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Developing a Circular Narrative: The Case of Relooping Fashion

Image credit: VTT

It is often said that transitioning towards a circular economy requires a number of changes in the way businesses operate. For example, the linear supply chain will need to be re-organised into a circular ecosystem, which decouples growth from the use of virgin raw materials and resources.

What do these changes mean in terms of communications and marketing? The Relooping Fashion initiative created and piloted a closed-loop model for textiles with seven business partners. As part of the project, the following research questions were explored: 1) What are the consumers’ views on circular fashion? 2) How should the remanufacturing process be communicated to encourage consumers to choose circular fashion?

It was found that fashion retailers have a lot of opportunities in creating demand for circular fashion:  

  • Consumers should be part of the transparent closed loop
  • Retailers should move from selling to engagement by developing new services and novel ways of communication with their customers to create a circular customer relationship
  • Getting people to buy circular fashion calls for bold marketing, communication and branding. There is a lot of room for developing a compelling circular narrative different from the ‘save-the-world-by-buying-this-product’ marketing messages

Developing a circular narrative plays also an important role in the big picture. There needs to be a two-way push and pull for circular fashion: Businesses need to proactively develop garments and services based on circular principles, but to succeed there needs to be a rapidly growing consumer base buying these products so that a shift towards a circular society becomes a reality.

The objectives of the two-year Relooping Fashion initiative were as follows:

  1. creating and testing a closed-loop textile ecosystem with seven business partners ranging from waste management to fashion retailers
  2. testing a new carbamate cellulose dissolution technique developed by VTT (Technical Research Centre of Finland)
  3. researching and understanding how to create consumer demand for circular fashion

The key research questions were:

  1. What are consumers’ views on circular fashion?
  2. How should the remanufacturing process be communicated to encourage consumers to choose circular fashion?

Methodology

The research methodology consisted of the following:

  • Five one-to-one, semi-structured, in-depth interviews (two men and three women aged between 18-55 yrs)
  • Workshops: several internal workshops with the project partners and one external workshop with marketing professionals
  • A five-week online discussion on VTT's Owela platform (engaging around 50 people)

What is circular fashion?

Circular fashion is still in its infancy; the participants of our study were more familiar with the reuse and return of old garments. In this text, circular fashion is used to describe new, high-quality garments made from chemically recycled post-consumer cotton (Fontell and Heikkilä, 2017). In the literature, the terms “relooped” and “remanufactured” garments are also used.

The interviewees saw that the closed-loop recycling concept presented in the video was “cool” and “simply a sensible thing” to do. Also, circular fashion was seen basically as new, and in that sense those interviewees who would normally not wear second-hand clothes would happily buy circular garments. One interviewee commented:

“The feeling I got [from the video] … is that it is just plain silly to throw away garments if you can use them in some way … It simply makes sense and I am sure that it is ecologically beneficial, too.”

Ideas such as: “It would simply be awesome if someone came and picked up my old garments from home,” and “I like the idea of returning a couple of my old shirts when going shopping” clearly show a very positive attitude towards circular fashion. This, of course, is a good starting point for creating consumer demand through communications and marketing.

Consumers should be part of a transparent closed loop

Instead of being the end point in the value chain when purchasing garments, the research participants felt strongly that there is an opportunity for making consumers part of the circular ecosystem. Storytelling and transparency have been in marketing professionals’ toolkit for quite some time, but perhaps the circular economy context encourages using these familiar tools in novel ways.  

“…to see that my totally worn-out garment became a nice-looking piece of clothing. Making it concrete that I brought so and so many pieces of clothing and they were remanufactured into this...”. 

“If I knew that they are remanufactured into new clothes, it would somehow feel more personal, to know what is really happening to my old clothes.”

Storytelling to engage people emotionally was strongly emphasised; the view was that the story should start from the person who has donated the old garment and go transparently through the whole loop, showing the ‘reincarnation’ of the old garment.

Transparency highlighting what happens along the entire process loop and communicating it in a concrete way is also crucial. Without going into too many technical details, there was clearly a need to understand the basic principles of how the loop is closed and what happens at each stage.

However, talking about textile waste was not seen to be a compelling message.

While some participants wanted merely neutral and fact-based communications, others were calling for more humoristic and refreshingly surprising marketing means. This shows that there is clearly a lot of room for communications and marketing professionals to explore these different styles in the future.

From selling to engagement

In addition to an omnichannel approach (social media, web page, radio, tv ads, campaigns, information on price tag, etc) in communications and marketing, the research participants felt that knowledgeable sales personnel were a key component:

“The most viable thing would be if the sales staff would talk about it.” 

In addition, organising public events would give extra credibility to the brand. To encourage buying circular fashion, information needs to be not only clear and correct, but also, it needs to be timed rightly. This is one of the reasons face-to-face information was seen as essential:

“Face-to-face is the most effective way of communicating. I would recommend free public events, where company representatives could talk about their operations. I am sure that the audience would find there if marketed locally and targeted at specific client groups.”

Various services linked to circular fashion could create additional value for the consumers and differentiate the brands from their competitors. The participants listed services, such as:

“…advisory on style and matching different clothes, repair services, DIY workshops and take-back for worn-out textiles attract customers.” 

Developing new services would also give the brands an opportunity to create a ‘circular customer relationship’: instead of one-off buying, customers would be part of the continuous engagement loop, which would also increase customer loyalty.

Towards a circular narrative

In general, the participants felt that clothing brands could communicate far more on environmental or ethical aspects of their operations. The nature of current information was described as too generic, too vague and that there is too much drama and guilt factor mixed in the messages.

“There has been quite a lot of that sort of advert … I do not miss dramatising things more; the message could be conveyed in a neutral manner. … Otherwise, I just get the feeling that have I’ve done something wrong all the time.”

There seems to be a kind of ‘world-saving-overload’. Similarly, over-promising was considered frustrating:

“Too many things are spearheaded with the save-the-world idea and people get bored about it. Nothing changes quickly in this world, so people feel disappointed when promises do not deliver results as prospected.”

The bottom line

Consumers’ interest towards recycling, circular economy and circular fashion can be increased through more effective communication, marketing and branding; shifting away from current environmental communications and corporate responsibility/sustainability communications that are often based either on environmental reasoning, ‘save-the-world-by-buying-this-product’-type of slogans or evoking a sense of guilt in the consumer.

If the aim is to make circular fashion ‘the new normal,’ more creativity and learning needs to be acquired. Getting people to buy circular clothes calls for bold marketing, communication and branding.

“Maybe it should be done with a brave attitude … if it is kicked off as a small eco-textile project, which you can find in an eco-store, it will disappear into the unknown. [Marketing] should be really visible and capturing, so that the consumer’s mind set would change completely. A small and modest launch will not make a sufficient impact.”

Developing a circular narrative plays an important role in the big picture. There needs to be a two-way push and pull for circular fashion: Businesses need to proactively develop garments and services based on circular principles, but to succeed there needs to be a rapidly growing consumer base buying these products so that a shift towards a circular society becomes a reality.

 

This is a short, adapted version of “Consumer attitudes and communication in circular fashion,” published in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management (Vol 22, Issue 3)

Read & download Model of Circular Business Ecosystems for Textiles report here.


Anne Raudaskoski is co-founder and principal consultant at Ethica, a circular economy consultancy operating internationally across private and public sectors. Some of her latest projects include EcoDesign Sprint programme targeted at SMEs, Circular Economy Ecosystem development as part of… [Read more about Anne Raudaskoski]


M.Sc. (Tech.) Kaisa Vehmas works as a Senior Scientist at VTT — the Technical Research Centre of Finland, in the research area of Business, innovation and foresight. She is interested in the possibilities digital transformation offers for the consumers…
[Read more about Kaisa Vehmas]


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