Industry Voices: Can Sustainability Be Sexy?


Edward A. Gribbin

The social and environmental issues within the fashion industry are well documented. The industry knows it needs to act responsibly and work sustainably for the sake of the millions of workers it employs, not to mention the future of the business itself. We tend to think that fashion is all about change, and yet we are one of the most change-resistant industries in the world.

Research shows that looks come first for ethical fashionistas, who tend to buy sustainable fashion. While consumers might have a clearer picture of the not-so-glamorous reality behind fashion production, especially after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, not much has changed in regard to their shopping habits. This reaction doesn’t really come as a surprise. Fashion and sustainable fashion must meet and mingle. They can no longer be two separate categories and movements. If ethical fashion wants to find a place, it’s going to have to look pretty similar, if not better, than its fast-fashion alternative.

Two key themes emerging in the retail market today are the need for more continual and impactful customer engagement and the increasing impact of sustainability and social-responsibility issues on business decision-making.

To more intimately and continually attract and engage customers, retailers are focusing on getting faster at developing product. Speed-to-market seems to be the No. 1 topic across all segments of the apparel/fashion world. While traditional new-product development cycles stretch out to 18 months—many retailers have already launched development of their collections for Spring 2018—retailers are finding that customers are gravitating toward stores, sites or apps that are always launching new, fresh, “of-the-moment” products.

What we need to do is encourage consumers to seek out sustainable products in the same way they seek out trendy new items. This is a challenge. Consider smokers and how often anti-smoking campaigns fail; when threatened with frightening consequences, we go into denial, continuing with our bad habits. The best way to promote behavior change is to make an alternative behavior seem more appealing; it’s got to be cool! Brands can no longer rely on having two big seasons a year and keeping their customers’ attention. New and frequent capsule collections have been proven to attract and keep consumer attention. Whether it’s the success of fast-fashion brands or the “see-now-buy-now” movement sweeping the luxury segment, traditional retail is threatened and slowly responding. Similarly, we need to respond to our sustainability challenges in ways that appeal to consumers.

A global perspective

As labor prices continue to explode in China, the No. 1 exporter of apparel to the U.S., and more Chinese manufacturers are finding that selling to the rapidly growing number of middle-class Chinese can be more lucrative than exporting, retailers have been forced to search for other sources of cheap labor. This has created a ripple effect of additional issues, from significant negative environmental impacts in countries with fewer rules and infrastructure capabilities than China to slave or child labor and numerous other human-rights issues.

Most major brands and retailers have joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in recent years, and some of the largest formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both organizations are having a positive impact, but progress is slow and fraught with challenges. As a result, more and more retailers are deciding to source products closer to home even though the costs are higher. Greater supply-chain transparency is not only critical to a brand’s reputation and top of mind with more industry leadership, it is being demanded by more and more consumers.

This consumer demand may be an area where our industry can make headway with sustainability issues. Consumers are far more empowered today than ever before. The retailer once owned us, the consumer. If you wanted a piece of apparel, you had to go to a store when that store was open, look at the selection of merchandise that some merchant decided you would want to buy and, if you found something you liked, hopefully they had it in your size.

Technology has turned that around. Today, the consumer is the center of everything, and they hold control of the retailer in their hand or in their pocket. Many of our retail business models are broken today and some beyond repair. We take far too long to design and develop product, too long to source it and too long to ship it back in a boat from halfway around the world.

There are “disrupters” today who are finding different and better ways to serve the customer. They are developing product “virtually” in 3-D to cut time to market, they are sourcing locally, and they are personalizing product in ways that most retailers could not imagine. New technologies—ranging from waterless dyeing to 3-D printing and supply-chain mapping tools—have the potential to help fashion make smarter sustainable choices. But technology without people and a plan will get us nowhere fast.

Edward A. Gribbin is president of the retail, apparel and fashion-industry consulting firm Alvanon Inc., and a leading authority on apparel sizing and fit. He can be reached at or (212) 868-4318.