Ethical expectations can inspire innovation

Mar 12, 2018

Having attended the Pure London Ethical Fashion and Transparency exposition last month, GDR’s Hannah Hunt contends that being ethical is no longer a CSR box-ticking exercise, but an opportunity for brands to innovate.


The Pure London exposition at London’s Olympia included a wide range of speakers and seminars about ethics and transparency, but each talk came back to the same idea – that brands can be ethical without compromising on product quality or radically endangering their bottom line.

Indeed, it was refreshing to hear ethics and transparency referenced as a reason to innovate, rather than as an irritation that impedes production.


Pure London at Olympia


I was particularly interested to hear former head of ethical trade and sustainability at Monsoon Accessorize, Daniela Nordmeyer, talk about market expectations and industry best practice. Now a sustainable fashion advisor for the industry, she discussed the minimum ethical requirements for any modern fashion brand. She said that all brands must show a basic understanding of social and environmental issues, be in compliance with local laws and regulations and have clear and transparent processes for auditing and improving their processes.


A reason to innovate

She went on to illustrate how brands can benefit from going beyond what is expected of them by using sustainability as the inspiration for innovation.

She referenced a fascinating interview that Nike’s chief sustainability officer Hannah Jones gave to Fast Company in January, in which she discussed how perceptions of sustainability are changing.

In this interview she said: “Sustainability was always framed as something that was counter to business success, that if you made a product that was sustainable, somehow it would be less good or more expensive. The reframe that happened is that we stopped seeing sustainability and labour rights as a risk and burden [and instead] as a source of innovation. Whether it’s about women’s rights or sustainability or women in the supply chain, if you flip it to be about an innovation opportunity, people step into that space with less fear.”

Nike Flyleather

As an example of a sustainable innovation that has lead to the creation of a better product, Hannah Jones references Nike’s Flyleather shoes. To reduce their environmental footprint, they are made of the waste from the leather making process. Hannah Jones continues: “It reduces the carbon footprint by 80% and the water footprint by 90%. Oh, and by the way, it’s four times lighter than anything else that you’ve ever used, so athletes love it.”


Taking the lead

This idea of brands not just doing what is expected of them, but actually setting new expectations resonates with the 2017 Cone Communications CSR study, which claims that 71% of US millennials expect “that companies will take the lead in bringing about societal changes.”

At the Pure London event, CEO of not-for-profit sustainability membership organisation Sedex, Jonathan Ivelaw-Chapman, built on this idea by discussing areas of the supply chain that are ripe for innovation, before praising a number of brands that are already taking the lead.

He cited modern day slavery as an area where fashion brands could easily make more of a difference. The average daily wage of a manufacturing worker, he revealed, is £2. But, he argues that adding a nominal fee of 25p per item would provide workers with a genuine living wage.

Changing focus to discuss environmental issues, Ivelaw-Chapman highlighted that the fashion industry is second only to the oil industry as the biggest polluter globally. It is also responsible for the greatest water consumption.

In the face of these worrying statistics he lauded a number of brands that he believes are showing the way forward.

Mister Timbuktu

Early innovators

Mister Timbuktu is a crowdfunded apparel brand that uses recycled plastic bottles to make leggings. Everything is responsibly made by ethical manufacturers and 20% of its profits are donated to causes that support its workers and the planet.

Ivelaw-Chapman also praised H&M for last year’s Conscious Exclusive collection, which includes a dress made of recycled shoreline waste as well as earrings made from recycled glass and plastic. In addition, H&M is one of the growing number of retailers to run in-store services where customers can recycle their old clothes.

The idea of brands taking control of the recycling and reuse of their products is also central to the vision of clothes leasing company Mud Jeans, which GDR first covered back in 2013. Mud rents jeans to its customers for a year before redistributing them to a new owner if they are still in good shape. This access-over-ownership model means that Mud’s products are getting more use with no extra environmental impact. Long-term, the brand aims to remove water and chemicals from its production process and produce the first carbon neutral pair of jeans.

Mud Jeans

A key takeaway from the Pure London Ethical Fashion and Transparency exposition is that brands cannot consider sustainability to be a trend. It is a long-term commitment, and this is something that the above retailers have shown an understanding of.

It is now a given that consumers expect brands to be ethical and transparent. They should use this as an opportunity to innovate and to promote their brand by promoting sustainability.

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