We can reimagine the brand-consumer relationship with circularity — let’s make the most of it

How to craft compelling communications around circular fashion

Authors: Laxmi Haigh, Yasmina Lembachar, Kinge Gardien

Originally published in the hardbound fifth edition of the Sustainability Compendium ‘Going Circular’ by Fibre2Fashion

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The circular economy challenges us to think about our world and approach to consumption, use and design through a new lens — especially in the world of fashion. In recent years, we have witnessed an upswing of engagement with sustainable fashion, with circular models being couched firmly in this space. Here, we explore avenues brands can utilise to craft compelling communications that draw consumers to circular fashion offerings. Consumers are pivotal players in creating the conditions necessary for systemic transformation; the move from a linear economy to a circular one.

There has been a groundswell of bottom-up movement and brands are increasingly adapting to circular business models. Key undertakings here include models orientated around the resale or rental of fashion items, as well as increasing the uptake of recycled fibres. In attracting consumers to this space, we are presented with a communications opportunity. Circularity reimagines — rather than restricts — the way we consume, and opens up new avenues for brands and consumers to interact and redefine their relationship.

So, how can brands effectively influence consumers to follow them in circularity? Importantly, the onus should not be on consumers to sift through inefficient, or at worst lazy, marketing and greenwashing. Environmentally positive behaviour and purchasing should be encouraged through a compelling narrative that prioritises value, trust and educating the consumer with the reliable information needed to make conscious choices. It should also aim to achieve a thorough understanding of how consumers’ commitments can result in long-term behavioural change; a must to accelerate our move to circularity.

Insatiable consumption?

We are extracting and consuming more resources than ever before. In a global first, the amount of material consumed by our economy a year has surpassed 100 billion tonnes. Of this mammoth number, only 8.6% of materials are cycled back into use; the rest are lost. Their fate includes landfill, incineration or dissipation into the atmosphere in the case of fossil based resources.

This is mirrored in mass-produced clothing. Consumers are consuming more and more but wearing their garments for half as long. Approximately a fifth of manufactured garments aren’t even sold and end up being buried, shredded or burned, accounting for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In Amsterdam-based MUD Jeans’ ‘Lease a Jeans’ concept, consumers can lease a pair for a low monthly cost instead of purchasing.

Sustainability and circularity become agenda point number one

Sustainability has become a key driver in the fashion industry as recognition of the damaging impacts of our linear model of consumption have grown. These efforts, to date, have largely been dominated by a focus on sustainable materials. This is a very important driver for impact reduction, but with an expanding population consuming at hyperspeed, understanding is growing that a shift toward using sustainable materials alone may not be enough.

Opportunities lie in business models that hold the circular principles of reuse, repair and remanufacture at their core. This includes renting, loaning or swapping fashion items to prevent the creation of new products, as well as giving new leases of life to second hand clothes and accessories.

Under these models, clothes are used more intensively. This also provides brands with a direct incentive to design long-lasting, high-quality garments. Brands that design garments for recyclability or biodegradability can also retain ownership of their garments via rental or subscription models. By combining designing for cyclability with these circular business models, brands, such as For Days and Houdini, can ensure that products come back to them and are effectively recycled when they reach their end of life.

Meanwhile, the circular textile industry keeps textiles or fibres functioning at their maximum potential. Rather than being wasted, these materials re-enter into a system that creates value again and again. Illustrating the uptake in this space, we have witnessed a surge in the number of recyclers processing blended materials. These include denim (cotton), heavy weight knits (cotton, acrylic, wool) and workwear (cotton, polyester). There has also been an increase in initiatives of brands and manufacturers integrating recycled content in their products.

Sportswear giants such as Adidas and Nike have released footwear that tout varied levels of recycled content. Released in February 2020, Nike launched ‘Space Hippie’: a trainer partly made from scrap material from factory floors. The uppersole knits are at least 90% recycled content by weight, made from recycled PET bottles, t-shirts and yarn scraps. The inner sole cushioning uses 4% factor scraps, while the outer sole is made with a blend of Nike foams and 15% Nike Grind Rubber combined with 100% recycled foam materials.

Nike’s ‘Space Hippie’ trainer
Nike’s ‘Space Hippie’ trainer. Source: Sneakernews on Instagram

The pivotal role of the consumer

Global consumers are increasingly aware of the socio-environmental impact involved in the products they buy. They not only expect brands to act responsibly, but some are also willing to forego some of their convenience for the sake of the greater good. Such favourable attitudes toward pro-environmental and sustainable product-purchasing and use are increasing year on year. These attitudes, however, are not always mirrored in tangible actions.

It is extremely challenging for people to make permanent behavioural changes. So, although consumer appetite for sustainability is on the rise — 66% of consumers and 73% of millennials report a willingness to pay more for sustainable offerings — there is an exciting space to further encourage and support sustainable, and circular, consumer behaviours.

Brands can draw consumers to circularity through apt communication, but it must inspire and encourage action and behavioural change. Too often, approaches leave consumers uninspired and confused. This is important as consumers have power which can accelerate the much-needed transition to circularity; they are the users of clothing and the suppliers of the secondary raw materials. (You can read more on how business and government can create circular consumption opportunities in our other recent blog).

Below are methods which can facilitate the creation of a compelling communication around circular fashion. A communication that not only inspires and ignites trust, but can contribute to behavioural changes that could galvanize the move toward circularity.

1.) Crafting a compelling communication: the opportunity

Consumers have never been in a better position to leverage their agency in influencing the brands around them. This also means that it has never been more crucial for brands to actively educate, engage and empower these consumers on their journey to circularity.

How they do so must be informed by past failures; methods that effectively uninspire and weaken ties with consumers. Companies have long misused and abused marketing and communication strategies to make unsubstantiated declarations about their claims to sustainability. This is commonly referred to as greenwashing. Such questionable truths undermine the consumer-brand relationship, essentially weakening trust and contributing to widespread cynicism over eco-labels, certifications and standards that are meant to signal a company’s good corporate citizenship.

A second past practice that limits communication in this space is green marketing myopia. This occurs when environmental benefits are overemphasized at the expense of customer needs. Unfortunately, few brands tend to succeed in framing their sustainable value propositions beyond being sustainable — emphasising collective, planetary benefits instead of individual ones. This often forces the consumer to compromise between functionality, cost efficiency, and environmental responsibility. The consumer will still wonder, what’s in it for me?

Where sustainability has long focused on doing less — emitting, producing, consuming — circularity challenges us to do differently. It reimagines, rather than restricts, the way we consume, and opens up new venues for brands and consumers to interact and redefine their relationship.

Circularity, therefore, presents us with an opportunity. It offers brands and retailers the gift of innovation: a chance to reinvent the narrative toward circularity and brands that are good for people, profit and planet. Core to this reinvention is effectively redesigning, strengthening and improving the brand-consumer relationship so it imparts on the consumer the importance of their role in a circular textiles value chain.

Reinvent the narrative, be bold, vulnerable and transparent and emphasize value.

Over 20 million tonnes of post-consumer textiles are landfilled every year across Europe and North America.

1a. Reinvent the narrative.

And use storytelling to your advantage

The decision to return resources begins with awareness. Many consumers, however, are still unaware of the embedded value of resources in garments, and as such may never become the loyal suppliers that brands will rely on in the future.

Educating these consumers is critical to the transition, but it is also an opportunity for brands and marketers to finally unsubscribe from narratives that have dominated the way we speak of environmentalism. These include narratives that are guilt-inducing, somewhat patronising and even boring.

Circularity is exciting. We need to translate the invigorating possibilities it presents businesses into equally exciting creative campaigns and stories. We can look at brands working towards destigmatising topics like menstrual health for inspiration. Thinx and Yoni, for example, are both making robust strides in opening up dialogue and turning the tide over the long-standing and widely accepted narratives on periods. They do this by injecting ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humour, combined with beautiful aesthetics and content that educates, entertains and doesn’t bore.

Campaigns can also inform consumers’ awareness by being educational. This certainly applies in the case of increasing the market pull for garments containing recycled content, by targeting consumer awareness and knowledge. Incentivizing consumers to utilise take-back schemes, for example, may best be achieved through marketing campaigns, as opposed to incentives such as discounts on further services (which just encourage further consumption).

The British ‘Love not Landfill’ campaign calls on consumers to donate unwanted clothes to textile banks, swap clothes, give to charity and buy second-hand. It aims to educate multiple generations on fashion and the environment across different platforms; from pop-up shops spotlighting ‘pre-loved’ fashion and clothes swaps to events held in schools.

1b. Be bold, vulnerable and transparent

And share both your ambitions and your limitations

Consumer-brand relationships are proving to be more valuable than traditional brand power. It is now imperative for brands to learn how to lay bare both their accomplishments and shortcomings. In a marketplace where consumers demand transparency as the return on their emotional and economic investment in a brand, being open in both a brand’s ambitions, success and limitations and failures is no longer optional. This can regain and retain consumer trust.

When TOMS’ original buy-one-give-one model came under scrutiny they commissioned a study to evaluate the true social impact of their business model, openly revising their strategy along the way. While outdoor brand Patagonia launched its (very successful) ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign on the notorious day of overconsumption: Black Friday. Alongside the print campaign, the brand also emailed its subscribers with information on the environmental impact it takes to produce its best-selling jacket, and spotlights its end-of-life destinations, in a way that held itself totally accountable. According to the email, the R2 jacket requires 135 liters of water, which it said was equal to the daily needs of 45 people. The jacket leaves behind two-thirds of its weight in waste, and generates nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide in its transportation from factory to warehouse.

Beyond brand value and consumer loyalty concerns, admitting to weaknesses and owning up to mistakes will allow for other key players to openly engage and contribute to the industry’s efforts to move towards circularity.

1c. Emphasize value

And put your consumer first

Honesty, authenticity, and transparency are all important values to commit to. But ultimately, even those consumers who are aware of and acknowledge the need for their purchases to reflect their values won’t compromise convenience and functionality. So, brands must also emphasize value.

Change agency Futerra is very clear on this: the three driving factors that should never be compromised on are the functional, emotional, and social benefits a consumer derives from a product.

‘As a brand, whether you are trying to motivate behaviours or sell products, you need to start by asking “what’s in it for my customers?” Although vital, the question is an overlooked and under-explored component of successful behaviour change and marketing. By showing consumers what sustainability can do for them (rather than what they can do for sustainability), marketers can close the values-action gap a lot faster.’ — Solitaire Townsend (Futerra) and Elisa Niemtzow (BSR).

Some even argue that responsible products can only be successful if consumers perceive their attributes as better than those of conventional products. Rather than relying on consumers’ goodwill to pay a premium for less-than-functional products, brands should adopt a consumer-first approach in creating circular products, keeping their consumer needs in mind at every step of the loop.

In this way, emphasising that products designed for cyclability can match virgin-material products in quality is important. Skidoo Infinity Jacket by Napapijri, for example, is made of 100% mono-material, including all zippers and accessories. The fabric, coined ECONYL, is a regenerated nylon yarn made from waste that has been rescued from landfills and oceans. It’s touted as being an efficacious virgin nylon, but can be recycled repeatedly.

2. Consumers at the core: from communication to long-term engagement

As we have touched upon, consumers have the power to accelerate the transition to circularity, but long-term or permanent behavioural change is very difficult to achieve. Complex interventions are required to effect durable change in a world where people are distracted by competing demands and new behaviors are easily forgotten. Brand to consumer approaches such as reinventing the narrative, being bold, vulnerable and transparent and emphasising value are extremely valuable here, but we can go further.

To encourage changed purchasing behaviours and long-term change, brands can combine communications with consumer-facing activities. This could include consumer goal-setting campaigns. These communicate the personal targets and goals to the consumers and encourage them to set personal goals, thereby translating purchasing intentions into changed purchasing behaviour. Oxfam’s ‘Second Hand September’ called on consumers to take a 30-day pledge to ‘say no to new clothes’.

Furthermore, research has found that behavioural change, both for the short- and long-term, can be bolstered when people feel committed to a certain behaviour. Commitment to a behavior, such as wanting to reduce consumption of fast fashion, will also lend itself to commitment to a brand engaged with alternative models. Therefore, understanding how people can commit to new behaviours can help strengthen and deepen brand and retailer approaches.

Our framework for consumer commitment, Awareness to Action, spotlights the position of consumers in a circular economy. It places consumers as central to new product and service development, through all phases of a design process. It also identifies the roles and responsibilities available to consumers in adopting circular behaviours, such as engagement with circular fashion.

The different stages of the Awareness to Action model. Source: Circularity Gap Report, Norway (Circle Economy, 2020)

Commitment making, similar to what is presented in the above model, has been found to lead to behavior change in the short- and long-term. A combination of adapting brand-to-consumer communications and a thorough understanding of how consumers enact long-term behavioural change can accelerate engagement with circular fashion.

Where do we go from here?

This piece has provided a snapshot for the industry, but we acknowledge that there are many other areas that require engagement.

For starters, designing for circularity is core to the mainstreaming of circular fashion, and one which brands can drive. The impact of design on how we produce and consume is immense; all products that we use come from the hands of designers. Circular design, therefore, has tremendous opportunity to enable circular transformation.

Meanwhile, the alignment between product teams and marketing teams is imperative to the success of circular fashion. Design is only as strong as the understanding of the marketing teams supporting and promoting those designs. The uptake of circularity will depend on the authentic communication of its benefit to the world at large.

But moving forward, brands must ensure that their awareness of circularity is elevated to become a brand purpose; an action orientated definition of values and purpose. This can future-proof brands in their circularity; a brand that thinks from the inside out, striving to improve sustainable, circular and humanistic goals in an holistic way.

Consensus is growing that it is time for a systems overhaul. The transition to a circular economy — be it in fashion, agriculture or construction — requires the perspectives and support of a range of stakeholders. Now is the time to unite as we move toward a circular economy.

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