Here’s How Ethical Fashion Can Win

-by Kasi Martin

Revolution was the theme of this year’s New York Fashion Week. Designers from across the spectrum acted out against the current system - a production cycle that demands 4 seasonal collections, developed 6 months in advance of in-store delivery. 

On the cusp of fashion week, the CFDA and Boston Consulting Group published a study examining the future of fashion and predicted many of the upheavals. The report says designers are burned out from the grueling production schedule and fed-up with fast-fashion brands beating them to market as consumers demand goods faster (read: Instagratification). Basically, they want to move to ‘in-season, for-season’ production to satisfy their consumers and maintain their sanity.

Rebecca Minkoff started the movement with her #seebuywear collection - with select pieces available immediately after the show and the remainder hitting stores a month or two after. Tom Ford abandoned his NYFW show and committed to doing two, in-season shows a year with menswear and womenswear collections sharing one runway. So did Burberry. So did Vetements. So did Misha Nonoo.

While this change is coming from American designers - NYFW sets the stage for the other cities. And, not to mention, American designers take orders from customers in London, Milan, and Paris. Despite the protests from Paris and Milan I have a feeling designers in other countries will follow suit. This change could visciously speed up the production cycle if designers produce to meet consumers’ growing appetite for ‘have-it-now’ fashion or, conversely, drastically slow it down if designers produce fewer, seasonless collections. The former would be devastating for sustainability and ethical design, the latter a step toward progress.

That leaves us at a pivotal moment. How can ethical fashion win in a “time that’s ripe for change?” - to rip from the pages of the BCG study.

Here’s the thing: All this revolting that’s happening now was started by ethical designers. The problem is, they failed to capitalize on the novelty of their idea. And, more importantly, they failed to sell it. 

Amid this confusion, ethical brands need to wise-up and seize this opportunity. A few standout brands like Reformation and Everlane have been able to thrive. But they don’t reflect the majority. 

Real talk: most of the brands selling ethics and sustainability have flopped.

Still, there are ethical brands making progress. They’re cutting back on emissions, treating workers fairly, managing supply chains better, and being transparent with consumers. But they need to do more to motivate consumers to buy their stuff. It’s a hard task to sell ethics when fast-fashion meets consumers’ basic needs, but it’s doable.

some advice for ethical brands 

Do More Of This

Reformation

Reformation

  • Own Your Innovation
    Ethical fashion brands were ahead of two prominent trends today. You know the minimalistic, uniform dressing we all love now thanks to '90s nostalgia? Ethical fashion did it first. Well before everyone was talking about normcore, ethical fashion advocates were building capsule wardrobes. Well before the  “buy less but better movement,” ethical designers were producing quality goods in limited batches. 
    It’s time for ethical brands to owning their innovation and,  quite frankly - to  get a little pretentious. Especially because ethical fashion is more aligned with what consumers want today. The more brands can tell their story to the masses and adopt aggressive marketing tactics, the more consumers will pay attention. 
     
  • Lead With The Clothing
    This one is tough to say. But unless an ethical designer can pull off an irreverent brand of cool girl ethics the design needs to come first. I’m not saying brands shouldn’t practice ethics wholeheartedly, but they should keep them low profile so they don’t come off as  preachy or off-putting. Mass appeal can be soul-sucking, I know.
     
  • Compete At A Common Price Point 
    Ethical fashion is in flux when it comes to pricing. When I shop online for ethical fashion it’s always a confusing experience. I expect higher quality goods to be pricier, but their weird middle ground that’s not quite fast-fashion, not quite luxury (i.e. $100-700) confuses customers. I don’t have an answer for which way prices should go, except to encourage competition, price harmonization, and conversation about the topic.     
     
  • Create One-Stop-Shopping
    A customer’s dreams is having one resource for their entire wardrobe. Give it to them by joining with other brands, developing online marketplaces and making them  memorable.
     
  • Make Clothing Searchable 
    This includes SEO and on-page searchability. I can’t tell you how many ethical brand pages I’ve left immediately because I couldn’t search for what I needed. Making it searchable by cause wouldn’t hurt either. The asos website works brilliantly as a model.

Do Less Of This

  • Infiltrate Fast-Fashion
    Soko launched a collaboration with Forever 21 that was celebrated, but it crushed my soul. Don’t water down your mission by joining the wrong brands, go at alone.
     
  • Create Websites For Small Collections
    I’ve seen a ton of this with ethical lingerie, jewelry and athletic brands. This is a sure fire way to send your consumers packing in search of more offerings. If you’re small, that’s okay. Just join forces with other brands.
     
  • Sell Your Brand Short
    Talk about your design, your story, your cause – more. Over-market your brand. If you want to compete with the big dogs, get out the big gloves and employ their tactics.

What else can ethical brands do to stand out? Tell us what you think @ManufactureNY & @PeahenBlog using #SlowDownMyClothes

Kasi Martin is the founder of The Peahen where she writes about fashion with ethical standards. She's an advocate for conscious living, sustainable manufacturing, and transparent supply chains. Find her on Instagram