‘Secret sustainability’: Fashion brands are learning to master initiatives before marketing them

“Et puis merde, on n’a qu’une vie…,” reads a recent Instagram post by fashion brand Bash. “And then s**t, we only have one life.” It’s vague, so make of it what you will — it could read as recognition that time is running out or that it’s time to act. “To be continued,” reads the post’s caption. Could it be a teaser for an upcoming announcement?

It would be about time. Back in 2017, Bash started implementing a vast sustainability program. “Doing our best to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is essential, but here at Bash, we believe that maintaining only a habitable environment is not enough,” said Alexandre Iris, strategy and transformation director. “We have a duty to improve the living conditions of people around the world, and our sustainability strategy incorporates that.”  

Somewhat surprising, the 18-year-old brand has stayed relatively hush-hush on such initiatives. “The philosophy of Bash has always been [to] not fake-it-before-you-make-it, but to make things first and then speak about it,” said Pierre-Arnaud Grenade, global CEO of Bash. “We’ve come to a point where it’s time for us to share with the community, and also with all our stakeholders, what we’ve done and what we commit to doing in the next few years.” 

Other brands have been quick to vocalize their sustainability strategies — and then accused of not being able to support their claims. In 2019, H&M was called out by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for using unclear messaging about its Conscious collection, which misled consumers. 

Since, H&M has attempted to be more transparent about its sustainability efforts. In 2020, Fashion Revolution released its fifth-annual Fashion Transparency Index, which is a review and ranking of major global fashion brands and retailers, based on how much they share about their environmental and societal initiatives, and H&M is topping the list. The catch: H&M, like most other brands, has only chosen to disclose details around its policies and plans of action, and almost nothing about its progress and outcomes. 

Brands like Bash have chosen to take the opposite approach. Instead of flaunting its eco-friendly policies, programs, and potential impacts, it’s practicing what The Guardian has called “secret sustainability.” It’s the act of not sharing goals, whether to avoid potential accusations of greenwashing or to wait until it has achievements to reveal.

“Consumers can see inauthenticity,” said Raz Godelnik, assistant professor of strategic design and management at Parsons School of Design. They have growing expectations for brands to make the necessary improvements to their business model to help protect the environment, he said. And they’ve learned to recognize whether a brand’s sustainability strategy is just marketing or a true holistic approach.

In the past four years, Bash has been tackling sustainability from many angles. In 2018, the brand launched (Re)Make, a capsule collection released each season. The pieces are made out of 100% leftover fabrics and reimagined with new designs. To prevent the production of excess stock, the items are available through a preorder system, which also decreases their costs. “We are leveraging those savings to offer lower price points, and thus speak to a younger audience while showing that sustainability is compatible with a lasting and profitable fashion brand,” said Iris. 

The (Re)make collection is part of Bash’s global project that focuses on “durability, circularity and sustainability,” said Grenade. The program has recently been accelerated due to the pandemic. “We were hit by the crisis like every company in the world, so it was important for us to say: How can we, on one hand, be committed [to building a sustainable brand] and, on the other hand, be able to fund this commitment and make sure that those changes are really happening?” For that, Bash examined the sustainability of its fabrics, its leftover stock and consumers’ changing needs to make necessary updates. 

“In 2018, only 2% of our products were sustainable, i.e. made from either recycled or organic fabrics,” said Grenade. “For spring-summer 2021, 65% of our products are sustainable, and that number will reach 95% by 2023. But, most importantly — since the devil is in the details — we’ve also implemented high standards for considering a product is sustainable. At least 70% of its composition must be from recycled, organic or responsibly sourced origins, which is well above most competitors.”

The brand is also working further to reduce leftover stock, which is down to 1% of its total stock produced and is donated to associations and schools. Existing stock is offered via rental services and resell platforms. 

Bash has a partnership with Rent the Runway, and prior to the pandemic, it offered its own in-store renting service at its Nolita location. In Europe, the brand has partnered with second-hand resellers, like Vestiaire Collective, to offer and help consumers resell Bash pieces. The company has plans to bring this partnership to the U.S., as well.  

These services give consumers the opportunity to buy or rent products in a way that’s in-line with their needs and ethics, said Grenade. Such eco-friendly services are also economically viable, as they give the brand a chance to meet new communities (renters and secondhand shoppers), which helps fund the initiatives. 

“Since we’ve kept most of our sustainability program and progress under the radar until now, we cannot draw conclusions yet on its impact on our community,” said Iris. “However, our products that drive the highest acquisition among Gen Z are mostly sustainable products, such as our Codalie boots. So we know this transformation will ultimately be a growth driver for us.”

In March 2021, the brand will start communicating its sustainability initiatives through a range of consumer touchpoints. “It will more or less look like a big launch of a product, except that we will disclose our sustainability road map and analysis,” said Grenade. Consistent messaging will be key to the marketing plan. There will be communication about the initiatives in-store (Bash has over 250 stores worldwide), via physical references and trained associates, and digitally, through social posts, influencers and content. 

“We believe that it is through our deep and meaningful connections with our customers that we can create ripple effects to touch countless lives and nurture a lasting impact—socially, environmentally and beyond,” said Iris.

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