IF SUSTAINABILITY WAS A HORSE
OR: WHY CONNECTED PRODUCT EXPERIENCES ARE THE KEY TO SUSTAINABILITY IN FASHION, SPORTS & LIFESTYLE INDUSTRIES.
Buckle up kids this is going to be controversial for some people but it's time to stop living in denial when it comes to sustainability.
Let's be real, shall we? Efforts thus far, if you believe the marketing, have and continue to be valiant in tackling the sustainability issue facing fashion, lifestyle, and sports brands. But between the greenwashing, the buzzwords, the self-congratulatory Instagram posts, the applauding zombie audience, and the focus on doing everything except what is really needed, we haven't really gotten anywhere, the proverbial needle isn't even wobbling.
Without getting technical, a huge amount of our dresses, shirts, shorts, football jerseys, shoes, underpants, and old smelly socks, are made entirely from or contain large amounts of plastic and chemicals and they pollute our planet. It's estimated they're responsible for 5% of global emissions.
Even your fancy "eco" shoes and t-shirts made from "ocean plastic", collected by trained brand influencer dolphins with monocles and top hats in the Maldives, are still made of plastic and ultimately end up somewhere like this: (read it...after you've read this, it's just sad)
Maxine Bédat at Kantamanto. [Photo: courtesy Portfolio/Penguin Random House] Do yourself a favour and read her book, "Unravelled"
Don't get me wrong here, the efforts going into things like recycling are great, noble, commendable and, if you ask the brands, even godly. The reality though is that recycling just shifts the problem from one place and form to another. A plastic bottle that becomes a football jersey, a shoe or even a soccer pitch is still plastic, only now it's less likely to be recycled and often less recyclable than it was in the first place. In the football pitches case, those plastic bottles, or shoes or whatever are now millions and millions of tiny pieces of plastic that get blown around and ground down into billions of smaller pieces that end up in your sushi, make humans infertile, and cover a place that could have been real, oxygen-producing, air cooling actual grass. But hey, Wunderbar, it's recycled! Everyone clap hands! Cue zombie audience drilling and clapping sounds.
Directly related to this are the ideas of reuse, upcycling, and the oh so in vogue circularity. All of which currently just delay the inevitable. Whilst, utopian, and not without merit, the executions of these concepts thus far are simply not in line with the current reality.
"We donate with good intentions—we want our things to have a second life; we want someone else to get good use out of them, even if we’ve decided they’re useless. And while that sometimes happens, the truth is that there is not enough global demand for the massive quantities of secondhand, low-quality clothing we donate. As a result, our good intentions become costly, overwhelming waste and an environmental nightmare for people living halfway around the world." - Maxine Bédat
Let's be honest with ourselves, most people don't really want to put on a pair of jeans that could have been on the buttocks of a fashionable but sewage-covered yeti the day before they arrived on your doorstep in a diesel-powered truck from a cool sustainability startup run by a species of human that wears a beanie in the summer. Bless them, though I always wonder why no one makes a warm-looking beanie that is actually cooling... write that down.
The stark reality is that for any of these well-intentioned models to actually work at scale, there are two things that need to happen. Consumption, at worst, needs to be drastically slowed, and every product needs an individual digital identity.
Firstly, as August Bard Bringéus of Swedish brand ASKET, a shining example of a brand born ith the right attitude, points out "we cant shop our way to sustainability". In order to tackle consumption, the volume-based business model must be replaced. Meaning the commercial incentive to make more stuff needs to be questioned, snd subsequently hulk smashed. Only then can we even think about effectively recycling, being circular, reusing effectively etc... All too often we hear that "consumer behavior" is to blame for this overconsumption but their behavior is learned. It is taught and shaped by the brands marketing to them and a direct result of their business model. Blaming the "consumer" is the easy way out.
The fact that as an industry we even call these people consumers tell you an awful lot. Let that sink in.
Take the notion of circularity for example. It's great, in principle. I don't think there is a person out there who wouldn't want the products they use to be used again in an infinite loop that impacts the environment as little as possible. But what is the point of even trying to create products that have a "circular lifecycle" if your aim as a business is to continuously make the circle bigger? For it to actually work we "need to rethink and reframe societal notions of progress in broader terms than consumption" i.e. the volume-based business model.
Circularity is a nice word to say, it's clean, round, and complex-sounding enough to make people feel like it's something worthy of their eco-conscious woke as fuck attention. People seem to eat its lovely roundiness up like it's a bowl of free M&M's that a thousand strangers have had their fingers in. Everyone claps about it and pats each other's professional arses on LinkedIn because it feels right and it looks right, but in its current form and without addressing the root of the problem it's illogical at best.
Circularity without addressing the volume-based business model is stupid. There I said it. Here's your proof.
Eco and compostable materials are another one. Products that magically degrade into nothing but vegan cupcakes for butterflies and rainbow flavored hay for rhinos are a noble cause that must be pursued even more aggressively than they already are, but for now, and for some time to come, there are serious challenges to achieving this at scale that no brand talks about. This is especially true if we continue to use volume as the key marker for commercial success and growth.
Now before those of you who are frothing at the mouth make a mess of your screens, please note that none of this is to say that brands shouldn't strive to do all or any of these things and make products that can, in their entirety be reused, recycled, repaired, decomposed, or repurposed. They should.
My point is that right now saying you are sustainable as a brand is like claiming you're on a horse when it's plain to see that you're just hopping around dressed as a knight banging coconut shells together.
So long it's the case that you're always looking to sell infinitely more of what you make, the idea of sustainability and circularity etc... is nothing more than a growth strategy for brands.
It's marketing fluff to make people buy more stuff by making them feel like it's environmentally responsible to do so. It makes zero sense and it's just taking consumers for a ride on a coconut shell banging imaginary horse.
This brings to the surface another nasty bite of reality.
When it comes to sustainability, brands want to have their cake and eat it too. Yum, who doesn't like cake, right? No one wants to admit it, but that's the truth.
They want to be and say they are all eco-warrior, planet-friendly, sustainable bla bla bla BLA!... Which may be "true". They may in fact be genuine and even really care about this as the existential threat it is, they may be fighting the good fight, but at the end of the day, they also want to sell you more stuff. Lots more stuff. More than we could ever possibly need or use.
They want to make you want to want it and need it and feel like that's OK because it's all of those lovely eco, sustainable green things they say it is. It's plain to see that this is a total conflict of interests, it's a con, a scam, perhaps criminal. Too far? Well, it's largely bullshit at the very least.
Under the current growth through volume model, sustainability in the fashion and apparel industry is at large little more than a quixotic pipe dream of a fart in the strong winds of consumption-based capitalism. Brands rely entirely on having complete control over and driving as much volume as possible with as high a margin and as low a quality as is acceptable to their consuming consumer. Under these conditions, utopian sustainable concepts and models are not achievable or even matter in the slightest. The same goes for all the problems around sourcing, labor, manufacturing, chemicals, water usage and emissions etc.. etc.. etc... they all boil down to the volume-based growth obsession.
This is born of the fact that the experience the consumer is offered is one based on constant change and newness. Brands exist to build a false, calculated, sense of desire and FOMO designed to make people want to buy in order to prop up the volume and thus achieve growth. Their business is built on the sale of new items produced to meet a demand they've created for themselves through clever Jedi marketing mind tricks that actually work. Brands tell us we're fighting Darth Vader with them but every time they strike him down and they look under the hood, they see themselves. This is the real problem, volume. Brands are addicted to it because it is literally their lifeblood.
So, unfortunately, no matter which way you look at it, sustainability and business are currently at odds with each other, pushing and pulling against each other and the bottom line is winning. To address the problem they need to be in sync. Sustainability, environmental and social responsibility and accountability need to be baked into and a key part of driving the business model.
So what to do about it? How do we break the cycle? There is clearly a need to "transition to alternative economic paradigms" but reducing volume kills growth and revenue which no business or shareholder will accept, right? And as people, though the adoption of a "buy less, choose, well and make it last" attitude is a great one to promote and live by when every brand is telling you the opposite, it's nigh on impossible to achieve this at scale as a behavior. Zombies, remember?
So, we need to find a way to compensate for any reduction in volume by creating and uncovering value for brands and people elsewhere and shift the business model focus to that place.
This is where digital identity comes in. The answer to all of the above is that in order to be truly sustainable we need to shift value from physical and product-based value to digital service and experience-based value. The value of products should be in what they enable beyond their physical being as a virtualized service and/or experience.
I know, what the actual fuck does that mean?
When I say digital identity I mean every single item produced by any brand should be serialized and individually identifiable via an embedded interactive code, like a QR code, or a chip, like an NFC chip, that connects it immutably to a digital twin, data, and experience for both the consumer and the brand.
There are a myriad of reasons and benefits to making such a shift not least of which is, of course, enabling brands to tackle the challenges mentioned above, but to really understand what makes the digital enablement of products so critical we need to step back and look at our state of being at large.
In the world we live in there are, in my opinion, four key macro pillars relevant to this subject:
1: Technology and our ability to connect and communicate are the key enablers to finding solutions to problems that can be realized outside of our physical capabilities as humans. In this sense, it is both the cause of our problems but also the key to finding solutions.
2: Given this increasing ability to create which is enabled by technology that lowers barriers of entry and encourages commoditization, the experience becomes the key and really only viable differentiator between propositions.
3: Vertical networks are on the rise. Digital communities and the building of virtual relationships around common understandings, shared values, and an affinity for certain topics, lifestyles, activities, products, you name it. These are popping up in response to the monolithic social media (cough, evil advertising) platforms that exist to sell our digital data souls to the highest bidder in the form of personal details we are willing to exchange in order to watch cat videos. Vertical networks are providing safer and more valuable digital interaction spaces for humans. From vivino, strava, and fishbrain even to onlyfans, vertical networks are the new digital black.
4: Most importantly of all though is sustainability which has become an existential imperative in that we must alter our behavior to preserve the ecosystems and diversity of flora and fauna that sustain our ability to live on this planet.
These are all important because together they form the foundation for why and how digitally identifiable and interactive products can answer many of the challenges faced by the industry. This is true on two fronts.
On one hand, they are responsible for emerging behaviors in younger generations that are pushing back against the status quo of how brands operate.
Increasingly we see a sentiment that signals it's not just about products and more stuff anymore. People are seeking out a more experiential existence where authenticity is verifiable making for a more human, trustworthy, and emotional connection. Where in a commoditized world we can still find both uniqueness and a sense of belonging to a tribe or tribes. Where interactions and transactions are paired with a transparent view into their environmental impact. All of these things, as a prerequisite to being relevant, must be somehow digital, connected, linked to the metaverse and accessible in a virtual manner through the physical world. This is a world where realities and value exchanges between realms are seamless, symbiotic, and relying on one another to create the human experience.
I don't know about you but this doesn't sound like the type of person who just wants another shoe in another color as long as it's made from recycled pigs trotters. It's deeper than that, it's more human but at the same time more alien. We've not been here before.
On the other hand, these four seismic shifts reflect the exact capabilities that would be bestowed upon brands who embrace the power of connected product experiences.
Technology-based digital identities enable connectivity through products that open up opportunities for new value streams and business models by making them a part of the broader digital ecosystem. It means that we can easily identify and connect people to tribes based on affinities enabling more relevant, meaningful, authentic, safe, and valuable digital communities. It means that we can drive sustainability by providing end-to-end supply chain transparency that gives the people who purchase things authenticated peace of mind and shifting the value of physical products into virtualized services and experiences. From exclusive content via subscription models, virtual collaborations that connect people to a broader set of lifestyle benefits to being able to connect with like-minded people, access the latest products, and produce on-demand based on real relationships with those who buy your products, the opportunities are literally endless.
This allows us to directly question the volume-based business model by incentivizing the production of higher quality, longer-lasting products whose value can be primarily in what they enable virtually, not just what they are physically.
With these two points in mind, I hope you can start to see that connected product experiences powered by digital product identities can address the volume-based business model by providing a relevant offering to people. Consciousness and our ability to experience, connect, wonder and engage and interact with each other across a spectrum of mediums, channels, platforms, and even realities is uniquely human. The human experience must be the starting point to finding sustainable solutions in these industries. It's cliched but as Steve Jobs said: "Start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other ay around." It sounds simple but it is profound and oft not, dare I say never, followed in product-focused industries.
At Connected Fanatics, we are actively chasing a more sustainable future through a focus on helping brands to develop meaningful, valuable, and authentic connected product experiences that enable new business models, connect communities, and a shift in value from physical to digital in a way that allows us to rethink the value proposition product procreaticess entirely.
Great experiences unlock sustainability, we're simply providing the keys.
To have a discussion about how connected product experiences can unlock value and sustainability for your brand, get in touch with us email@example.com
Thanks for reading.