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Storytelling for a Sustainable Future

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In her first piece for 2020, Laurie Stewart, Founder of Mindless Mag explores how we can do more than just give lip-service to sustainability in fashion. 

The meaning of sustainable fashion is being lost amongst myriad interpretations, unrelatable statistics and fears of greenwashing. There is a disconnect between brands, colleagues and consumers. How can storytelling be used to turn data into actionable insights to reduce ecoanxiety, combat greenwashing and help us drive the sustainable fashion movement forward together?

For brands and consumers alike, sustainability is top of the fashion agenda and yet nobody seems to know what it means. There’s sustainable fashion, there’s ethical, slow, circular, green and conscious. The vision appears to be the same and brand intentions certainly overlap, but approach and practices can vary greatly. As consumers, we have no doubt there’s a need for change, but we don’t know where to start.

By definition, sustainable fashion is a movement that aims to change fashion for the better in terms of its environmental and social impact. Brands have already started taking action and some of our most well-known labels are setting bold targets to improve. H&M has committed to using 100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030 and, last year, Zara pledged to use 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. In the sportswear world, Adidas has committed to phasing out virgin polyester by 2024.

Then there’s the smaller brands that are not yet on everybody’s radar, but should be. Take Triarchy for example, a California-based denim label that took themselves offline for an entire year to overhaul their operation and fully commit to sustainability. Triarchy uses 85% recycled water in its production processes, ensures its workers are well looked after and is constantly on the lookout for material innovations to reduce environmental impact further.

Seeking the truth

When it comes to consumers, we’re moving towards sustainability – although at a much slower pace and with an air of caution. Fortunately, the awareness that really began to accelerate with the release of The True Cost documentary in 2015, now seems commonplace. We’re seeing 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg take the world stage calling for action against our climate change emergency and XR protest against London Fashion Week. We’re watching documentaries like Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets and Dana Thomas’ Fashionopolis. We’re asking questions, demanding transparency and seeking truth.

While this increase in media coverage is resulting in a much-needed elevation in our consciousness, there’s still a long way to go. We hear that fashion contributes to 8% global impact, emits 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions and is responsible for around 20-35% of microplastic pollution in our oceans. We know we’re buying 66% more clothes than we did two decades ago while the industry churns out 100 billion new garments and 53 million tonnes of fibre every year, more than 70% of which ends up in landfills or on bonfires. But what do these statistics really mean?

We know that the impact of fashion really is detrimental, yet there still remains an emotional disconnect from the facts and figures resulting in a notable lack of consumer action. Confusion ranks high on the list of reasons why we’re Googling sustainable fashion but not yet voting with our wallets. Some of us are perplexed by the fact that global players such as H&M can bring out conscious collections while continuing to fuel our throwaway culture at scale. Others are not sure which credentials make one brand more sustainable than another. The rest of us are just not convinced that anyone creating new products can consider themselves sustainable at all. We’re forming our own opinions and all the while, fear is continuing to grow at pace. Ecoanxiety is not just a hashtag.

Subsequently, many brands are now starting to come under fire for what is known as ‘greenwashing’. Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about a brand or product’s sustainability credentials. Unfortunately, there are brands out there who are deliberately manipulating the perception of their efforts to win customers and drive sales. However, there are also plenty of brands being accused of greenwashing because they’re making some effort but not enough. It all seems very contradictory and we just don’t know who to trust.

Seeking a solution

So, what is the solution? At Mindless Mag, we believe the answer lies in combining technology and storytelling. Supply chain technologies such as PLM are where it all begins. These solutions are critical for fashion to move forward, providing the foundations on which sustainable practices can be built. When the technology is first implemented, a critical review of business processes takes place, identifying quick wins to do things better. Then, once up and running, these tech-led solutions provide a deeper understanding of the status quo.

This digital snapshot of supply chain operations goes on to create an evidence-based understanding of the as-is, another key step in the storytelling process. To quote Maya Angelou, “you can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been”. And so, from this snapshot, any progress made towards achieving sustainable goals is captured and reported against the baseline. Et voila, your sustainability story is ready to share.

Seeking a story

Today, we’re starting to hear more and more of storytelling being used as a powerful tool for business in a variety of ways. Nine years ago, fellow Liverpudlian Steve Clayton was appointed as Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller. He went on to create their Stories Lab, an entire business division devoted to mastering the art of corporate storytelling. As this form of communication is so deeply-embedded in our human evolution, deliberately cultivating these skills in any business is key to its success. Particularly so as we continue our foray into the world of digital transformation where cross-functional teams are required to come together to work as one.

Another type of storytelling we’re hearing a lot of these days is brand storytelling. This is a way for brands to connect with existing and potential consumers via a narrative which humanises the brand. It’s a way of sharing qualities and values that consumers can relate to while forming emotional bonds. As greenwashing claims continue and brands face an identity crisis amongst consumers, brand storytelling will play an increasingly important role in any digital marketing strategy.

A third type of storytelling, is that which translates statistics into a story. To demonstrate how effective this can be, I’d like us to refer back to the figures referenced earlier regarding the amount of clothing sent to landfill. In a recent report, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported this as “one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second”. Given that we all know what a truck looks like and we all know how quickly a second passes, translating the facts in this way makes it much more understandable to the reader.

And finally, let’s look at the type of stories that can alleviate ecoanxiety, banish fears of greenwashing and give us all something to hope for; fashion’s success stories. It’s easy for us to focus on what’s wrong with the world, to point fingers and find flaws but let’s not forget that so much progress has already been made. And so now, as the industry continues to change for the better, fashion players big and small ought to invest in storytelling skills to celebrate and share their successes.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.