Fast-Fashion Fright

Sitting here on my red cotton Ikea couch, wearing Zara sweatpants, Forever 21 flannel, and a cozy H&M sweater, I am glancing around anxiously, worried they'll see me in all this cotton.

I just read this line from Clothing Poverty: “Our shopping for fast fashion makes us complicit in a system which is denying people in the Global South the chance to escape poverty.”  If that doesn't make you think twice about which shirt to pull off the hanger, how about the fact that a single T-shirt uses about 700 gallons of water to create. A pair of jeans, 1,800. And cotton uses up more pesticides than any other crop.  Don't even get me started on dyes! The horror!

 At first, I yelled “I've got to do something about this!” Then I remembered I have a job, aging parents, hobbies, and try to work out just enough so that my muscles don't atrophy. I want to be green, but it's hard enough reducing my personal water consumption, much less reinventing the multi-century year old cotton supply chain.



Brands can play a role in easing Millennials' tensions about climate change 

I'm not alone in my anxiety. According to Sustainable Brands, my fellow Millennials feel a mix of emotions about sustainability and climate change: frustrated, responsible, powerless. However, after reading about the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), I experienced another common Millennial emotion: hope. BCI is a cooperative of corporations working to make the cotton supply chain sustainable. Its founding members include H&M, Adidas, and Ikea, which recently announced all of its cotton is now sourced from more sustainable sources. H&M, Adidas, and others are on track for 2020.

Quietly Green, For Now

If you visit H&M, Ikea or their websites, you have to dig around to find any messaging about sustainability. They’ve not yet opened the floods gates of sustainable communication, likely for a few reasons:

  • Oversaturation of ‘Green’ Commentary.  According to a Solar City study, greenwashing—brands talking more about being green than actually living it—has taken its toll on consumer trust of green brand messages. Despite the abundance of green communication, most consumers don’t know where to find information about a brand’s sustainability practices. Nor do they fully understand the impact of making green product choices, creating opportunity for brands to play the role of educator.
  • Focus is Future Differentiation. Via the same study, most consumers, particularly Millennials, say they consider the environmental impact of products before buying and that green would be a tiebreaker between similar products. However, there is much doubt that consumers are actually ready to back it up with green purchases. Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M, admits while “most customers are not yet prepared to pay more for added sustainability value, I am convinced that it will become an important differentiation in the future.  
  • Addressing Key Category Needs First. For now, Ikea and H&M are focused on meeting the key category needs of their target, particularly Millennials, including being able to express themselves through their fashion and furniture choices without going broke. If Ikea and H&M aren’t delivering this, a green tiebreaker will be of no consequence.   

'Baking In' Sustainability

Ikea’s brand positioning is the ‘life improvement store’. Sustainability may become a more focal point of Ikea and H&M’s brand position, but for the time being it seems that both companies are quietly ‘baking in’ sustainability. As Alex Bogusky and John Winsor attest in Baked In: Creating Products and Businesses That Market Themselves, marketing is not something to just tack on at the end of production. It needs to be “baked in” to the entire product development process, giving a brand meaning and allowing for consistent and authentic brand story-telling.

As being green continues to play a bigger role for consumers in life improvement, Ikea may crank up its sustainability messaging. By then, green may be so thoroughly baked in to Ikea's business that it seems like a natural, and believable, extension of the brand personality. 

Finding Balance Between Promoting Responsible Consumption and Still Growing

The more we consume, the more we exhaust natural resources and damage our environment. In a nod to a need for moderate consumption, REI is distancing itself from the consumption craze by closing its stores on Black Friday and encouraging customers to #optout by going outdoors. Not all brands can say “instead of buying more stuff, go play in the woods,” particularly fast-fashion brands predicated on rapid mass consumption. However, it will become increasingly important for brands to find a unique way of promoting responsible consumption.  

Creating Circular Economies

H&M's approach goes beyond just creating sustainable clothing to facilitating a circular economy in which used clothing can be dropped off and re-integrated into the supply chain. Adidas is doing the same and is advertising discounts for bringing in old sneakers. There's no mention of environmental benefits, it's all about the sale—which adidas knows still trumps sustainability for most consumers.

So, as I sit here on my red dyed, cotton Ikea couch worried about my contribution to the decline of the civilization, I have found solace in brands who are working to provide consumers with authentically green choices. I only hope my fast-fashion threads are durable enough to last until 2020 when I can responsibly buy more clothes.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Nov. 25, 2015, in Marketing:Green.

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