For a decade, the fashion industry has faced massive – and what some might see as long overdue – blowback from consumers over environmental and social practices. But brands are finally cutting out the cynical greenwashing and putting sustainability front and centre.
speaks with two companies in the industry about the challenges ahead.
Harold Weghorst, VP of global branding for textile material manufacturer Lenzing, doesn’t beat around the bush when asked about the global problem he is facing.
“All the brands and retailers want you to think whatever they do is sustainable, but as a matter of fact the textile industry is one of the most unsustainable industries in the world and one of the most polluting industries in the world,” he says.
Indeed, the numbers available make for grim reading across the board.
Apparel alone ranks as the world’s second-worst polluting industry. Eighty billion articles of clothing are produced every year, an amount capable of clothing the world’s population 10 times over. On top of the massive oil consumption and carbon footprint that this entails, total production accounts for 20% of the world’s wasted water. If that isn’t enough, trillions of plastic-based microfibres are clogging up the world’s oceans accumulating from every time a synthetic garment is even washed. Items made from these fibres are estimated to take over 400 years to biodegrade.
Weghorst continues: “You imagine that we buy – compared to 25 years ago – four times more clothes because of fast fashion, because of different trends because people have access to more income. And 80% of those clothes end up in landfills.”
The reason for his bluntness is that Lenzing is attempting to face the sustainability problem head-on, and in the process, totally reinvent itself. Though the company has been investing in eco-friendly alternatives for years, it has stripped down its 130-plus product lines to just a handful. The flagship product of these was launched in February 2018, a 100% biodegradable fibre named Tencel.
The right stuff: Harold Weghorst championing his company’s flagship brand.
And Lenzing’s goals go further than a radical streamlining of its offering for the market, it’s part of a larger transformation of its entire strategy. A company that has maintained a strict B2B focus – with a retail customer portfolio as varied as Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, Victoria’s Secret, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, Country Road, Zara, H&M, and Massimo Dutti – since 1938 is shifting its attention. Lenzing wants Tencel to spearhead a charge to become a B2B2C-focused company, or as Weghorst likes to call it, B2Me.
“We still value our B2B approach because that’s what brought us to where we are right now, which is a very respectable player in the industry and we will continue to do that,” he explains.
“But the main difference is that we wanted to add the last step and reach out to the consumer. That’s easier said than done because it requires a 180-degree change in our brand strategy; you cannot reach out to the consumer with 130 brands.
“I always say if we are able to build one brand in the mind of the consumer we can go to church every day and light a candle.”
He tells esb电竞数据投注电脑版 his vision is to see Tencel grow in recognisability to the extent it becomes an “emotional promise” for discerning shoppers such as Intel Inside is for computers or Gore-Tex is for outdoor wear.
“We believed we had a big opportunity to develop one brand in textile as an ingredient brand because consumers want to know more about what is in it. I’m buying these clothes at Zara or Uniqlo or Tommy Hilfiger, but what are they made of? So ingredient branding is becoming more and more important for consumers.”
The process wasn’t without some pain. He confesses the greatest resistance came from within the company itself, with Lenzing employees feeling reluctant to let go of their multitude of brand offspring. And though its tertiary customers jumped at the potential, some of its primary customers – made up of spinners and fabric makers – were harder to convince.
“The brands and retailers were the first to embrace this brand strategy. They were like ‘Wow, this is consumer language. This is what we need, this is what our customers want’, but our primary customers, they were more reluctant because they had to change without having, in the beginning, a promise of more sales or more benefits for them,” he says.
“They felt they had to give up something, so we had to convince them also. ‘We’re helping you because we’re generating pull from the other end of the value chain, we’re helping you to generate demand.’ Now they have come around as well so now everyone sees the benefit of moving that way.”
Sustainability is undoubtedly a megatrend that’s broken the confines of the LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) crowd, with brands that demonstrate a commitment to the ideal being rewarded greater growth than reluctant competitors.
In a 2015 global study from Nielsen, 81% of respondents felt strongly that companies should help improve the environment. In addition, 66% said they were willing to pay more for sustainable brands, with that number jumping to 73% when posed to Millennials.
“Millennials are not so much driven by advertising, they are driven by values, they really appreciate authenticity, honesty, transparency, real messages and that group is becoming bigger and bigger. For them, sustainability has a major role in their decision-making process which was not the case before.”
In Hong Kong, however, brands face an uphill battle. Though the city has the unfortunate claim to wasting 340 tonnes of clothing on average each day, awareness is extremely low.
Jennifer Tam, marketing/new business development manager at innerwear brand Chicks, tells esb电竞数据投注电脑版: “How [clothing] brands market ourselves is on the fashion side, it’s always about the style. Because when you wear it out you look good, there’s the feel-good factor. But on the material side, not a lot of brands will actually market their material as a focus.”
The family-friendly brand has been taking strides towards getting the word out about the importance of eco-friendly practices, while improving its own.
Chicks has formed partnerships with environmentally-minded NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, worked with the WWF’s “Making Zero Impact Fashionable” project to audit its supply chain for better practices, and enlisted influencers to engage audiences on the subject.
Tam herself has also made speaking appearances at events such as the city’s recent Conscious Festival. She says these actions have weight coming from an established and well-liked outlet.
“When people talk about Chicks in Hong Kong, they know about us. They will automatically understand that we’re about quality and durability and they trust us and what we’re doing has built a trust that is hard for a new brand to have.”
Green scene: Events like The Conscious Festival allow communication for brands.
Yet, despite the brand’s best efforts, Tam laments that in Hong Kong she has really only noticed a small – though dedicated – interest from mainly younger and predominantly expat voices on the sustainability issue so far. However, she says there is no intent to change course.
“Our take is, we all have a choice as a brand. And, as a brand, you have a voice, and then if you want to change something, this is where we can speak out and really have our stand.”
In addition to Lenzing – who the brand has been a client of for 13 years – Chicks has formed partnerships with other sustainable material producers such as Cotton USA, Woolmark, and Cotton Incorporated. But Tam is the first to admit the brand still has a way to go towards being totally sustainable, with synthetic materials included in several products. She explains the hurdles still presented by their place in the market.
“Our difficulty is that we have a heritage of 65 years, so not all of our products are sustainable. It’s impossible because of our customer base; we have existing customers. So how do you get a balance? Unfortunately, sustainability comes with a cost. So how do I balance between the retail price, my cost, my customer, and our vision, this is all about the balancing.”
But Tam still believes in the cause. She adds: “The most important thing is about the next generation. How do we ensure the earth we have, the resources we have, the animals we have, so our next generation can still enjoy it? It’s really little by little step-by-step how we fix things. It’s not that we can do it in one go. Definitely, we cannot because it’s also how to be sustainable as a business as well. So it’s how we map our road map to being more of a sustainable brand.”
The watchword of the company moving forward is education, armed with the mantra of: “Buy less and buy better.”
Shop and study: Chicks provides information alongside its innerwear range.
Chicks – which has relevant information displayed in its outlets – wants local consumers to have a better understanding of what goes into their clothes while also reducing waste by choosing better-made products. And with more workshops and school-based initiatives planned, the brand believes children to be the prime audience for that message.
“Adults have a set habit, they are used to things, and hence, although we know about the bad things that we do to the environment, it’s a habit and then it is price sensitive. A lot of different factors that we have to think about. Maybe they want to do it, but they can’t do it at this moment in time. But kids will just do it because they believe in it.”
Looking to the future, she adds: “It is important for us to talk to the public to make the change because we really can’t do it alone.”
Weghorst hopes Lenzing acts as a trailblazer, lighting the way for others to take serious action soon.
“I hope their [brands] offer is not only driven by business goals, but equally driven by making the world a better place and not driving sustainability just because it sells, but because it’s the right thing to do for our planet,” he says.
“Hopefully we as an industry can clean up our act and make sure in the next decade that more than 50% of our textile consumption in sustainable. Of course, we would hope for 100% – but currently, that is too far a reach – but if we can create awareness with consumers, we can create that offer with retailers and brands collectively.”
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