuse, repair or recycle. They’ve even just refused to sell co-branded fleece vests to “finance bros” whose employers aren’t ethically aligned with the company’s environmentally-friendly values. Or Eileen Fisher, which aims to make all its products 100% sustainable by the year 2020.
Or Everlane, whose philosophy of Radical Transparency throughout its supply chain gives consumers full visibility into the company and, therefore, agency in their purchase decision.
Regardless of the chosen focus, for a purpose-driven company to be financially successful, the mission must align with the core values and needs of its customers. Alignment with a customer’s needs can only be achieved by actively listening to their desires and frustrations. This presents a rare, but increasingly essential, value proposition for a brand – indeed, what better way to inspire loyalty in such a crowded marketplace?
When executed authentically, real value can be created for both business and individuals, beyond just selling for selling’s sake. The challenge, however, is that for a company to show it is driven by a purpose, it needs to differentiate that purpose – tricky when values, like “sustainability,” are universal.
To resolve this potential conflict between a unique value proposition versus a stance that is simply good for all, continued innovation and creativity is needed. Who better to democratize such progress but consumers themselves?
All we need to do is find a way to listen to them. Because listening, like the little black dress, never goes out of style.