During a panel discussion on how luxury fashion retailers and brands can promote sustainability action at the Global Fashion Summit, Fast Company Magazine writer Elizabeth Segran asks: How can the sector navigate young so-called ‘climate-concerned’ consumers still choosing to give their money to fast fashion giant Shein?
Ali Mize, senior director of ESG, belonging and corporate philanthropy at luxury US retailer Neiman Marcus Group, responds by saying it’s important to ask consumers the “tough questions” and it’s also about leveraging the power of brands to make it “ugly” to spend money in the wrong way.
She goes as far as to say fast fashion needs to become as “taboo as smoking,” and ultimately it’s about “helping consumers to make the right choice” in terms of sustainability.
For Tsui Yuen-Pappas, director of sustainability at luxury fashion brand Alice and Olivia, which is stocked in Neiman Marcus, zero waste is key to being both a profitable and sustainable business.
She says: “Zero waste is one of our biggest initiatives and a lot of brands don’t realise we’re a cut-to-sales business – we look at our inventory levels and plan it extremely tight. That is profitability at the end of the day and any sustainability initiative must have that at its core – you won’t get support internally unless there’s return on investment (ROI) involved.”
Yuen-Pappas’ fashion brand model is arguably the complete opposite of fast fashion as it doesn’t work on a trend-based plan, instead, it capitalises on “how we can chase goods in a timely manner for retailers”.
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Plus, she says Alice and Olivia reduces 10-15% of materials in every single garment it makes, which is “huge in terms of profitability”.
She’s keen to encourage every brand to explore this as it might take time, money and investment, but it’s “waste we’re not putting out there in the world, it’s the amount of fabric we don’t purchase and doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor – that’s a huge shift.”
Yuen-Pappas believes the fashion sector is still not doing enough when it comes to sustainability and the most recent NYC Climate Week on 17-24 September 2023 was a case in point.
She shares: “We were one of the brands that survived Covid and it goes back to our value chain, products and partnerships.”
She highlights the importance of both retailer and supply chain partners and how brands are supporting them: “We’re all interconnected and post-pandemic that’s become even more important with transparency being key.”
Mize is more optimistic about the fashion sector’s sustainability action and argues the most recent Climate Week featured some multi-faceted discussions on collaborations within supply chains.
How multibrand retailers can aid the conversation on sustainability and fast fashion
Mize points out that Nieman Marcus is a true multi-brand retailer, which means less than 1% of its sales come from private labels. For this reason, its influence on social and environmental issues comes from educating and engaging with both luxury fashion brands and consumers.
She explains: “We take our place in that ecosystem very seriously” and accept that sustainability is a complex and evolving topic, so it’s essential to use independently recognised certifications and standards.
One way Neiman Marcus is encouraging consumer awareness around sustainability is by using a flexible merchandising structure that helps customers shop online based on the values they care about most.
For instance, she says if a brand wants to flag a product made from a sustainable material we highlight the standards related to that so customers can see them before purchasing.
Similarly, she adds: “The transparency category is unique to us and it looks at items with digital product passports for instance – those products get an alleviated placement in our edits in store and our online selling channels”.
Global Fashion Agenda used its Global Fashion Summit conference in Boston to launch its new Fashion Sector Vision report, which includes five key targets for the fashion sector to meet over the next seven years.