Brands, retailers and customers must unite to drive change across sustainable, ethical and socially conscious fashion
by Mareile Osthus, Chief Category Management Officer, THE ICONIC
With 15 years’ experience in the fast-paced and fickle fashion industry, Mareile Osthus has staked a well-earned position at fashion’s cutting edge.
Witnessing trends come and go as seasons change, Mareile is adept at predicting what will take hold and what will date; not just when it comes to style but also on issues of substance.
As THE ICONIC’s Chief Category Management Officer (CCO), she is among those leading the charge and responding to growing consumer demand for sustainable, socially conscious, transparent and ethical fashion.
When did the concept of ethical and sustainable fashion first capture your interest?
My first memory of this was about 10 years ago. It came less from the consumer side and more from me wanting to know more and better understand how companies sourced exclusive labels and what worker conditions were like in factories.
What prompted you to start investigating sustainable fashion 10 years ago?
I was working for a traditional bricks-and-mortar business and the whole first floor stocked a huge range of our own labels. I started to wonder where they were all coming from and how they were produced. I wanted to understand more and learn different ways of producing things; different versions of how we can make things better.
Was it a struggle to begin transitioning to more sustainable and socially conscious fashion practices 10 years ago?
It was very difficult and practices were far less transparent than nowadays. Even these days it can be hard, it still takes effort and commitment to get transparency in the industry. For example, there are millions of factories in China but it is still really hard to pick the right factory, to understand the processes and to have that transparency and documentation on how things are produced and what materials are used.
It seems to be a wholly overwhelming experience, where do you start?
Whenever you start something new, it always feels a bit overwhelming. But you can’t just sit around thinking: “I don’t know where to start so I’m just going to leave it”. You need to believe in progress, not perfection, to drive change step-by-step.
From a consumer perspective, actively sourcing sustainable, eco-friendly and socially conscious fashion 10 years ago was still considered niche. Can you pinpoint when it changed and entered the mainstream?
People, in general, have started to demand to know where things they consume come from — whether that’s food or fashion or furniture — and how things are produced. There is probably a greater consciousness of what we do day-to-day and the impacts our actions and decisions have.
Sustainability means different things to different people. How does THE ICONIC attempt to meet all these consumer ideals?
To help us define and convey sustainability, we break it up into 30 credentials which we cluster into five categories:
· Sustainable materials
· Fair production
· Community engagement
These are labelled on our site as part of The ICONIC’s Considered edit. It’s our way of offering customers transparency and an opportunity to engage with a cause close to them. They can then make a purchasing choice based on what matters most to them.
What power do customers really have to influence brands to take a more proactive stance on sustainable and ethical production?
It’s a long journey and we’re very much at the beginning. What we see are brands engaging with us and asking what they need to do to be part of the Considered edit. About 20% of our customers engage with the site’s sustainability filters and while this is a good start and this number is increasing, it’s not yet enough.
How will creative technology shape the future of sustainability within the fashion industry?
The reach technology has makes it much easier to create a platform where our customers can search for their specific needs, find transparent answers and engage with brands. Spreading the message of sustainability is obviously much easier, too. Technology can also be used to target customer behaviour and increase engagement with people who are interested in sustainable fashion but not participating just yet.
Do you see creative technology making the fashion industry more transparent and holding brands to account?
Absolutely! There are already examples in the industry of technology allowing us to see where products are coming from, the whole supply chain. Technology helps make processes smoother and helps us make informed assessments on the products we pick and factories we choose. I think technology allows an end-to-end perspective and in between that, there’s much more transparency.
Looking forward, what are some the trends you predict in the areas of sustainable and socially conscious fashion, both within THE ICONIC and on a global scale?
Demand is increasing but we are only as good as our brands and our customers. We can’t drive change by ourselves, we have to drive change as a collective. If you look at big brands and big players worldwide, they’re all rethinking their supply chain and how they engage with their consumers and their communities. I hope we see more change because sustainability is not an option, it’s a necessity.
Mareile will deliver a keynote address at Creative3 The Awards at Brisbane Powerhouse on October 3 before announcing the winner of The Rising Star: Fashion Business award.