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The fashion industry carousel is spinning faster and faster, yet there is currently no change of direction on the horizon. Implementing environmental and social processes is a mammoth undertaking for the industry, which is largely still trying to avoid doing it. However, how can fashion companies contribute to a real future change towards sustainable fashion through design and brand management?

By Lutz Dietzold.

Greta Thunberg advocates sustainable fashion
Vogue Scandinavia has set itself the goal of being the world’s most sustainable fashion publication. Activist Greta Thunberg posed for the cover of its launch edition. © Vogue Scandinavia, Photo Alexandrov Klum

From right in the motherland of fast-fashion maker H&M, Greta Thunberg entered the debate about sustainable fashion in early August when she posed for the debut edition of Vogue Scandinavia. Photographed with a horse and sustainable coat on the cover, she commented, “The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate and ecological emergency …” Furthermore: “You cannot mass-produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today,” Thunberg said, “That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.” The fact that Vogue – a very traditional medium – took the step of criticising its own industry’s efforts aroused a great deal of attention.

Is a paradigm shift already in on the horizon? Is the fashion industry now taking on entrepreneurial responsibility by itself? Is it beginning to produce based on ethical and social considerations, and do so with as little an environmental impact as possible? Or is it still up to consumers to make a conscious decision for or against sustainable products? Most would think that it is a company’s responsibility to deliver on its brand promise with truly good products.

Defining the largest problem areas in the fashion sector is relatively straightforward. The number of clothing items purchased per capita has roughly doubled in the last 20 years, while the amount of money spent on clothing has remained about the same. With up to 24 collections a year, fast fashion is not only pushed into stores with extreme frequency, but it is also consumed at a rapid speed. A 2017 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation showed that fashion valued at USD 460 billion is thrown away each year worldwide after having been worn just seven to ten times. There are other negative aspects of this development that involve luxury brands just as much as fast-fashion companies, including heavy water consumption and pollution, poor working conditions, hazardous chemicals, microfibres released into the environment and gigantic mountains of waste. Most readers are likely already familiar with this. So, for those seeking to change something about it, how can the change be pulled off?

Shared standards for sustainable fashion

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) has been trying for ten years now to connect businesses in the industry and establish new methods for them to evaluate their environmental and social sustainability throughout their supply chains using the Higg Index. Over these ten years, the problems have actually even become more pronounced. However, the organisation’s efforts also show how complex the issue is and how many different factors need to be considered in design, production and marketing. What use is organic cotton when the clothes made from it are barely worn? How much does a T-shirt owner value that T-shirt if it costs as much as a cappuccino?

A recent study by fashion retailer Zalando examines, among other things, its customers’ “attitude–behaviour gap”, that is, the difference between purported interest and actual actions. The study found that aspirations and actions diverged significantly among the twelve factors that influence decisions to make sustainable purchases.  To say that this is the consumers’ “fault” is easy. The finding raises a question: what would these actions be if brands gave their customers a corresponding, sustainable product offering?

The power of branding

Fair-fashion pioneer Armedangels
Making the leap to big brand: fair-fashion pioneer Armedangels. © Armedangels

Genuine change requires a major push, be it in the form of legal specifications, industry-wide rules and agreements – or big brands. There are definitely some that have become established in sustainable fashion, such as Armedangels, Nudie and Hessnatur. However, they are not large enough yet to reach a truly broad mass audience.

What is the situation like for higher-priced labels? Surely they would have a much easier time offering sustainable fashion products thanks to their higher margins? Chanel, Prada, Gucci – attractive, established brands can capitalise on their advantage and speak to customers on an emotional level in a completely different way. Luxury customers stay loyal to brands even when they implement ethical principles – and, in the future, they might even stay loyal to brands for precisely this reason.

A look at industry giants such as Kering, VF Corporation or LVMH, which each represent many major brands within their class, shows that they have publicly accessible sustainability strategies that are sometimes also backed up with concrete figures. Nevertheless, these intentions are not published at the first level of communication with their customers. The reasons for this are that, firstly, the issue might not (yet) belong to their brand essence. Secondly, companies do not want to make themselves open to any potential attacks about their engagement not being extensive enough. That is a shame, and it might cost big brands their competitiveness in the future.

Circularity and timelessness

The Voyager jacket is 100% recyclable
Circularity: the Voyager jacket from Reima Oy is made of monomaterial, making it 100% recyclable. © Reima Oy

What ideas does design offer? With its consideration of the complete product life cycle, circular design offers a comprehensive approach that factors in the production and processing of raw materials just as much as it does the mending, disposal and reuse of clothes. Yet designers cannot be left to follow this approach alone; it must receive strategic support from company managers. If this happens, it can even improve entire business models. Minimising chemicals, overproduction and resource wastage can produce real financial savings.

There is also an aesthetic approach of creating long-lasting classics that people are happy and proud to wear for the rest of their lives. When combined, timeless design and high product quality automatically end up fulfilling the demand for “less, but better”. They give fashion its value back in a way. Admittedly, this demand is easier to fulfil when it is chairs that are being purchased and not clothes. It would also strip bargain hunters of their motivation – going out and buying a new look for EUR 71.63 would be impossible.

Even though the situation may be complex, responsible design and sustainable brand management can make an important contribution to improving it. A clear commitment to sustainable fashion requires courage and perseverance. Big brands can be a model for leading the pack and choosing their positioning for the future. After all, what feels better and can end up being more commercially sustainable? Meeting basic legal requirements … or being a pioneer and setting the standards?

The Author: Lutz Dietzold

CEO German Design Council

Lutz Dietzold, Geschäftsführer Rat für Formgebung © Lutz Sternstein
Lutz Dietzold © Lutz Sternstein

Lutz Dietzold (*1966) has been CEO of the German Design Council since 2002. Prior to that, he worked as a design communication freelancer and was managing director of Designzentrum Hessen (Hesse Design Centre), where he was responsible for the strategic reorientation of design promotion.

Grounded on his studies of art history, classical archaeology and German language and literature in Frankfurt Lutz Dietzold has gathered extensive experience of design, branding and innovation. He also has a special interest in promoting design and up-and-coming designers. In 2011, he became a member of the advisory council of the Mia Seeger Stiftung (Mia Seeger Foundation) and a member of the Stiftung Deutsches Design Museum (German Design Museum Foundation), subsequently taking on the role of chairman in 2020. He was appointed to the Dieselkuratorium’s Board of Trustees in the same year and is dedicated to strengthening the pioneering role of commercially successful innovators.

Lutz Dietzold is also working to increase the international orientation of the German Design Council and its global network of leading companies from industry and the business world. This includes setting up a subsidiary in China.

Lutz Dietzold publishes articles on a regular basis and gives national and international lectures on a variety of topics. He is also a member of numerous committees and juries and sits on the project advisory board of the German Federal Ecodesign Award of the Bundesumweltministerium (German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety).

More on this topic

Ellen MacArthur Foundation study: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future


Zalando Study: „Attitude-Behavior Gap Report“

Sustainable fasion conference: FASHIONSUSTAIN. The conference.

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