Yesterday evening, MHP played host to the Luxury Marketing Council Europe, a collaborative organisation representing more than 875 major luxury goods and services companies worldwide.
The event, attended by representatives from brands such as Nicole Farhi, Amex and The Body Shop, took the form of a panel discussion on whether corporate social responsibility initiatives could be realistically integrated into the fashion industry business model. The discussion was chaired by the eminent Professor Frances Corner, OBE, head of the London College of Fashion; the panel of experts featured Jane Shepherdson, CEO of Whistles, Ada Zanditon, acclaimed ethical fashion designer, Jan Erik Carlson, CEO of Saga Furs, and MHP’s very own Robert Nuttall, Managing Director of our Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability practice.
Here MHP’s Daniel Rolle, Deborah Hitchcock and Ryan Lewis give their take on the discussion.
A reputation issue only business change can fix
Daniel Rolle, Corporate Reputation
The concept of sustainable fashion may, at first sight, appear to something of a non-sequitur. The fashion industry has long been the subject of much criticism from environmental groups – largely since the entire process of producing, distributing, wearing and disposing of fashion is by its nature not sustainable and can be considered damaging to the environment. Yet discussions regarding major cultural change in the industry are increasingly prevalent, and there is a widespread acknowledgment amongst industry stakeholders that this change, if it is to be effective, must have an impact upon both regulation and consumer behaviour.
A range of stimulating ideas were discussed by the panel, all whom agreed that a single fundamental premise must reside at the heart of change within the industry. Where the cult of the aesthetically obsolete has previously reigned in fashion – influencing a culture of unsustainably fast turnover and waste within supply chains – the industry as a whole must now seek to restore the perceived lack of value in luxury products by imbuing their products, services and wider branding with the deeper meanings and values embodied by a commitment to sustainability. As such, CSR must not sit as a mere add-on to an investor relations brochure; instead, sustainability ought to be a founding principle of business.
The fashion industry must now distance itself from the throwaway culture of the fast fashion generation, and instead focus on and actively promote heritage as an absolute value. The creation of products that will endure, that are truly timeless, will not only maintain strong branding but will alter the way in which consumers engage with fashion itself. And it will be this new form of engagement which will radically change the industry as a whole.
Fashion vs CSR: Handbags at dawn? Not at all…
Deborah Hitchcock, Brand PR
Apart from a serious case of handbag envy, the debate impressed on attendees the old adage that we as marketers all know, but sometimes forget: Consumer remains king, alienate them at your peril.
The general consensus from the great and good of the luxury world was that sustainable fashion is not the oxymoron it may at first seem, but getting the balance right requires a bold, innovative and most crucially, an engaging approach. Most importantly it’s about getting the customer on board. Only when consumer demand dictates, can fashion, or indeed any consumable brand, truly make strides in the CSR arena.
There is a role for brands to play in creating such demand: we as consumers are creatures of habit and as soon as we can make the connection between sustainable and stylish, demands will increase exponentially. The power of social media is already well recognised by the fashion industry and should be harnessed to engage customers with not just a product but the whole brand ethos, taking consumers on the journey sustainability with you. In short, for corporate social responsibility to happily exist in the worlds of fashion and other luxury goods, it needs to be a little bit more, well, social.
Sustainable thinking over clouded judgment
Ryan Lewis, Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability
Separating the emotion from the facts is one of the greatest challenges within CSR communications. Not enough emotion and you will not engage the stakeholders you need. Too much emotive language and a company risks accusations of green wash and sounding trite. Good CSR communications need good stories which have the sustainable facts embedded but more importantly which can be told openly and honestly. Last night, I concluded, the fashion industry has those stories and not always in the places you might think.
I listened in admiration as Ada Zandition talked with pride and passion about how she uses nature to inspire her designs, how her fashion house lets nothing go to waste and how the little things like the communal veg patch at work have inspired her staff.
Jane Shepherdson, once dubbed the most influential woman in high street fashion, described how brands had a responsibility to engage consumers with the heritage, craftsmanship and indeed the luxury of their brands. In the future consumers must be willing to spend more but get less. Luxury brands in particular have the advantage to engage consumers in the beauty and the quality of a well sourced, responsible product - telling a powerful story about the real value of fashion. In CSR communications too often value and cost are misunderstood.
But most surprising were the lessons that could be learnt from the fur Industry. Every one of the 8 million pelts that Saga furs sells each year is barcoded so that full traceability can be afforded to the farmers. All their farms are open for people to view and every product can be traced at every step of their journey. Such transparency can only be praised and is what is needed for products across the sector and in other sectors.