Supercharging Sustainable Textiles

In an industry where there’s no shortage of innovation, what role can effective communication play in the mass adoption of sustainable fabrics?

18. 08. 2021

John Corleto, Brand Strategist

Over the past five years, the verdict has been made clear. It is the environment that’s the ultimate fashion victim. The most commonly used statistics from the United Nations Environment Program are quite harrowing:

  1. The fashion industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions, beyond air travel and maritime shipping combined. 
  2. It takes 3,781 litres of water to make one pair of jeans
  3. One garbage truck of clothes is put to waste every second

However, the answer isn’t to put a halt to all production completely. Clothing and the fabrics they are composed of are seeds of subculture, sporting advancements and self-expression. With both the importance and environmental price of fashion in mind, clothing and fabric businesses are stepping up.

Brands and fabric manufacturers alike have invested in scientific research and innovation in eco-friendly fabrics. We can group these efforts roughly into three. The first being decreasing the usage of resources in fabric production, and eliminating the use of substances that cause harm. The second is repurposing old items, and giving them new life. And the third is synthesising new fabrics out of waste material. 

However, innovation is nothing without adoption. It is the mass adoption of eco-friendly fabrics and the associated behaviours - buying more wisely and buying and throwing away less, that will yield real progress.

And interestingly, adoption goes beyond the scope of science and technology - and into the scope of the broader scope of human behaviour, persuasion and the discipline that has a pull on both - branding and communication. Whether you’re a clothing brand or a fabric manufacturer, how you brand your innovations matter.

So how do you maximise the impact of sustainable fabric and textile innovation through branding? The key lies in 3 elements - the impactful communication of complex technology, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist while delivering on current expectations, and lastly, shifting your lens from environmental messaging to a social stance. Without any of these, brands run the risk of greenwashing, manipulation or simply, won’t drive the desire that leads to purchase behaviour.

What’s your name?

Choosing the right name is extremely important in branding an eco-friendly fabric or green line. The right name gives cues about the technology at play, its purpose in the user’s life and hints at the environmental benefits of the technology. The right names convey these attributes in a short and succinct way. 

Adidas Primeblue line uses recycled ocean plastics (‘blue’) across a wide range of high quality apparel (‘prime’), while their Primegreen brand utilises more recycled materials in general (‘green’). One word can also be all you need. Nike’s efforts to put discarded shoes back into the manufacturing loop and in the construction of sporting grounds connotes both the process of deconstruction and the training involved in athletic performance - Nike Grind.

Connecting culture to sustainability

Habits are broken and new behaviours are formed incrementally. Persuading people to take up an environmental scratch can be difficult, but positioning that stance in the context of other cultural shifts can be easier. For example, there is a growing trend towards the nostalgia and durability of raw denim. Denim that softens and adopts the characteristics and signature ‘whiskering’ of the wearer over extended use. Given that raw denim requires less water than finished denim, this broader cultural context is the perfect opportunity to bring an eco-friendly angle into the brand story. 

Nudie Jeans does this well. Its ‘Re-use’ line of repaired and donated jeans is positioned around the unique personal stories that come with any pair and the opportunity to add one’s own. A cultural fascination with new technologies can also be used to position eco-friendly as high tech. In the same world, Uniqlo’s BlueCycle Jeans and Levis’ Waterless jeans boast cutting edge technologies developed in research labs to create jeans that don’t waste precious water.

Beyond cultural movements, sometimes connecting sustainability to narratives in national culture can be highly effective too. Fjällräven has commenced an initiative to use off-cuts and surplus materials to create bags and jackets. They named it Samlaren - The Gatherer, giving an environmental initiative a broader story and cool-factor.

Taking a leaf from the world of technology

Technology can be extremely complex. But today’s leading companies tell us it needn’t be. Apple shows us that technical performance improvements don’t have to be communicated with hardware and software metrics, but voiced in ways anyone can understand.

This can be done in numerous ways with fabrics. Firstly, naming, messaging and simple maths can be combined to simplify a process. The North Face’s limited edition line of green T-shirts has been called the ‘Bottle Source’, with individual T-shirts called the ‘Recover Tee’ - using 18,000 kilograms of plastic bottles left behind in the Alps. Infographics can also speed up the path to understanding. Japanese brand U-Day produces its RE:PET umbrellas, a play on pet bottles and repetition, using simple infographics and photography to show how 3 pet bottles simply become one eco-umbrella. The colours of these umbrellas are then named in a way that evoke the natural world - Ocean Blue, Ever Green and Bloom Yellow.

In some cases, it can also be beneficial to humanise technologies to the fullest. Keshichi or Seven Hairs is a Japanese wool manufacturer dedicated to recycling old wool garments. Its brand however connects this to ancient tradition in the Aichi prefecture of Japan and the craftspeople and age-old looms required in the process. It’s a technical feat and environmental leap, humanised - meaning that wearers also have a story to tell, associating them with something bigger than themselves.

Taking a stand

Lastly, sometimes environmental messaging isn’t enough. The manufacturing of eco-friendly fabrics or the creation of brands that embody these fabrics may need to make a bigger commitment, signifying the start of something bigger. Patagonia has always been the quintessential example of a company that connects corporate vision, products and communications. Its Buy Less, Demand More campaign, encouraging people to buy used gear and putting the onus on their customers to demand fair trade, hemp and recycled material leaves no room for subtlety in our climate crisis. Furthermore, it recently stopped offering companies the opportunity to put their logos on Patagonia’s products - further guarding its brand’s ethical reputation. Similarly Nike has released a line of apparel featuring sustainable materials - called ‘Move to Zero’, the name and product a symbol for its commitment to becoming a zero carbon and zero waste company.

The climate crisis is real and the fabric and clothing industries have a role to play in it. There’s no shortage of innovation but its adoption that will really drive progress. Branding and communication can only do so much to avert the crisis - but of the few things it can do is to create clarity and cultural relevance. And that’s just what eco-friendly fabrics and clothing need to play their part.

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