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Effective Eco-Speak


How we communicate #sustainability is evolving as key phrases from the past give way to a new shorthand of buzzwords and industry lingo reflecting current environmental, economic and cultural trends. This new chapter in the sustainability narrative adds depth to the story of environmental responsibility being told by the textile industry. For example, while “eco-friendly” continues to resonate — the phrase consistently ranks high on lists of synonyms for “sustainability” — nowadays “PFAS,” “legislation,” and “climate-conscious” are more popular as sustainability infiltrates new territory of lawmakers, “forever chemicals” makes headlines and this summer’s #heatwave escalated the climate change conversation. And although “natural” and “organic” remain steadfast, “upcycling,” “biodegradable,” and “regenerative,” are gaining traction as new eco-expressions.

But here’s the thing, despite sustainability being front and center in industry’s promotion of textiles, consumers are often less engaged. The market research in our Trend Insight survey confirms this. When asked to rank a list of textile-related issues in order of concern, our survey takers rated microplastic ocean pollution number one; far outpacing textile waste in landfills and other textile-specific topics. Additionally, for all the emphasis industry places on certifications — GOTS, Higg, Oeko-TEX, bluesign, RWS, just to name a few — 83 percent of survey participants could NOT name an eco-certification. And lastly, when we asked, “Do you think the term “Sustainability” in marketing apparel and footwear products is overused?” 52 percent responded “yes.” (see Page 46 for survey results)

In some ways the fashion industry’s approach to sustainability has been more successful. By framing eco as “cool” fashion firms have tapped into the emotional component of consumer purchasing habits. A recent catalog from Reformation does this exceedingly well. Rather than getting into the weeds of high-tech textile jargon, the readers are told that the company’s RefScale tracks the environmental impact of every product “just to help you make better decisions.” CO2 savings and H20 savings are listed in all product description captions.

Author Rachel Arthur elaborates on engaging consumers in a discussion on The Wardrobe Crisis podcast about how professional communicators can use their talents to get behind a more sustainable future. She explains that the fashion industry’s eco-challenge is that it fuels over-consumption by portraying luxury as aspirational. In order to engage and empower consumers to live more sustainably.

Arthur wrote the “Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook,” a call to action to bring communicators to the table and usher in a new way of storytelling. “We need to shift the selling of desire for commodities to the desire for a sustainable lifestyle, and highlight value through repair, share, swaps, and the renting of clothes. And culturally get away from shopping as a Saturday morning pastime.”  

If fashion industry messaging is too light and functional fabric makers’ language is too hard-core, what is just right?

Leveraging Tangible Examples

“Sustainability has a bazillion definitions and there lies the problem,” comments Rick Rusch, founder of R2 Branding. “It’s a squishy term, and it’s also intertwined with social and cultural issues.” Rusch offers as an example his experience working with a grocery association that was pushing to use the term Farm to Fork. “It’s a cute term but what does it really mean?”  

Textile suppliers also struggle with the vagueness of “sustainability.” To overcome this, Rusch suggests marketers focus on the technical process at the core of their business, and leverage tangible examples.

He feels the best way to communicate brands’ sustainability achievements is to highlight what’s been done to improve processes. That way people can understand and conceptualize the act. “It shows action and illustrates forward-thinking,” says Rusch.

Educating without over educating is also key. Rusch offers this formula for engaging and educating your target audience: “A little humility mixed with a sense of determination wrapped with a bow with branding of what you’ve done that is consistent with everything else you’re doing. Brand consistency includes how you communicate sustainability.”