Sustainability has become a widely-used term in fashion, but despite the increase of “eco-friendly” items available to us, the lack of a common definition or standards around what makes something sustainable means that greenwashing is now a huge issue. According to a 2021 audit by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, 40% of 500 consumer goods companies were found to be misleading their customers about their sustainability credentials. The need for accurate, authentic, and accessible marketing has never been more evident.
The fashion industry’s influence is immense, with the power to influence large groups of consumers, so it has a huge responsibility to communicate with integrity and honesty. In the UK and Europe, increasingly stringent anti-greenwashing rules are coming into play to ensure that companies don’t deliberately or accidentally misinform customers through their marketing efforts. In the UK, the Green Claims Code was established in 2021 to help businesses comply with anti-greenwashing legislation, while the European Green Deal sets out standard methodology for how brands can substantiate their green claims. No longer is this a voluntary ethical issue, it’s a compliance one too.
Greenwashing often occurs when companies attempt to communicate complex sustainability information in a condensed and over-simplified manner, which leads to blanket statements or misleading statistics. In fashion, there are various factors to take into account when communicating product impact — from water, carbon, waste, transport, materials, and more. It’s easy to see how brands get it wrong. The impact can be serious for your brand reputation. Widespread greenwashing leads to an erosion of consumer confidence, so there is a strong business case for communicating transparently to bolster loyalty and engagement.
Green Story’s Guide to Green Marketing outlines a series of recommendations for how marketers can strengthen their sustainability communications strategies to adhere to legislation, build consumer trust, and operate more ethically as a business. Below, we’ve highlighted key lessons from the guide.
1. Make your communications relatable and relevant
Sustainability information can be inaccessible to many customers who are curious to learn more about your social and environmental impact, but may not have the time or capacity to explore this in too much depth. It’s crucial, then, that brands speak to customers on their level, creating meaningful and relatable comparisons to help customers understand the impact of the product they’re buying. For example, this may include comparing the carbon footprint of a product of the amount of emissions offset by a product to the equivalences like kilometers driven or smartphones charged.
Communicating your impact can be more effective when you relate to your customer in real-world terms, rather than hypotheticals. Referring to “top of mind” issues such as the climate crisis or other global events can indicate to your customer that your brand is conscious and aware of its position within the wider world. The issues that resonate with your customer base will likely be different for each company depending on the region it operates in and the products it sells. For example, an outdoor brand like Patagonia leans into its connection to the natural environment through all communication touchpoints, from the scenic imagery on their website to campaigns that highlight the connection between people and the planet.
2. Take customers on your sustainability journey
Customers don’t expect perfection, but they do appreciate being a part of your journey and seeing your progress. To take customers on your sustainability journey, brands have to establish short, medium, and long term goals, then communicate and report on these. Being accountable to these commitments, whether through annual in-house sustainability reporting or third-party auditing, must be a fundamental element of any sustainability strategy.
Taking customers on your sustainability journey doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around product marketing. It can also include giving practical advice and encouraging other ways to explore a more sustainable lifestyle. For example, you might promote an in-store clothing recycling initiative or share helpful tips on how to care for, recycle, or reuse your products to extend their life. You might choose to partner with a charity or get involved in an event that demonstrates to your customer base a broader commitment to Environmental and Social Governance within your company.
It’s important to consistently communicate this strategy throughout the customer journey. It should be evident on your social media, website home page, newsletters and product landing pages so that your sustainability journey becomes inherently linked to the brand identity. This demonstrates dedication and provides plenty of opportunities to connect with your customers on the issues you care about. For example, PANGAIA makes its sustainability information easily accessible and consistent throughout the customer journey using Green Story’s Know your Impact solution, which seamlessly integrates across its sale channels.
3. Employ impact-based incentives
Customers don’t always have to be incentivised by discounts or deals. In fact, part of marketing in a more sustainable manner is encouraging responsible consumption. Impact-based incentives provide an ethical alternative to drive sales in a way that gives back to your stakeholders and community. Running an impact-based campaign starts with setting a target, such as planting a certain number of trees or reducing carbon emissions in your business, then finding a charity or NGO to translate your goals into tangible, measurable action. You can get your customers involved by offering perks like free shipping, a promotional item, or a discount, with the profits being donated to your charity partner.
There are plenty of creative ways to promote your company through non-monetary incentives too. For example, you might run a competition in partnership with similar, complementary brands to cross-promote and gain new followers on social media. Similarly, your brand could partner with an event to give away tickets or other experience-based rewards. These incentives build out your brand identity beyond simply being a company that sells products to one that has sustainability and social impact built into its DNA, giving customers more than one reason to support your business.
4. Embrace radical transparency
Transparency means communicating not only what you’re doing right, but the mistakes you’ve made and how you’re improving and learning. Embracing transparency is a company-wide commitment that can be implemented not only in the way you communicate around the sustainability of products, but in supply chains and product pricing too. This kind of transparency is rare — Fashion Revolution’s 2021 Fashion Transparency Index surveyed 250 leading fashion brands and found that the average score across a range of sustainability metrics was 23%.
Supply chain transparency goes hand in hand with traceability, which is achieved by mapping your suppliers, vendors, manufacturers, and any other company or person involved in producing your products. When it comes to communicating this information, some brands have it linked to each product page, while others share a list within their sustainability pages, where they might share more detailed information on everything from factory names and locations to certifications and audits on fair wages and working conditions.
Pricing transparency is the disclosure of every aspect of a product that adds up to its final retail price. This information helps customers to understand the cost considerations that have to be accounted for, including materials, labor and retail markups. It can be useful to share this information to justify product pricing, especially if the product is made ethically or using more expensive sustainable materials. U.S. fashion brand Everlane is one of the few fashion brands that publishes the cost of making every style on its product pages. By sharing the cost of materials, transport, hardware, labor and taxes, Everlane enables consumers to compare prices, understand where their money is going, and feel more informed.
For more tips on sustainability communications, read Green Story’s Guide to Green Marketing.
About Megan Doyle
Megan Doyle is a sustainable fashion journalist based in London with bylines at BoF, Refinery29, Fashionista, EcoCult and others. She covers everything from garment worker rights to supply chain traceability and transparency, material innovation, fashion tech and consumer psychology. When she’s not writing, Megan also works with sustainable fashion businesses to communicate their mission with an emphasis on accessibility, authenticity and accuracy.