The Vulnerable Advocate: Guest Blog by Eleanor Snare

the vulnerable advocate Eleanor Snare discusses the nature of fashion, sustainability and innovation

We asked guest speaker Eleanor Snare to reflect after her LCF Manifestos talk…

Once you’ve come up with an innovative idea for fashion as sustainability, how do you put it into practice?

Talking to fashion consumers about innovative ideas appears simple: fashion is built on renewal and change, so new things are likely to be readily accepted. But ‘innovations in fashion’ might mean a trend, a colour palette, a new silhouette; they’re unlikely to require us to significantly change our behaviour.

Not so with an innovation in fashion as sustainability. Even the basic practices of sustainable lifestyle – for example, re-using purchases or reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ you consume – aren’t easy to adopt, because they require us to seriously consider and change our normal behaviours. Recycling, one of the last ‘R’s of the sustainability cycle, is widespread among varied consumer demographics not because we all really care about the environment, but because very little behavioural change was required: instead of this bin, put the rubbish in that bin.

So to come up with an innovation in fashion as sustainability and encourage consumers to adopt it is difficult. No-one likes being told they need to change their established lifestyle to conform to a socially-decided model, whether that’s cutting down on eating meat or being told to cover up your tattoos, especially when the model (like sustainability) keeps moving.

A confusing journey of sustainability

Everyone is on a different journey of sustainability, taking (or not taking) actions depending on their understanding and abilities to change. The customer funnel (and its multiple variations) shows us how slow this process is: from awareness through to consideration and eventual conversion, there are plenty of hurdles to the adoption of innovations in fashion as sustainability.

The first hurdle, and often the most pressing, is simply awareness. Many potential customers of innovations in fashion as sustainability aren’t even aware of their existence, whether it’s a new material or new way of consuming clothing. The sheer volume of messages received by modern-day consumers is overwhelming, and the small voice politely saying “Excuse me, have you considered buying fewer clothes?” is often lost in the sea of sound.

For consumers who prick up their ears and catch a successful message about fashion as sustainability, their entrance into the customer funnel is confusing and conflicting. Which is the most ethical choice – polyester or cotton? Which is worse – bonded labour or child labour? Even the simplest sustainability concept we’re taught at school, the cycle of the three ‘R’s, has variations of between three and six steps, all with different names.

This confusion is analogous to discussions of animal welfare, organic food, religion, politics – anything where there is a moral decision to make. The more you know, the more subtle the moral distinctions become. And for fashion as sustainability, where we’re still exploring the landscape of what sustainable, ethical, ‘lifetime fashion’ actually is, consumers don’t have hundreds of years or mass media discussions to help them make the ‘right’ behavioural changes. They only have those people and brands making sounds about sustainability.

Authenticity and disruptive ‘moral marketing’

Increasingly, as my co-lecturer Lawrence pointed out, consumers are interested in brands as authentic, transparent entities (or at least, they need to sound like they are) because of the continued exposure of businesses – like banks – whose activities behind closed doors can seriously damage our social, cultural, economic and environmental structures.

But people aren’t stupid. They know businesses are in it for the money, so their words are taken with a pinch of salt. If these brands, no matter how well-meaning, make sounds about sustainability which employ ‘moral marketing’ to educate consumers, it’s likely to fail. This isn’t anger over greenwashing; it’s an emotional response to an authority figure telling us what to do.

‘Moral marketing’ can work in bringing consumers into the customer funnel, but not necessarily when those messages come from the brand. The traditional strategies used by companies with a moral message (think charities, health organisations and NGOs) are to shock, surprise and disrupt the customer’s experience of a certain product, forcing them to rethink and change their behaviour. That’s why the ‘stop smoking’ adverts are always terrifying and brilliant.

Unfortunately, these strategies of disruption are just normal for the fashion industry, which every season damns what came before and surprises consumers with a new experience. This means they’re not going to have the same power in raising awareness or inciting behavioural change in potential consumers of innovations in fashion as sustainability as they do in other industries.

Vulnerable advocates

What will be powerful in putting into practice innovations in fashion as sustainability is a combination of authenticity, moral marketing and one final component: vulnerability.

We know behavioural change is hard, so it’s important to address that when raising awareness among potential consumers of fashion as sustainability. Vulnerability – being open and saying “I’m on a journey too” – could be key to inciting that behavioural change.

The greatest proponents of this combination are not businesses; they’re individuals, like high-profile celebrities or engaged friends and colleagues. They are all advocates who have moved through the customer funnel, from awareness through to (or near to) conversion, so they understand what it’s like. They understand the hurdles. They are authentic in their experience yet educated in the moral choices fashion as sustainability involves. And they are vulnerable – they are humans, just like you or me.

There are plenty of obstacles to putting innovations in fashion as sustainability into practice, including business structure, culture and customer need. Yet the biggest hurdle by far is understanding and accepting how potential consumers seriously struggle with behavioural change. As people further down the customer funnel, we are instrumental in making innovations in fashion as sustainability happen. This won’t be through shocking ‘moral marketing’, but through our role as authentic, educated, vulnerable advocates willing to talk about how hard, and rewarding, the journey is.

Eleanor Snare is a writer and lecturer in fashion marketing. She is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds and works with businesses to improve their communications to colleagues and customers. Read more of her writing on her website or connect with her on Twitter.