Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

In the middle of packing for the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the Financial Times, was overcome by a wave of panic. “What is sustainable fashion?” she said. “Should I get a bamboo T-shirt? Should I run to Barneys and buy some EDUN?” Then she remembered something a designer had told her when she was waffling over the purchase of the dress she now wore. “Buy it for your daughters,” he said. “They’ll wear it in 30 years.” Did that qualify the dress as sustainable, then?

vanessa-friedman-fashion-summit-3aVanessa Friedman, Fashion Editor at Financial Times, at Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Vanessa Friedman, Financial Times, Copenhagen, COP15, Fashion Summit

Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Although words like “sustainable, “organic,” “fair trade,” and “ethical” are regularly tossed around in the fashion industry these days, your definition of “green” isn’t necessarily someone else’s. “Right now the words we use and their definitions are confused and confusing,” Friedman said. “If I say ‘sustainable’ and you say ‘sustainable,’ is one of us talking about employment issues and one of us talking about the environment?”

Your definition of “green” is not necessarily someone else’s.

Mix in newfangled terms like “pre-organic cotton”, “vegan,” and “Oeko-Tex” into the mix and Average Jane Consumer is neck-deep in a quagmire of semantics that requires reams and reams of corporate literature to tease out.

“Consumers are choosy about their purchases, but not so choosy they want to do a research report beforehand,” Friedman said. “I’m pretty much 100 percent sure that if you say ‘GOTS’ to the consumer in Vuitton or TopShop or H&M, they’ll look at you with a completely blank expression.”

Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Editor at Financial Times, at Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Vanessa Friedman, Financial Times, Copenhagen, COP15, Fashion Summit

Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID

In the age of Twitter, where statements that are 140 characters or less reign supreme, companies cannot expect shoppers to sift through pages about the origin of their packaging to determine if one brand is more environmentally responsible than another. “The best language is the simplest, the best thoughts the clearest, the best title the shortest,” she said. “Who has more power, the President or the Deputy Assistant Director for Internal African Affairs?”

“The best language is the simplest, the best thoughts the clearest, the best title the shortest.”

In short, fashion needs to get a sustainable lexicon. Now that the industry has managed to integrate aesthetics with ethics—and there’s no longer a sense that to “wear good you have to look bad”—the next step is learning how to talk about it. “In the end, fashion is a for-profit business and the way to up profit is through sales,” she said. “And the way to up sales is make a product that speaks to people in a language they understand.”

Organic cotton jeans by Kuyichi

Photo by sonicwalker

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE

Waxing on about brand identity or about the emotional, ethical, and economic resonance of the product is well and good, said Friedman, but in the end, what a garment or accessory needs to say is as simple as “buy me.” Fashion needs to find the style equivalent of “hybrid,” a term that can be used at car dealerships all over the world, from Lexus to Honda, without confusing either the seller or buyer. “Whatever fashion may think, it doesn’t have that yet,” she said.

Fashion needs the style equivalent of “hybrid.”

You won’t find the answer in Merriam-Webster, but something as back-to-basics as the three “R”s may offer a solution. “Reduce your verbiage, reuse the words again and again in the same way, and recycle terms from other industries,” Friedman advised, “so that ‘sustainable,’ when it comes to fashion, refers to production; ‘ethical,” to employment; ‘green’ to buildings; ‘organic’ to soil; but be clear in what you’re saying and what it means.”

With clarity, she said, you have a convincing argument, which, in turn, translates into sales and positive change. “In order to set your terms, you first have to define your terms,” Friedman said. “And only then can you expect people to meet your terms.”

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