To Communicate Sustainable Fashion in a Sustainable Manner
In the spring of 2017, Swedish Fast Fashion brand Gina Tricot released a music video to promote their new sustainably made denim. The video depicts a famous Swedish actress dressed in denim, dancing in an Indian cotton field together with female farmers. The actress is chanting sentences such as “Using chemicals wisely is more cool” and “Homies in the fashion industry, let’s make cotton production with sympathy.” Unsurprisingly, the video received massive criticism for its lack of complexity and awareness of class, racism, and postcolonial discourse. How is it ever a good idea to place a privileged white woman in a cotton field telling farmers to “do it better”? Gina Tricot was setting itself up for failure.
However, as a communicator within the field of sustainable fashion, the reactions following this music video were in some ways even more fascinating to me. Fashion bloggers and writers were competing to see who could come up with most insulting thing to say about the video’s content. Representatives from Gina Tricot said that the video was a modern take on sustainability; Swedish journalists called it greenwashing.
As a response to these comments I myself posted an article agreeing that the video was problematic, but that instead of just telling Gina Tricot how much we hate them we should give them constructive criticism. I was not defending the company nor approving of its message, but I framed the questions: Could you do it better? Is there a test one should pass before talking about sustainability? And most important of all, how does one communicate sustainable fashion in a sustainable manner?
To set the discussion in a more philosophical realm, one could argue that it is really a question of democracy or meritocracy. On the one hand, in a democracy everyone should be allowed to speak his or her mind. On the other hand, in a meritocracy the ones who have all knowledge on the subject should be the ones leading the development. This poses a new set of questions. First of all, what really is sustainable fashion and who is fit to answer that question? Indeed, it is a tricky one. Turning to recent discoveries within life cycle assessment (LCA) of a garment, presented by Sandra Roos at Chalmers University of Technology, simply taking the car to and from the shopping mall makes your new purchases “un-sustainable.”  To be frank, based on what is available in store today there is no such thing as sustainable fashion, only harmful or slightly-less-harmful fashion. But who would want to market their products as the “slightly-less-harmful choice” when the buzzword sustainable is so alluring?
Let’s instead agree that “sustainable fashion” as an expression is not equal to actual sustainable fashion. Companies and journalists are using the expression “sustainable” when describing an idea or product that is at best aiming to be sustainable. Is a product aiming at sustainability at least better than a product not trying at all? Using the phrase in marketing material could be seen as merely nudging the consumer rather than inciting authentic change, but again, isn’t “slightly-less-harmful” better than “harmful"?
Going back to the music video released by Gina Tricot: A few days after my article on how we should help instead of hate was published, Swedish television called me up. They were going to host a debate on the topic of Gina Tricot’s music video and wanted me to be a part of the show. I asked why they specifically wanted my opinion and the producer explained that my article was the only one with any kind of understanding or, as he put it, positive feedback. The CEO of Gina Tricot was going to attend the debate and the show producer needed an additional voice on Gina Tricot’s side of the table. I explained that my opinions did not align with Gina Tricot’s but that I don’t believe in just pointing out what’s wrong without adding any constructive ideas. The television producer agreed with me but was obviously more interested in creating a strong debate. He told me that he would speak to Gina Tricot’s CEO and get back to me. After a few days he did get back to me with the news that Gina Tricot’s CEO had bailed on the debate. Since I could not support the opinion of Gina Tricot the CEO was afraid that the debate would turn in to a never-ending blame game. In a sense the decision was a relief for me since these kinds of shows have a tendency to be very narrow-minded. To make a convincing debate program you need two strong opposite opinions. There would not have been any space for analysis or constructive criticism, only blame. Most likely the CEO realized that no matter what he said or how he framed his arguments both the opponent and the producers were merely interested in a fight. Ratings are more important than solutions.
In a time of informed consumers, sustainability is becoming a major marketing and communication challenge. If a brand does not communicate at least the goal of achieving sustainability they will be challenged, but if they do they will be criticized for not doing it correctly. Whatever happened to, “It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all”? When criticizing a brand to the extent that they are afraid of meeting their opponents, is one really helping the cause of sustainability? In the specific question of Gina Tricot’s music video I would argue that they in fact made a mistake, nevertheless, an honest mistake. Their marketing team probably wanted to make something catchy for their generation Z target group. They did not stop to take in the whole picture, although when it comes to sustainable fashion that is just what we need to do. No single brand or single step in the production line can make a product sustainable. What any and all fashion brands or retailers should do is instead talk about and admit the challenges. Go ahead and use the word “sustainable” in your marketing material, but be clear that we are not there yet.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d say one could never trust a brand standing to make a profit from you. At the end of the day a brand or retailers intention is to make money. It's as simple as this: If they don’t make money they shut down. Many retailers respond that they can’t or won’t put resources towards sustainable development since their customers are not asking for it. However, waiting for demand is just an excuse in this case. No one was asking for brown sugar-water with bubbles before Coca-Cola put it on the market, yet, now people all over the world cannot live without it. In a fashion context: Once the industry has managed to move fiber recycling from lab-scale into full production and beat the margins of using virgin fibers, then and only then will there be sustainable fashion for all demographics. There are indeed alternatives on the market, but to reach all socioeconomic groups and demographics demands a new level of innovation.
As a single individual and as a consumer, one can never actually know if a t-shirt with a green label is better than one without. However, choosing the t-shirt with the green logo sends a message to the retailer. When the retailer analyzes the purchases-data and it is evident that their customers want the green “sustainable” alternative, more resources will be put to that task. You can always vote with your money.
Gina Tricot has not released any follow up-projects since the music video was released in March 2017. Judging from the treatment they received last time I’m guessing they are taking things slow. Maybe they had to learn the hard way to consider the bigger picture.
 Roos. S. (2017) Advancing life cycle assessment of textile products to include textile chemicals. Inventory data and toxicity impact assessment. Doctoral dissertation, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.