How do we as consumers make the right purchasing decisions? Most of us these days wish to buy products and services with a reduced environmental footprint. Everybody I talk to wants to do the right thing when it comes to purchasing, but many people simply do not know how. Which products are "green" and which are pretending to be green? And where does greenwash fit into all of this?
The issue here is one of marketing and communications. It is a question of how retailers communicate the issue of sustainability to their end consumers.
In the apparel industry, which is so important to the fortunes of the Bangladesh economy, there is—I believe—a real issue with regards to sustainability marketing information. We have been talking about sustainability for more than two decades, yet fashion brands and retailers are still sending out mixed messages on this.
With this in mind, I have developed five tactics for effective sustainability communication.
The first of these is clarity. The marketing message on any product must be clear and this certainly goes for sustainability messages. Is the language clear and easy to understand? Does the product do exactly as it says on the tin? Too many sustainable products these days seem to be described in a way that is not so easy to understand. An example: if a garment is said to be using sustainable cotton, what do we mean by that? This is, after all, quite a broad term. Where was the cotton grown and what makes it more sustainable? How are we defining sustainable in the context of cotton? All of these things are important. If a brand is telling us a product is sustainable it needs to include clear and concise language to explain exactly why.
The second issue relates to the use of jargon and imprecise language. In the apparel space, we hear so many different phrases used on products but also on the websites of brands and retailers selling those products. One example is a brand might talk about climate goals and becoming carbon neutral. This might not be jargon but what does it really mean to your average consumer? We need better explanations for these terms. For instance, we need to understand what carbon neutral means in a practical level and why it is good for the environment. Too many sustainability teams assume a high level of understanding among consumers, which is not always the case.
The third issue relates to honesty. It goes without saying that any sustainability communication needs to be honest. Greenwashing and exaggerated marketing claims are a real blight on our industry. They erode trust in consumers, they cause confusion and they potentially lead to a misallocation of economic resources. One example is when brands use "vegan leather" which they say is a better sustainability bet than real leather. Is this really the case? Remember, most vegan leather is essentially plastic—or certainly uses plastic—and is therefore petroleum-derived. Can we really say this is more sustainable? Or should we simply say that it does not involve the use of animal skins? We need to stick to the truth, to be honest, and that way consumers can make informed decisions.
Fourthly, the whole industry needs to be consistent. I constantly hear mixed messages from the fashion industry on what are essentially the same issues. There does not seem to be one common set of standards, towards which the whole industry is working, and that is a real problem. One only needs to look at the rise of eco-labelling in the textile and apparel space to see the extent of this problem. There are now hundreds of eco-labels covering all sorts of environmental and social challenges relating to fashion. How do we know which ones to choose or which ones to trust? The simple answer to this question is: we don't. Decisions are taken on a hunch, on a wing and a prayer. I'm not sure what the solution is to this other than to hope that the eco-labelling market rationalise on some points and that the cream may rise to the top. Better government regulations in the west might also be required to make sure sustainability claims are consistent and truthful.
The final issue relates to accountability. If anybody in any walk of life is making a claim, they need to be able to back it up. At the denim factory I operate, everything we say we can do we can support with documentary evidence. The same needs to go for brands talking about sustainability. I see too many lazy claims being made and I am not convinced a lot of the time that these can be supported by evidence. To this end, I think there is a strong argument for larger brands having an in-house sustainability expert whose sole job is to answer questions from consumers on sustainability issues within a brand. This issue is rising up the agenda so rapidly and more and more consumers are taking an interest in how their clothing was made and in what conditions. Brands should be ready to answer their questions with clarity and purpose.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).