Sustainability Conversations

The Fashion Industry in 2020 and Beyond

Rebecca Robins

In conversation with

Rebecca Robins

Global Chief Learning and Culture Officer, Interbrand

Brands have an important role in the shift towards sustainable fashion. We spoke to Rebecca Robins, Global Chief Learning and Culture Officer, Interbrand. She is the co-author of Meta-Luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence.

You have just released the 20th study of our Best Global Brands report. What have you started to see here in commitments to sustainability?

For the past two decades, we have been analysing the most valuable brands in the world. And for the past two years, luxury brands have outperformed all other sectors. When we think about leading global brands, such as the four most valuable brands – Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermes and Gucci – they were born out of the original founding vision of doing something better, of a quest for excellence, to create a better product or a better service or indeed both. There’s an increasing focus on these brands, who have always set standards in excellence, to shine the light for others in terms of setting the bar in sustainability, and commitments to change for good. We have seen Prada recently sign a €50 million, 5-year sustainability term loan with Crédit Agricole Group, where interest rates will be adjusted annually as sustainability targets are achieved. It’s a compelling example of deeper impact and linking a commitment to their bottom line. What really changes the game is where brands start working in collaboration with each other, and with industry, as a powerful collective which will drive scale and accelerate efforts.

What’s changing in the brands that are emerging in fashion and luxury?

We are seeing ever more powerful examples of philanthropic businesses rising to the fore where social and environmental responsibility is a core premise of who they are. One of the unsung stories of the fashion industry is a place called Cardigan, in Wales, which used to be the beating heart of denim manufacturing. It was a strong and thriving community based on its specialist skills and knowledge. Over time, the industry ground to a halt, and had been dormant for decades, until recently when it was resurrected by one individual who had a vision to create a premium jeans brand. And so, Hiut Denim was born out of a desire to do one thing well. The brand continues to put quality at the heart of everything, married with a commitment to sustainability, from sourcing through to ongoing care of the product. This is denim manufacturing done with an inherently more thoughtful mission, and human stories around the people who are creating the jeans. You may recognise the name, as they are one of the British brands that The Duchess of Sussex has proudly worn.

Olivela is another inspiring story, as a platform based brand for luxury fashion – with a wider mission. As an Olivela customer, when you buy a garment through the platform, you contribute to causes that support education of girls around the world. It’s about putting consumption within an ecosystem for greater good.

What do you see happening with production cycles and design?

It’s about behavioural change. We have already entered a new ecosystem, with the rise of the rental and resale economy where the reset has begun around what we are making a conscious decision to own, and what we will, simply, access on demand. But there’s a wider question about what we create in the first place. As we talk about the design of a more sustainable society, it begins with what we’re creating and why. Stitch Fix is a business that’s constantly unlocking the value exchange between consumers and creators, understanding data points that are informing both consumer purchases and, informing brands on what’s selling and why, on what products are working or not. You’re getting a cycle of data that becomes much more meaningful around the product that we produce.

We sometimes read about “Slow Fashion” and “Slow luxury”. What have you seen here?

A study that we undertook a few years ago, called the “Age of YOU”, looked at how branding had evolved from what we call the age of identity back in the 1950s and 1960s, to the present age of you, the age of the individual. Command and control is now at the speed of consumers, as generations are growing up in a world whose standard operating platform is speed.

Inherent in ‘slow’ is a different narrative. We did some work with a leading luxury hospitality brand called Soneva, and their whole premise is based on slow luxury. It’s the notion that a luxury experience should create time and space to slow down, to stop. Their ethos is of connecting again with nature, connecting again with yourself and the people in your life. Similarly Brunello Cucinelli also talks about slow luxury and a “gentler approach to profits and growth”. The ethos of his brand is based on connecting knowledge and community – valuing what is created by one individual for another individual.

On growth and change

As business leaders, as brands, as consumers, employees, we are all part of the debate and have a direct responsibility in the actions needed to effect change for good. Our common agenda is all-inclusive, and anyone absent from the conversation and from real action is going to be called out. The Business Roundtable in August shifted the narrative from beyond shareholder value to wider stakeholder value. The question is, how hard and fast will brands, businesses and industry, move not just individually, but collectively to make that change real. We’re seeing greater alignment on a common language and common understanding of sustainable change, and the time of taking real action towards change for good is rising!