The pressure on brands to demonstrate sustainability has intensified during the Covid crisis and there may never be a return to the old normal. So, how can brands keep pace with their customers changing expectations?
Brands’ sustainability credentials are emerging as a key competitive differentiator as a growing cohort of customers become less loyal, particularly during 2020. According to McKinsey, over 75% of US consumers changed shopping behavior and switched to new brands during the Covid-19 pandemic, and this was during the initial global lockdowns. Many of whom were forced to switch allegiance when faced with out of stocks or long delays for goods, while others took the opportunity to explore outside of the brands they usually remain loyal to, meaning an ebb in customer loyalty. Much of this behavior may now become permanent, which will be a real threat to brands that have relied on their shoppers’ repeat custom over many years.
McKinsey also went on to say, "during these trying times, consumers have a heightened awareness of how businesses interact with stakeholders, local communities, and society more broadly. The actions that businesses take during this pandemic are likely to be remembered long after Covid-19 has been conquered.”
Add to this E.ON’s Renewable Returns report which shows that 72% of survey respondents said they pay attention to whether a business acts in a climate-friendly way, and 65% feel it’s important the products or services they buy do not harm the environment. And they are willing to pay a premium. The research shows more than a third (34%) of people have already knowingly paid more for ‘green’ products since the pandemic struck and more than half (51%) think the environmental credentials of a product or service are now just as important as the price they pay for it.
It is clear therefore that brands must both be sustainable and also show how they are sustainable, for both customers, who can now see into brands’ manufacturing and supply chains, and increasingly, for regulators who will make it harder for companies to comply by adding a raft of new rules and checklists. So, the world is watching because brands are in a position of trust.
Being sustainable is not easy for many brands, even for those that have it in their DNA. Fashion brands that are actively developing their businesses to be more sustainable are often operating piecemeal or in silos, where they really need the ability to look across the entire product lifecycle – from initial design, sourcing and manufacture all the way through shipping, retail and wholesale to disposal, repurposing or recycling. This will then enable them to adopt a strategy of circularity, which is the next step beyond sustainability – how can we think and act from the very beginning about avoiding waste at every single stage before it becomes a problem further along the supply chain? This more advanced thinking has compelled some brands to embrace new business models with less waste built-in, such as second hand or rental, which consumers are increasingly demanding. eBay notes that there has been a 404% year-on-year increase in pre-loved sales since 2018, and in 2020 66 million items found a new home. And for rental, the global online market reached a value of US$ 1.26 Billion in 2019 according to Research & Markets, and is expected to reach a value of US$ 2.08 Billion by 2025, exhibiting a CAGR of 8.7% during 2020-2025.
They also need to be able to communicate their initiatives through a growing number of channels. Each with its own peculiarities – main website, marketplaces, and a raft of social media platforms. The range of audiences is also proliferating – customers direct, the media, influencers, partners, financial stakeholders and industry bodies and pressure groups.
Even where brands are able to construct policies around sustainable activities and communications, the horizon will shift continuously; sustainability has no end point but is a continuous journey with many milestones and elements, so it's hard to monitor and record progress, and then to demonstrate that progress to the outside world.
Fortunately, fashion brands in particular have significant support on their side. They are being supported by the industry through initiatives such as the Transparency Index from Fashion Revolution which has published a report that demonstrates the importance of total transparency even in the most upstream areas of the Supply Chain as the best way to ensure good relations with the various stakeholders, resolve conflicts and guarantee a direct benefit to the brands themselves.
In addition, over 20% of the world fashion industry has now signed the Fashion Pact and created a foundation that has published sustainable development goals that will be necessary to offset the consequences of ignoring the damage the industry was causing to the environment. Three main areas were identified where protective action will be required: Climate, Biodiversity and Oceans.
A third initiative, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), founded in 2009 by Walmart and Patagonia created a Higg Index, which enables fashion brands to accurately measure and evaluate their sustainability performance. SAC today counts more than 200 participants from 35 countries with a combined turnover from fashion of $500 billion. The data and analysis burden attached to sustainability is immense and depends on advanced technology that is able to gather data from multiple sources and consolidate it in a meaningful way so that value can be extracted through analysis. This will include measurement and documentation of new areas, such as the source of raw materials, particularly challenging to retailers that buy direct from manufactures and have no involvement in production.
Once sustainability performance is fully integrated into brands’ IT systems, they can start to take precise and timely actions to deliver value to customers, partners, stakeholders and the business itself with audit capabilities built in.
Dedagroup Stealth helps brands to operate seamlessly across the extended supply chain and secure the data that will reveal this full sustainability picture and has published a report that investigates trends in fashion sustainability.