Sustainability was definitely a buzzword in 2018/19, but in 2020 the pandemic seems to have shifted the focus to more urgent topics. Here’s what the experts had to say.

The sociologically-oriented introduction by Maria Errobidarte, Senior Consultant at WGSN Mindset highlighted the contradiction experienced by many consumers: consumer engagement in sustainability has deepened during the COVID-19 crisis, the lockdown gave people a chance to reflect on their environmental impact (Ipsos data 71%), 56% of the public want brands to give priority to green productions (with 86% believing that respect for the environment will be equal or even greater after the end of the health emergency), but 6 out of 10 consumers confessed to having been less dedicated to eco-friendly practices in 2020 and to feel guilty about it.
These consumption dynamics have highlighted some priorities such as the longevity of a product (with the shift from impulse purchases to the purchase of higher quality products seen as investments), the purchase of pieces from recyclable and regenerable/biodegradable natural resources (and here the technological content will be crucial). There is already talk of circularity 3.0, with the introduction of new materials created specifically to enable or facilitate it. Consumers are sensitive to ethical and social equality issues. Craftsmanship, local production and heritage are increasingly important values and there has been an unexpected crafting movement: the lockdown has whetted the creativity of consumers with “do-it-yourself” kits, highlighting a strong desire for uniqueness and personalisation. Another important trend is the second-hand and re-selling market, which is growing strongly.  

Errobidarte continues with a key finding: 84% of consumers say that they prefer a green/zero-waste/circular product and this is where loyalty to a particular brand comes into play and how well it is able to communicate its story of sustainability. In this respect, credibility and transparency is crucial. In order to achieve this, third-party certifications are first and foremost, but also the great return of the QRCode which signals the need to investigate the origin of a product. Modularity and adaptability are perceived as an added value, a multifunctional product that can be easily accessorised, for example, footwear that can be modified in a few simple steps according to the occasion (from day/office to an elegant evening out).
The narrative of the origins of what you are buying is also increasingly important. A modern design produced by small local businesses and support for social projects has a great chance of standing out from the competition. More focused storytelling strategies are needed for brands, centred around the values of accessibility, renewable resources and corporate social responsibility.

William Wong, Chairman of Federation of Hong Kong Brands and Vice President of Hong Kong Footwear Association and founder of Global Footwear Sustainable Summit in 2012
, then took the floor to give an overview of the Chinese market from the perspective of sustainability. He confirmed that it is a slow process, given that the world produces more than it recycles, but in his opinion the path to follow is education, especially for young people (the big spenders of tomorrow). They are the most receptive age group and are hungry for information, which is why it is important to clarify, for example, the materials used (the age-old problem of “leather” being called “vegan”). He believes that the roadmap for Chinese brands in the next few years is certainly to improve communication: the brand or manufacturer must transparently communicate the path towards sustainability, e.g. in the materials of the products, the packaging and processes.
Emanuela Mora, Professor of Sociology of Communication at the Catholic University of Milan and director of ModaCult Centre, also agrees on the challenging theme of education. Young people are ignorant about materials but are sensitive to the topic of sustainability as it is linked to climate change. They are more open to changing their daily habits than adults. They are looking for recognisable signs and actions that they can put into practice to achieve “green” goals. It is important to give them the opportunities to understand and learn, but – let’s be clear – not only simple information, but also stories, emotions, engagement, practical examples on how to put their values into practice. Brands therefore need to be as transparent as possible: simplicity and clarity should be at the heart of everything  

By necessity, purchases in 2020 took place mainly online. Wong outlined how Covid-19, on an international scale, has changed most of our behaviour, many factories have closed down and flights and travel have been eliminated, resulting in less pollution. On the other hand, online purchases (which is safer and helps brands with declining sales) has created a disproportionate amount of packaging to be disposed of and a much larger carbon footprint due to deliveries and returns, putting a burden on logistics and waste disposal services.
In the case of online shopping, clothing but also footwear and accessories, the issue of fitting is more complex than it seems. Large retailers offer free returns and there is a phenomenon of buying several sizes, especially when it comes to shoes, and returning those that do not fit or do not live up to expectations. Therefore, it is imperative to invest in technologies for increasingly precise fitting, which are easy to use even for less experienced consumers. Customers are well disposed towards "virtuous" brands and are willing to spend more.

But has the past year brought an acceleration or slowing-down in the momentum towards sustainability? According to Lars Doemer, co-founder and Managing Director of GoBlu International and expert in the field, we have seen both of these trends. The lockdown with its widespread closures has also led to the temporary suspension of many programmes and studies of green practices, certainly a step backwards due to the economic and social problems brought about by the pandemic. But there was a positive element, and that is the big push towards digitalisation and the exchange of information provided by the internet. Consumers are more sensitive to environmental issues and have thrown themselves at the chance offered by the second-hand market. It is harder for brands to stay relevant and get noticed by consumers, but there are also positive signs, such as the great demand for sustainable products as evidenced by online searches. When thinking about guidelines for the near future, Doemer advises companies to be more transparent and to equip themselves with guidelines that specifically address environmental issues, with faster deliveries, lower-volume production and sourcing teams consisting of a few highly qualified experts. Brands and retailers, driven by the market, want more sustainability from the production chain, which must adapt to these demands if it is to survive.
The hot topics will be climate (energy and water saving, carbon footprints), circular economy, traceability and accurate product information (labelling, certification, made in). There will also be geopolitical aspects, e.g. sourcing from countries that have unclear codes of conduct on workers’ rights. We have already seen this in the past with cotton and raw materials, but it will also be important with finished products such as shoes and bags.

The interesting speech by Simone Colombo, Head of Corporate Sustainability – OVS SpA highlighted how mass production and sustainability are not only compatible, but can create real change: the volumes speak for themselves.
In 2020, there was certainly a big negative impact on sales, with a reduction in the purchase of raw materials, but more awareness on environmental issues. Brands, some more and some less, are all moving towards sustainability processes. “We live in an exponentially fast world and the planet is a closed world, like a spaceship that has to power itself.” Colombo believes it is essential to do away with the concept of a "green line" or "conscious collection", everything should be green without having to specify it. Capsule collections can be useful for testing ideas, but we need to transform the entire way of producing – it takes time but the goals are ambitious. “At OVS we started with materials such as cotton which we use in 70% of our garments, since 2016 we only use recycled and sustainable cotton with the current percentage of 85%. Consumers have reacted favourably to this, pushing us to do better and better. We need to engage with those consumers who don’t know how their products are made, we need to inform and educate them. The perception of the consumer is important, as is transparency, and since last year we have been publishing the list of all our suppliers in our e-commerce site. This is a first step to make consumers aware and involve them.” In 2018, OVS started using the Higg Index and the supplier chain has been receptive to this path by adopting a dialogue approach (“no checklist”). This system of collaboration that should be adopted by all brands.
According to Walter Rodriguez, Product Design Consultant and Coordinator of the Design and Research Centre at Inspiramais, Brazil has always been an example and benchmark for all Latin America manufacturing. With the current political class not very sensitive to environmental issues, young people are clamouring for eco-friendly brands. Even before the pandemic, there was a strong demand for transparency, the emphasis being on preserving the ecosystem and nature.
Brazilian production is so important in terms of volume and reputation in Latin America that it is also possible to guide other countries and influence them to produce in a more sustainable way. The storytelling of sustainability is important for culture, identity and craftsmanship.

Professor Mora closed the talk with a list of ideas for the future, to be considered for all aspects of the fashion supply chain. In first place, there is certainly education on sustainability (for all ages), followed by a shift in emotions linked to consumption from a sense of guilt towards a sense of contentment, given that buying less and sustainably is good for the environment. We must also be open to new business models and new technologies and products, even unusual ones.
The changes in 2020 have been many and obligatory, but they have made us realise that we are more flexible than we think. It is now up to us to apply this open-mindedness towards the necessary sustainable behaviours and practices, both on the part of producers and consumers.

Chairman of Federation of Hong Kong Brands – Vice President of Hong Kong Footwear Association
Goddess International Limited

William Wong is Founder / Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Brands and Vice President of Hong Kong Footwear Association. In 1994 he established Goddess International Limited, one of the leading manufacturers for indoor slippers worldwide.
In 2010, he also established Italian Fashion Galleria which distributes and retails "Made in Italy" footwear and leather accessories in China. In 2013, Wong was the very first Asian to be awarded the MICAM Award for his efforts to promote Italian products in China.
Wong also co-found the Global Footwear Sustainability Summit in 2012, one of the most important conferences in the industry.

Professor of Sociology of Communication and Director of the ModaCult Centre
Università Cattolica

Emanuela Mora is Full Professor of Sociology of Communication in the Political and Social Sciences Faculty of the ‘Sacro Cuore’ Catholic University, Director of the Doctoral School in Sociology, Coordinator of Curriculum Communication Management for Fashion and Food (COMMA) for the three year degree course in Communication and Society (COMES) and teacher of the Masters Degree in Communication for the Creative Industries. Together with Agnés Rocamora and Paolo Volonté she founded the International Journal of Fashion Studies magazine, indexed Scopus and WoS, for which she was co-editor in chief until 2020. She is involved with fashion and cultural production with a special focus on the issue of sustainability. Since 2017 she has been Director of Centre for the Study of Fashion and Cultural Production (ModaCult).

Managing Director

Lars Doemer is the co-founder and Managing Director of GoBlu International, a company that provides sustainability solutions to brands and retailers from the apparel and textile industry.
Doemer has more than 20 years’ international experience in the industry. In Hong Kong he headed up global sustainability programs for Lindex and H&M and was involved in several cleaner production projects. At H&M, he took the lead for ZDHC work. By now, Doemer has returned to Germany to grow the service portfolio of the business to European brands and retailers.

Head of Corporate Sustainability

Simone Colombo is in charge of Corporate Sustainability at OVS, the leading Italian fashion retailer. After his studies in Statistics he had been working for more than a decade in Risk Management and Internal Auditing, both for primary consulting firms and fashion companies. Then, he focused on sustainability moving from a "risk management" approach to a more strategic perspective. Indeed, at OVS the Corporate Sustainability function works to integrate key Sustainability indicators into business strategy, improving social and environmental impacts, looking ahead to a regenerative business model.

Product Design Consultant and Coordinator of the Design and Research Center

Brazilian designer Walter Rodrigues began his career in 1983, as a stylist at Revista Manequim – Editora Abril in São Paulo. In 1992, Rodrigues launched a clothing brand with his name, becoming in 1994 the first brand to be presented at Phyto Ervas Fashion, a project that originated São Paulo Fashion Week.
From 2002 to 2006 he participated in the Paris Fashion Week, exporting his dresses to several countries. In 2012 he finished his sewing project.
Today Rodrigues works as a product design consultant, he is coordinator of the Design and Research Center at Inspiramais, consultant at Instituto By Brasil, and curator of the Focus Design Vision Project at Instituto Focus.