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Communicating Complexity in Fashion Production: Navigating the Minotaur's Labyrinth of Sustainability

Published: 26 April 2023

Unravelling the complex yarn of sustainability challenges in the fashion world is not a Gordian knot to cut and be done with but a continuous learning process about both internal and external relations. Whether within a single company or out in the social media sphere, communication is one common thread that weaves this pattern together.

Written by Miron Arljung and Sai Cheruvu.

Picture yourself in a fashion store. Being an environmentally conscious consumer, you are determined to make the "right" purchasing choice. On the surface, it might seem like a straightforward affair. You know that there are issues like workers' rights, pollution and other problems with clothing production. You reflexively look for certifications and labels to help you get some transparency. After all, this information will help you make the most sustainable choice, right?

It is difficult for companies creating functional, fashionable, and sustainable clothing to explain the certification process and each of the implicated sustainability factors to every customer.
The amount of intermediaries involved in most value chains, or just the possible tension between social and environmental goals, means there are always some aspects of their production a company doesn't know everything about. To understand how stakeholders in the sustainable fashion industry manoeuvre this tension between providing simple and understandable messages and being transparent about complexity, we spoke with Margaux Schleder, head of Corporate Social Responsibility at the Dedicated fashion Brand (@dedicatedbrand), and Alisa Kozlova (@alisa.koz), a fashion Instagram influencer interested in sustainability questions.

Connecting the dots already at the start

Where does the story thread for a fashion garment start? Obviously, it is in the room of the designing team… or is it? It is true that many vital decisions need to be taken at this stage; however, the design paper is not a blank slate nor an isolated island.

Having experience of the value chain from both the Swedish end and the suppliers in India, Margaux from Dedicated recognises the importance of considering the company's sustainability visions and goals before you do anything else. You wouldn't do much good if you let your imagination fly away with you and finally discover you have a nice shirt made in Polluter town. Even if just-in-time production is the name of the game, Margaux believes that you should also plan for the future, so your product is on board the same train as the clothing lines that will follow.

In her experience, two ingredients are central to the design process. One is informed decision-making about the production's social, environmental and economic impact. To understand what these impacts could be, the designer team needs access to knowledge about everything from working conditions at the garment factories to the effects of colour dyeing on local water bodies. As you might have guessed, all this information is more than one person can be expected to have, leaving you with a need for the second ingredient - communication both with colleagues at the fashion company and suppliers abroad. Margaux emphasises the importance of trust for these collaborations to function. She and her colleagues have made many visits to India to meet with factory management and other partners. She argues that such meetings are crucial for her understanding of the reality behind the creation of each product line.

Beyond the social media bubble

Great, you now have some form of thread binding your company goals together, your creative and material needs, and a functioning hotline to your partners. You know how this complex knitting pattern is supposed to look from your side, but what it looks like on the consumer's end is another story entirely. Again, there are many different threads we could go into here, depending on what your consumer encounter looks like. One increasingly typical place for these encounters is the social media sphere.

Those of you who have boldly ventured into these particular waters know that nuance and so-called "slow fashion" aren't necessarily the name of the game. Instead, with trends in hashtags and seasonal outfits shifting constantly, how do you provide an alternative to fast fashion? For that matter, with exposure generated by collaborations with different brands, how do you keep your distance and independence? There is a world of sustainable fashion out there, but it forms a kind of bubble of like-minded spirits.

The external face supporting sustainability includes influencers like Alisa Koz, who is keen to share her knowledge with people asking how they can make their wardrobe more sustainable. She faces several challenges as she works on her brand on social media. As for any influencer, it is essential to monetise content and run ads, but with sustainability fashion influencers, there is the question of staying authentic in their mission while finding ways to find financial support. Alisa has found a solution by seeking long-term sponsorships with brands. She also proposes influencers create their own service or brand to depend less on ads and more on their own mission. Another challenge she faces in her line of work is keeping her audience engaged when posting with repeated pieces of a capsule wardrobe. By using different backgrounds and combinations, she tries to keep people interested in a style, showing how a few well-known pieces can be put into new contexts and "give people a fresh perspective on something old."

Social media tends to create echo chambers, making it hard for users to get a bigger perspective and hindering influencers from reaching new audiences. Alisa noticed that her work predominantly was being bounced around similar #sustainable Instagram pages, all being shown to people who are already environmentally conscious in the fashion space. To break this boundary, she uses hashtags such as #capsulecloset and #minimalistcloset, trying to reach a broader audience that isn't convinced just yet.

Influencers have the potential to play an important role in communicating the complexity of sustainability and assure viewers that anyone can begin their journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle. This parasocial relationship is the support many people may need to make lifestyle changes. In short, this means that we develop a feeling of knowing the influencer, almost like they are a friend, without ever having met them and they not knowing us. Because we feel like we know them, we also start trusting them. In her role as an influencer, Alisa tries to create additional space to expand communication about sustainability to people who might not see the need for more ethically conscious fashion choices.

As we unravel the sustainability patterns in the fashion industry, does the red thread become our Ariadne's string of the classic Greek myths, helping us find a way out of the Minotaurian maze of challenges? Or do we become entangled in a system of complexities where we can't see our way out? Please keep a lookout for our next blog post.