Sustainability that goes beyond recycling

Jun 29, 2018

GDR’s John O’Sullivan explores the latest sustainability initiatives and contends that brands must think beyond simply helping customers to recycle.


Faced with statistics that 300,000 tonnes of clothing is thrown out in the UK each year, the House of Commons’ environmental audit committee last week announced it will be looking into how the fashion industry could be made more sustainable.

Committee chairwoman Mary Creagh said: “The way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact. Producing clothes requires toxic chemicals and produces climate-changing emissions.

“Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibres wash down the drain and into the oceans. We don’t know where or how to recycle end of life clothing.”

Presumably in response to this, British department store John Lewis launched a scheme that gives customers store credit in exchange for their old clothes. Meanwhile in the beauty industry – another sector whose record of sustainability is very much under the microscope at the moment – French brand L’Occitane announced a scheme to help its US customers recycle its packaging.


Enabling customers

John Lewis is collaborating with social enterprise Stuffstr for its scheme. Customers can scan their unwanted clothes with an app and, once they have a bundle worth £50, the retailer will collect their items and either recycle them, reuse the fabrics, or donate them to charity.

L’Occitane, who is partnering with TerraCycle, has started a recycle by mail scheme that ensures all US customers can recycle its packaging regardless of state variations in waste management.

Neither of these concepts are particularly new. Marks & Spencer has been incentivising shoppers to bring back their unwanted clothes, which it calls Shwopping, since 2013. The likes of H&M and Puma have displayed clothes recycling banks in their stores for the last five years, while Japanese lifestyle retailer Muji has even created a sub-brand from recycled clothes. Second-hand ReMuji products are dyed indigo, a nod to the ancient Japanese tradition of dying sheep wool that colour to make it longer-lasting.

The L’Occitane approach, meanwhile, revolves around the fact that its packaging contains elements that are hard to recycle, most significantly the pump. In this way it mimics Nespresso’s recycling by mail scheme.


Positive starting points

Muji’s Re-Muji

While both of these initiatives have positive intentions, I would argue they are workarounds to the sustainability problem, rather than significant long-term solutions. John Lewis and L’Occitane aren’t encouraging their customers to rethink the sustainability of their consumption habits. They’re simply acting as a conduit to nudge them towards recycling products they may otherwise throw in the trash.

And, perhaps most significantly, they don’t represent a significant shift in the practices of the brands themselves. John Lewis’ clothing and L’Occitane’s packaging is still made from the same materials, using the same processes. In this way, they are addressing one of the concerns raised by the House of Commons’ environmental audit committee, that of end-of-life recycling, but in isolation these initiatives provide no antidote to the environmental impact of production and product use.


Going beyond recycling

Houdini Oslo

While there are serious environmental consequences at stake, I think the current sustainability conundrum represents an opportunity for brands, who should be looking to actually drive change, rather than simply responding to new industry norms. Disruptive beauty brand Soaper Duper, whose products contain no plastic microbeads, no parabens, no phthalates and are sold in unashamedly basic bottles made from recycled and recyclable plastic, states on its website: “No, we are not waiting for everyone else.”

The brands that lead by example to promote more sustainable production processes and who help customers to seriously reconsider the ramifications of their consumption habits, are the ones that will create the deepest long-term connections with their customers.

Outdoor brand Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative with eBay in 2011 famously took the counter-intuitive approach of telling shoppers not to buy its profitable new products if they don’t need them, or if second-hand options will serve their purposes. The brand also promotes garment cherishing through initiatives like its touring Worn Wear tailor truck. In the same sector, Swedish brand Houdini’s Oslo flagship is less a store, and more a place where the brand helps like-minded consumers to repair, rent and even sustainably wash their clothes.


Established brands taking the lead

For these brands, sustainability isn’t a nice add-on, it’s core to their purpose and to the long-term relationships they forge with their customers. This is, of course, something that is easier for startups and new brands to bake into their ethos than it is for big established players. But there is still plenty that these traditional brands can do.

P&G brand Head and Shoulders has started making shampoo bottles in France made from plastic waste found on beaches, while Unilever’s prestige brand REN is cutting out non-recyclable materials by using metal-free pumps on its body wash bottles.

British beauty brand Lush sells an increasing number of its products “naked” (without any packaging) and its recently opened Milan store uses augmented reality, known as the Lush Lens, to give customers at-shelf information that would traditionally be on the pack.

Outside fashion and beauty, questions of sustainability and waste are touching all sectors. For example, the landrace to offer the best packaging-free and plastic-free supermarket solutions is one that is rapidly gathering pace.

Thinking beyond short term cost implications, established brands should be taking a leading role exploring innovations that tackle these key sustainability issues. Taking on an activist mentality can be a great differentiator for brands, and it’s not insignificant that, driven by GenZ, this proactive rather than reactive approach is increasingly what consumers expect from the brands they buy from.

The brands and retailers that lead the way during this era of significant change are the ones that will have long-term credibility with the customers of tomorrow.

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