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What Difference Can Consumers Really Make to Improve Sustainability in Fashion?

Image credit: Kris Atomic

“This conversation is great, but it’s too polite! Where is the sense of urgency in the room?”

During our most recent event at Fashion for Good, themed Power to the Consumer, one woman called us out: “I’ve heard this conversation before, but nothing seems to change! What can we do?”

Lady, we hear you! This is exactly why we formed the True Fashion Collective. We want to bridge the gap between niche sustainable fashion enthusiasts and mainstream audiences because we too fear the urgency around this topic is fading.

To begin, we started with a series of events designed to introduce this topic to a wider audience. The first explored how we can move this agenda from niche to norm and the second focused on the role of influencers and how they can help spread this message further.

This time, we wanted to invite a bunch of industry experts to help us understand how we can make our voices heard on the issues we care about. Further, we wanted to learn how consumers can hold brands accountable to lasting, meaningful change.

Along with more than 80 fashion lovers in the room, Dianne Potters (21Sustainable), Nienke Steen (Modint), Holly Syrett (GW Agency) and Jessica Radparvar (Reconsidered) all shared their view along with tangible tips for consumers to take home.

1) (Your) Money Matters

Hands down, a large part of the solution lies in consuming less, washing our clothes less, and loving our wardrobe more. However, somewhere further down this list, all speakers agreed that consumers hold real purchasing power, too.

A recent Nielsen report confirms 66 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands — up from 55 percent in 2014 and 50 percent in 2013.

During this debate, Steen urged consumers to continue this trend by voting with their wallets. She said it’s the same as when you go to the supermarket and buy Fairtrade coffee: “By supporting a sustainable brand or conscious collection, you’re telling the supplier you want to see more!”

2) Power in Numbers

Potters’ message was to make sure you’re not fighting this cause alone. She highlighted initiatives such as Fashion Revolution, which pushes for supply chain transparency with its #whomademyclothes campaign; and Greenpeace’s Detox Catwalk, which ranks brands on their efforts to minimise toxic chemical use. Consumer support is essential and she encouraged everyone to sign onto newsletters and follow these campaigns across social media.

Within Amsterdam, where the True Fashion Collective was born, there’s a tide of activity. On the retail side, there’s Lena Library, which allows consumers to rent, lease or buy garments; Charlie + Mary, which champions only true fashion; and Take It Slow. On October 23, Patagonia is also hosting a free movie screening on how to be an agent for change.

The key message here is to collaborate and support like-minded initiatives. Not only is there power in numbers, but by partnering up you get an added source of inspiration, energy, and knowledge too.

A personal favourite of mine is the recently launched #beyondblahblah campaign, by the Circle Economy in advance of its upcoming Beyond Green event. Through this campaign, they’re calling on everyone to share how they’re contributing to this movement. “No more pledges. No more empty promises!” the video begins. Touché!

3) Champion the Changemakers!

Syrett revealed that many brands don’t fully communicate the extent of their sustainability efforts for fear of raising awareness about their supposedly “un-conscious” collections. She urged consumers to champion brands that are putting their head above water, despite the fact these efforts may not seem enough to solve things on their own.

Once you start digging, it’s shocking to learn how unsustainable the current system is. It’s tough — and we feel this contradiction, too. But we also agree that it’s important to acknowledge the actors who are taking steps in the right direction.

4) Brands – Bring the Consumer Along with You!

As a message to brands, Steen championed transparency and urged brands to bring the consumer along on the journey. She pointed to Nike, which in the ‘90s came under fire for low wages and poor working conditions, and which, after consumer protests and major changes to its operating model, embraced transparency to win over the hearts and minds of consumers.

In response, Syrett threw a question to the crowd. “What is a conscious consumer? What does ‘eco,’ ‘fair’ and ‘green’ mean?” She warned against accepting vague terms and encouraged consumers to dig a little deeper.

There is a wealth of great easily accessible resources. We recommend the True Cost documentary, which highlights the devastating social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry; along with Fashion Revolution’s white paper on Why Transparency Matters and People Tree’s Safia Minney’s book on Slow Fashion.

There's also Clever Care, which offers practical tips on how to reduce the environmental impact of your clothing once it’s in your home; and Rank a Brand, which gives brands an overall letter score from A to E, then breaks down the ranking by topics such as carbon emissions and labor protections. Organizations with great newsletters that deliver sustainability insights straight to your inbox include ReconsideredEcoCultAbove the Bottom Line and Sustainable Brands.

All in all, Syrett put the power back in consumers’ hands by encouraging them to ask themselves simple yet pressing questions.

Beyond the Blah Blah — Going Forward

The True Fashion Collective is independent and we are committed to encouraging real talk, beyond — as the Circle Economy has articulated — “the blah blah.” It’s not simple, and just like the woman who spoke up during our event, we don’t want to keep having the same conversations going forward.

We understand real change needs to involve big brands, governments, trade unions and suppliers, too. But we also understand consumers hold real power and together, we need to educate, organise and act!

If our resources above were nothing new for you, I’d love to hear your insights below to help us deepen our knowledge. And to conclude, I’ll leave you with some very simple, tangible tips from our speakers.

“The next time you have 10 minutes, go and ask a retail assistant about where your clothing was made and what kind of materials were used.” — Jessica Radparvar

“Email the head office of your ten favourite stores and tell them you care about the environment and want to see them do more.” — Nienke Steen

To join our next event, follow the True Fashion Collective here.


Lucy von Sturmer is a communications strategist who works for a range of clients across innovation, technology, social entrepreneurship and sustainability. Her clients include NGOs, design agencies and sustainable fashion initiatives. She is based in Amsterdam.

[Read more about Lucy von Sturmer]


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