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Apparel's going clear for growth

John Michael O'Sullivan
For what consumers expect of themselves, they’re increasingly expecting of the apparel brands they choose to engage with.

Straight talk

This year, Interbrand’s first-ever Breakthrough Brands report has begun to open up the conversation about the rise of transparent retail. This transparency is embedded in the very foundation of growing apparel brands like Zady and Everlane—brands that make clarity about their ethos, strategy, supply chain, and delivery process fundamental to everything that they do. This allows them to forge a strong dialogue with customers, who are increasingly buying into the principle as well as the end product. The simplicity of the message is key to these brands’ strength: right from day one, they’re talking directly to the consumer, stripping back the hard sell, and replacing it with upfront honesty.

This is a radical approach—and one that’s being replicated by contemporaries across the consumer spectrum, from Casper to Shinola to Away. Even where transparency itself isn’t the baseline message, it’s become an intrinsic part of how that message gets delivered. Today’s buyers, especially millennials, are acutely conscious of their footprint. Recycling is no longer a niche, labor-intensive activity; it’s a social imperative. And what consumers expect of themselves, they’re increasingly expecting of the brands they choose to engage with.

Remaking the chain

For new startups, that clarity comes built-in. But for established brands, there’s a much bigger story to deal with—one that stretches back decades, to the great postwar consumer boom and the manufacturing revolution it created. The brands that are coming out ahead of the pack—aggressively tackling their supply chains’ shortcomings and innovating the entire production and consumption process—are the ones whose actions will resonate loudest. Kering, the conglomerate behind global apparel brands like Gucci, first unveiled its environmental profit and loss (EP&L) system in 2010, and now publishes annual reports giving customers full-disclosure insight into the impact of its processes at every stage of the journey. The EP&L has become a key tool for all of Kering’s brands to track their progress against overall sustainability targets, and to identify those high-impact parts of the process that can benefit most from innovation. This summer—alongside other key global names like Burberry, Walmart, and Nestlé—Kering took part in the launch of the Natural Capital Protocol, an industry-wide coalition that is creating a common methodology for brands to measure impact and consumption.

At the other end of the spectrum, Indian clothing and lifestyle brand Fabindia has been connecting artisans to consumers for decades. Of late, it’s been expanding its transparent sourcing model to include equity and ownership opportunities for its craftspeople, and its continuous international growth demonstrates a business model that shows how brands can leverage transparency to grow both in width and depth.

Closing the circle: the future of fast fashion

So far, so high-level. But you need look no further than your nearest high street or mall for signs of transparency’s impact on the brands we interact with on an everyday basis. H&M has been a leader in this sector, building eco-consciousness into its conversations with customers at every level. The company’s in-store garment collection program pulled in 12,000 metric tons of recycled material last year—the fabric equivalent of 60 million T-shirts. In key textile areas, the company is moving toward 100 percent sustainability targets, and innovations like the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Awards provide key financial backing and support for inventors doing cutting-edge research on environmentally friendly textiles. The ultimate aim is powerfully ambitious: to transform the fast fashion industry’s linear chain into a circular, sustainable model.

What’s in-store?

But what will this all mean for the retail end of the industry? Apparel brands can’t talk about transparency in process without thinking about its consequences for the spaces where customers engage with them most immediately. On the print side of things, brands are already well on their way, harnessing sustainable materials and using packaging as a powerful tool to communicate their environmental credentials. The next target, however, has to be the retail format itself. Marks & Spencer, a pioneer in this field, has led the way by focusing on methods of cutting energy consumption and ecological impact in the construction, maintenance, and management of its retail spaces. But in the years ahead, the whole process of creating retail spaces will be turned on its head. New, sustainable signifiers for the industry’s key attributes—glamour, theater, excitement, luxury—need to be found.

We’re already seeing this happen at an informal level, whether it’s pop-ups like H&M’s Conscious Lounges, where sliced-up, unwanted garments were used to create central displays, or one-off statements like Canadian retailer Husk’s flexible display systems, made from sustainable materials to reflect the brand’s strapline: “no hidden ingredients.”

And beyond the environmental dimension, transparent thinking can be applied to reinvigorate the core customer experience. We already use database knowledge to help shape the online selection and purchase process; now, retailers like Macy’s and Zara are experimenting with innovative fitting-room concepts shaped to fit their customer’s expectations at the most intimate, most emotive part of the apparel-purchasing experience.

Clearing the path to growth

As the information age makes the world an increasingly open window, the apparel industry has become subject to particularly heavy critique, due both to its vast scale and its decades of inherited processes. But the best brands in the field have been quick to respond—not just in promise, but in practice. Transparency is transforming how retailers build trust with conscious consumers, forming the foundation for strong and lasting brands. Sector growth is being driven by smart, clear sourcing and honest communication. A decade after Marks & Spencer launched its “Plan A” sustainability strategy (so-called, as they explained, because there simply was no Plan B), apparel retailers have embraced the opportunities offered by transparent thinking in their strategies and processes. Now it’s time for their real-world spaces to step up to the plate.

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