Four Big Questions for
Sustainable Fashion

On the 10th of May, more than fifty people working in sustainable fashion gathered at the Impact Hub in Zurich for the first event organized by Good Brand Guru. It was a coming-out party of sorts for GBG and its founders who have been working behind the scenes to build the concept and network behind the GBG platform.

The aim of the event was to bring together brands, retailers and experts working in sustainable fashion in Switzerland and enable them to connect and discuss how far sustainable fashion has come and how far it has to go. 

From young brands like ReBlend seeking to close the loop in textile recycling to retailers like Glore that are promoting the conscious consumer movement, the discussion provided a glimmer of hope in an industry that has been battling waste, high carbon emissions, and poor work conditions.

The “good” movement is gathering steam but moving from a good idea to real changes in how consumers spend their hard-earned dollars (or francs) is still a ways off. 

What questions does the industry need to answer to get there?

1. What is Good?

As the title of the event suggested, there is no easy answer to the question about what is “good” in retail. It was clear from the discussions that there are a few different philosophies on this – the perfectionist, the opportunist, and the incrementalist.  

The perfectionist wants to check every box – organic, recyclable, living wages, locally sourced. The opportunist focuses on what makes the most sense or what will appeal to consumers and keep costs in check. The incrementalist has the perfectionist vision in view but takes baby steps to get there.

Glore, an ethical fashion retail chain that started in Germany and has one branch in Lucerne, has a perfectionist ideal but, for practical reasons, is taking the incrementalist path. As Rebekka Sommerhalder from Glore said, “what we want and what we demand are not the same. We decided to put achievable requirements on the brands we feature.” For example, she says they prefer organic wool, but they will also sell brands that use other wool if, at a minimum, they avoid mulesing and use chlorine-free bleach.

Ultimately, the message was that “good” is less an endpoint and more a journey. It is about constantly striving to be better, making use of new knowledge and technologies that minimize fashion’s negative impact on people and the planet.    

2. Is it OK to sell more?

Shouldn’t we all just stop shopping? This is the ultimate buzzkill question for anyone hoping to encourage brands to get into sustainable fashion. Many of the speakers talked about the dilemma they face in trying to promote brands without encouraging overconsumption.

Some ideas emerged on how to address this. Rebekka from Glore said they try to promote timeless pieces that fit with a person’s style. “We don’t choose pieces that will go out of style the next day.”

Social influencer, Victoria Etchepareborda, from her platform Ecolabo, a curated selection of sustainable fashion, noted that it is unrealistic to think that people will go from buying fast fashion often to buying nothing, so she encourages her readers to buy less but better, whether it be high-end or H&M Conscious: “we give people tools to make good choices”.

Pia-Maria Laux responds to the tension between wanting to change looks regularly and buying less, through her start-up Sharealook, an online fashion rental community. Although still in development, the concept behind the venture is to develop a network of individuals and brands that share fashion items as well as services around clothes, such as repair and maintenance. 

Finally, Lisette van der Maarel from ReBlend talked about innovative recycling methods as a way to avoid using new materials, and ultimately limiting waste. 

3. Will consumer demand ever reach a tipping point?

Research presented by Neonyt revealed that although some 75% of people believe sustainable fashion is a good idea, only about 4-5% of purchases tend fall in that category. 

When you see the long list of certifications out there, it’s not surprising that consumers are confused or don’t know where to start. Coty Jeronimus from Tasklab offered an assessment of the various certifications for cotton, wool, and leather on the market. As someone who has been working in textiles for more than 15 years and was involved in developing the Responsible Leather standard, she knows her stuff. And despite some of the noise created by the certifications, it does provide consumers a sense of security. 

Raising consumer awareness of the problems and opportunities is a really important first step according to speakers. Karl Westbom from Soeder, a company selling sustainable beauty and fashion items that they develop themselves or purchase from like-minded manufacturers, has found that personal relationships really help in this respect. “When I explain how they are made, consumers understand the value of the products.” 

Although not in the fashion industry, Nicolas Porchet, from ethical chocolate brand ChobaChoba, echoed the remarks explaining the importance of emotional connections and that if people know the story behind their chocolate, they are more likely to buy it. The company is offering ‘Impact trips’ to enable people to see for themselves where the cocoa comes from. 

Thimo Schwenszfeier from Neonyt, the sustainable fashion trade fair in Berlin, talked about the power of influencers in carrying the ethical fashion flag and making it look cool. Victoria from Ecolabo says her site acts as an influencer for brands which include everything from well-known companies like Dr. Martens to emerging brands like Hund Hund.

Cost is one of the key obstacles to more uptake of sustainable fashion. In many cases, sustainable options are more expensive, and so incentives are needed to help people make the switch. Pia-Maria, from Sharealook, commented that “If people can rent out their clothing and make money from that, then they see it is worth changing.” 

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that sustainability, on its own, doesn’t sell. The product needs to be attractive, good quality and convenient as well as at a price consumers are willing to pay.   

4. Is collaboration possible in an industry known for its competitiveness?

Building a sustainable brand requires collaboration. The challenges are simply too large and complex for any one brand. But is the industry ready to collaborate? Hakan Karaosman, an expert in responsible luxury from the Politecnico di Milano, kicked off the event by asking the audience whether collaboration is possible in an industry known for its competitiveness and lack of trust. This became a running theme throughout the day. 

Although one person said some brands might be reticent to share data about suppliers for fear competitors might reach out them, the overriding sentiment was that collaboration is possible and even essential to shift the mindset of customers, producers and retailers.  

Karl Westbom, from Soeder, said he wouldn’t have any problems sharing supplier names because he believes his company’s real differentiator is product design and the care with which they are made. Nicolas Porchet from Choba Choba also didn’t see a problem sharing information about his suppliers, pointing out that the strength of his company lies in the trusted relationships they’ve built with their cocoa farmers. 

Ville Heimgartner, from delivery service ImagineCargo, noted that without collaboration they wouldn’t be able to survive as they don’t have all the knowledge and capabilities in-house to build the vehicles they need to make deliveries. This was reinforced by brands exploring circular models like Reblend, which has found that collaboration and knowledge sharing are essential to be able to recycle more fibers more effectively.

The facilitated networking at the end of the event provided brands, retailers, service providers and experts a chance to connect. There’s clearly an eagerness to share knowledge and ideas as well as explore opportunities for collaboration to help build the “good” fashion movement in Switzerland. 

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