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We talk about integrating sustainability into the business, but do we really know what that looks like?

A recent interesting story about some fashion industry attempts at pushing sustainability messaging out to customers told the tale of Patagonia and Vestiaire Collective. These companies launched advertising campaigns that “focus on over-consumption and its obvious detrimental effect on the Earth.” The campaigns publicized the companies’ secondhand clothing sales businesses. This statement stood out to me:

“the recent messaging has focused on circularity and waste, but – at the end of the day – it is first and foremost a forum for the selling and purchasing of secondhand clothing. With that in mind, it shouldn’t really be a shock that – of the Paris-based company’s circa-11,000,000 worldwide users – the majority of its customers are only there to buy and sell secondhand clothes with no regard for (or perhaps even knowledge of) that message.”

Granted, that reflects the perspective of the writer – not a sustainability professional – and possibly not the companies themselves. I would ask this:

If the business model has attracted 11,000,000 worldwide users that are acting in the manner hoped (buying and selling secondhand clothes) – isn’t that successful? Does it really matter that the circularity message isn’t the driver or inspiration behind customer behavior?

If I was involved in this initiative, I would be ecstatic. Embedding sustainability in a business model so deeply that some observers think the message is hidden is enviable; it shows that sustainability is wholly aligned with customer buying criteria rather than an add-on attribute. There is a wonderful irony between the article’s negative tone and theme (“consumers find sustainability-led messaging performative, hypocritical, and – at the most basic level – flat-out annoying”) and the business success reported. It also highlights the difference between marketing/messaging on sustainability and action.

Many will still argue that the fashion business model is fundamentally broken, so this is only a small success. Perhaps – especially in fast fashion – but this is still a good example from which others can learn.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile