A major fashion manufacturer embarks on a journey to sustainability. Supply chains and operations are modified, new priorities added to governance, goals set and achieved. The entire product line grows greener by the year.
Then the manufacturer decides to launch an eco-line as a flagship. And things go wrong.
The eco-line is perceived as less stylish. Meanwhile, the line's green credentials make consumers ask "What's wrong with the other lines - are they toxic or terrible for the environment?"
This is the scenario I discussed with Tobias Fischer, CSR Manager Projects and Relations at H&M. It is, according to Fischer (and virtually every other person in the clothing sector I've spoken with) a balancing act that keeps brand managers up at night.
Too Much Information? Or Not Enough?
Fischer is speaking at Sustainable Brands London on the subject of cultural differences driving sustainable innovation. He believes there is not just a cultural difference between regions like the US and Europe, but one between consumers and corporate stakeholders.
Internally, sustainability action is a positive force that creates cohesion and esprit de corps. But consumers only see the outward manifestation of that action - brands that proudly claim features like organic cotton or no chemical dyes.
"Once you commit to building a more responsible business, you debate how much to tell consumers." says Fischer. "Do you tell them you're at the beginning of a long journey, and that there aren't solutions to every challenge yet? Or do you only let them in once your actual products have green credentials beyond the average?"
The danger of revealing too much is incurring the wrath of consumers. If they previously had no idea about issues like the incredible amount of water and fertilizer it took to produce cotton, they might not see the value in shifting to organic cotton.
On the other hand, telling consumers very little has its own risks. In an age of instant information access, having nothing to say on your company's CSR page may give consumers the impression your company is a laggard.
The Green Fashion Brand Cannibal
Fischer went on to discuss another hazard in launching green clothing lines to consumers.
"At H&M, we launched a very successful green line. It was innovative and fashion-forward. The danger is, it could make consumers see this as all you do for sustainability while in fact there is so much more."
Although all H&M lines have green credentials, thanks to H&M's behind-the-scenes sustainability initiatives, consumers have trouble looking past the actual product.
Essentially, this means once you commit to a green line, you need to be prepared to push green through every line. Or run the risk that the green line will start to cannibalize other products.
If there was a single point I pulled from our conversation, it was this: Don't expect a flawless transition to green.
Fischer believes sustainability is a business mandate. It simply isn't up for discussion. But building green brands means crossing from a corporate culture to a consumer culture...and fashion consumers can be fickle.
Once you accept bumps in the road (degree of transparency and brand cannibalism, for example) are inevitable, putting your honest intentions of self-improvement forward brings rewards. Consumers are more impressed with honesty than they are with perfection.
The opportunity a strong fashion brand has is not only to make fashion more sustainable - it´s also about bringing the consumer on board by making sustainability fashionable.