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Are Innovation and Sustainability Meaningless?


In his first exclusive for WhichPLM this year, Expert Rob Warner discusses the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘sustainability’ and whether they’ve been rendered useless by dilution in fashion.

Rob is an internationally recognised Design VP, and the Co-founder & Creative Director of Spark – a virtual design agency with a global network of creative talent.

Innovation and sustainabilty. They’re heralded as two of the most important virtues of any 21st century company, and nowhere more so than within the fashion industry. No brand can survive without innovation; the planet won’t survive without a redoubled effort toward sustainability.

Yet, as concepts, innovation and sustainability have been rendered meaningless.

The term “greenwashing” was popularised as early as the 1980s. Used to describe unsubstantiated or inaccurate claims that the products or policies of a brand are more environmentally friendly than they truly are, it’s a phrase that perhaps isn’t uttered as frequently as it once was. Companies are more transparent than they used to be, and the penalties for misleading consumers or investors can be hefty.

That being the case, surely the race toward a greener future has been achieved – or is at least being won? So how can sustainability be meaningless?

Sustainability is everywhere, seemingly baked into the DNA of every product and the manifesto of every brand. But it’s this sustainable saturation that has rendered it meaningless. It’s become a box-ticking exercise with a low bar for success. Rather than something to be celebrated, or even marketed, a lot of sustainable endeavours are simply things that should be done as a matter of course.

And what of innovation? It’s all around us, yet how much of it truly adds value, pushes us forward? Certainly within fashion and sportswear – apparel, footwear or accessories – a great deal of what is considered innovation is either unrecognisable by the wearer or, worse, merely plausible. It should work, therefore we say it does. What can be proven in a lab and sold as a “marginal gain” may have no real-world advantage to athletes or consumers alike.

“Never innovate to compete, innovate to change the rules of the game”, implores the business commentator David O. Adeife. It’s a worthwhile sense check. At what point is something an innovation rather than just a good idea? And when is it just an idea, and not even a good one?

Too many brands want to be seen to be innovating rather than seeking consumer insight and solving problems that will make their lives better or easier. Sometimes an innovation can rightly lay claim to its name but is delivered to the wrong consumer via an incompatible product or brand.

If we look across at the tech industry, a pertinent example would be Blackberry. The mobile phone brand for the tech-savvy business user were, in 2011, among the first to launch a tablet with HD video capabilities. It didn’t have email or calendar access, though, two things which were cornerstones of the brand. Consequently, and somewhat obviously, it failed.

To adopt a colour from Apple’s palette, perhaps this misguided or forced approach to innovation should be labelled “Space Grey-washing”?

These opening paragraphs may appear as some sort of 21st century existentialism, the thought that two of our main barometers for progress are meaningless. But anyone racing between the nineteen halls of ISPO in February would have been hit with huge displays of eco-friendly progress yet, on reflection, likely struggle to pinpoint one thing that would truly change the world.

Prior to the 2018 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) – a non-profit who host the event – launched a report called the CEO Agenda. This document delivered “seven sustainability priorities for fashion leaders”. These priorities were then further split into “Core – for immediate implementation” and “Transformational – for fundamental change”.

The three Core priorities were listed as Supply Chain Traceability; Efficient Use of Water, Energy and Chemicals; and Respectful and Secure Work Environments. Essentially, it’s a call for transparency and for respect of both the planet and our fellow humans. To think that we’re in 2019 and these are still things that our industry needs to be urged to implement should be a source of embarrassment, not something to advertise once it’s been achieved.

The four Transformational priorities called for a Sustainable Material Mix; a Closed-Loop Fashion System; Promotion of Better Wage Systems; and a Fourth Industrial Revolution. The latter is particularly interesting, advocating a thoughtful approach to technology implementation. As more tasks become automated, what is the human impact of robotised manufacturing?

To inscribe these priorities into the Corporate and Social Responsibility guidelines of any brand would be a huge step forward. But to promote it would be tokenism. In gambling parlance, these should really be the table stakes. Yet still we see brands trumpeting the use of recycled polyester and choosing manufacturers who pay a living wage.

WhichPLM’s Mark Harrop has spoken of the role blockchain technologies could play in the future of fashion. From factory to ship to warehouse to store to consumer, every step of the route is traceable. The advantages for brands and retailers are obvious, allowing real-time feedback on the status of a single item. From a consumer perspective, though, it offers a genuine insight into the journey of their new favourite piece.

Certainly the online retailer The FMLY Store, who donate a sizeable percentage of their sales to largely female-centric charities, would have benefitted from knowing that their “Girl Power” t-shirt was being manufactured by Bangladeshi women earning as little as 42p per hour and complaining of harassment, according to The Guardian. Blockchain would have offered that transparency.

In the same way that the British Medical Journal found pictorial cigarette pack warnings to be far more effective than simple text, it would be interesting to know what the consumer impact might be if individual products could be identified as being the output of an irresponsible supply chain.

Founded in 2013 and initially launched exclusively in Australia two years later, Good On You is an app that will tell you how ethical the fashion brands you buy really are. Now available globally and endorsed by Emma Watson, the app scores brands and products across areas including people, the planet and animals. The data is gathered from their own reports, certification schemes such as Fair Trade, and NGOs including Greenpeace.

So is that the golden combination that makes a story into a headline? Innovation that drives sustainability? After all, both blockchain and Good On You represent an approach that changes the rules of the game.

Well, yes and no. It’s hard to see consumers rushing to buy a new product just because it’s the result of a revolutionary supply chain tracking system. That said, there is something exciting about advancements that carry environmental benefits.

Fashion brands making a big deal out of using reclaimed ocean plastic feels a bit like letting your dog poop in the neighbour’s garden and expecting a pat on the back for going round to clean it up. A study by The Ellen McArthur Foundation found that one garbage truck of textiles is wasted every second. But there are other ways that our industry is innovating for positive change.

Patagonia, the pioneers of sustainable endeavours, recently launched a denim workwear collection with a base fabric that is 92% organic cotton and 8% Dyneema – a fibre that is 15-times stronger than steel. Sold as “the last pants you’ll ever buy”, Patagonia focussed on the longevity of an item over recycling virgin fibres for one last go-around the marketplace before ending up in landfill.

There are still plenty of innovations that are changing our world without being environmentally focussed, though. MAS Holdings, the Sri Lankan manufacturing giant, are delivering innovation at an incredible rate through their “Twinery” division. They’ve developed both active lighting, that can be adjusted according to the wearer’s needs, and active heating, that is knitted into a garment to create warmth on demand. Both technologies are fully integrated, washable, and barely perceptible.

Alongside this they work with smaller brands, giving them a stronger platform to develop. Thinx, which has received plenty of coverage in the last few months, is a brand delivering period-proof underwear that absorbs blood. Become is a clothing line that regulates temperature during a hot flush, design for women experiencing the menopause. Both are part of the Twinery project.

Equally, MAS has an ambitious CSR agenda with explicit, time-bound goals that run alongside the technical advancements. The commonality between their approach to innovation and sustainability being that they are driven by insight. Insight into consumer needs for innovation, and environmental needs for sustainability.

As Brett Roddis, Director of Advanced Concept Design at Gap Inc, recently remarked, “casually throwing around the word ‘innovation’ is the same as saying ‘I love you’ too often – it loses its impact”.

Consumers love exciting new ideas, and the planet needs the fashion industry to take more care, but without genuine insight and rule-changing advancement there can be no impact. Innovation and sustainability become meaningless.

Rob Warner An internationally recognised Design VP, Rob Warner has delivered business success and innovation at brands including Puma, Umbro, the Iconix Brand Group, and Lululemon where he played a key role in the global expansion of the brand and exponential growth of the mens division. Since 2016 Rob is the Co-founder and Creative Director of Spark, a virtual design agency with a global network of creative talent. Clients span luxury fashion, sportswear, automotive and manufacturing, and include Belstaff, McLaren and Bemis.