When it comes to multi-brand sites that sell sustainable fashion, the internet is no less than a graveyard, littered with broken links and defunct websites. Both retailers as well as brands in the eco-fashion space came and disappeared quickly because the customer did not buy into their ahead-of-time value proposition.
However, a second coming is underway on the back of conscious consumerism. Over the last five years, a number of sustainable fashion marketplaces and online boutiques have launched across geographies, particularly in Europe, Australia and the US. All of them are striving for the kind of convenience, that will make it easier for the shopper to discover and buy fashion brands that are produced with sustainable and ethical practices.
“We are currently witnessing players aka Davids deploying the tactics of the Goliaths, i.e. the mainstream fashion marketplaces, while simultaneously adhering to an ethos that supports people, and the planet as much as profit.”
We are currently witnessing players aka Davids deploying the tactics of the Goliaths, i.e. the mainstream fashion marketplaces, while simultaneously adhering to an ethos that supports people, and the planet as much as profit. As a result, the current lot of sustainable fashion marketplaces and boutiques are writing up their own version of an ecomm playbook. Here are the key themes that underpin this emerging landscape.
An Improved User Experience
When it comes to product design, eco-fashion has slowly but surely discarded its dull and boring hemp-look legacy to embrace the aesthetics plus ethics equation. No more earthy colours, poor navigation and web design harking back to 2000s, instead we have a more glamorous version of sustainable fashion that can be seen at UK-based luxury retailer, Rêve En Vert. Launched in 2013, it was one of the earlier online boutiques to present ethical offerings, replete with dreamy elements that fashion represents. Its user interface mirrors that of a mainstream e-commerce site; ticking the boxes of high-quality fashion imagery, easy navigation and exciting content. Another UK-based online boutique, Antibad, also scores on visual appeal and leads with the tagline, ‘re-shaping the perception of sustainable fashion’.
Presence of The Value Filter
Life on a fashion ecomm site is lived through filters like size, shape and colour as they help to narrow down on the choice of purchase. To that existing filter panel, sustainable fashion ecomm sites made a clever addition and called it ‘shop by values’.
Australian e-tailer, Well Made Clothes, was one of the first marketplaces to introduce this filter and offers a choice of up to 8 values, namely handcrafted, vegan, sustainable, local, minimal waste, transparent, gender equality and fair. That list might vary slightly across different sites but the endeavour is uniform: offer an additional product attribute that communicates the brand’s sustainability and ethical credentials. Additionally, this filter is based on the premise that a shopper might gravitate to a certain value or cause over another.
The list of values is also used as a framework to vet the brands before on-boarding them onto the site. Says Davyn de Bruyn, Managing Director of another Australian marketplace, Thread Harvest, “In order to be listed on our platform, an apparel or accessory brand must adhere to at least 2 or more values outlined by us. We ask for supporting evidence and measurement. At the same time, most brands are on a journey of improving their practices, and we use this framework to encourage the brands to go to the next level as far as their impact on planet and people is concerned.”
Marketing Approach: Consumer Education And Storytelling
With the limited budget on hand, the players are running a tight marketing ship, powered by SEO; pretty Instagram feeds, emails and influencer engagement. However, the big hairy audacious goal for ethical marketplaces and boutiques is customer education, whether online or offline to drive traffic and behaviour change. It could be something as simple as using the online chat function to explain why a relatively unknown ethical fashion brand, available on the site is a better choice of purchase. On the other hand, offline initiatives include showcasing products at pop-ups and partnering with sustainability-focused talks and conferences.UK-based marketplace, Mamoq is content-driven in its approach. In May 2018, it partnered with the University of Cambridge’s Business School to release a whitepaper that draws on surveys conducted among Mamoq customers. The report carries tips and resources for anyone from fashion startups to customers that are looking to embrace more sustainable habits. Mamoq CEO & Co-Founder, Madeline Petrow explains the knowledge trail on her site. “We offer tiered levels of information about the brands, so it doesn’t necessarily overwhelm the average mainstream consumer. I think it is imperative to not come 100% full force with ethical fashion buzzwords. Instead, we offer bite-sized bits of knowledge in the form of product descriptions, brand founder’s backstory and their ethical standards and encourage customers to deepen the level of understanding at their own pace.”
Walk The Talk
While marketing requires a delicate balancing act, one that promotes sales yet steers clear of a ‘buy, buy approach’-Madeline sent an email on Black Friday to her customers about mindful purchasing. The sustainable fashion ecomm players are seen striving to permeate other aspects of the business with the same ethos. And such efforts are explicitly articulated to target customers, an aware and appreciative audience.
Thread Harvest is B-Corp Certified while Mamoq is pending certification. Amongst others, Antibad uses 100% recycled materials for packaging, hosts the site on a green server and banks with UK’s first ethical bank, Triodos. Since shipping in ecomm is a high source of carbon emissions, many like Antibad, Rêve En Vert and Netherland-based thegreenabels.com, offer carbon neutral shipping.
“Even as a starting e-shop, we could not just offer sustainable labels. The full operation cycle and our impact as a company are under constant evaluation.”
Claudia Angeli, Founder, thegreenlabels.com belongs to a band of passionate entrepreneurs who are up against several roadblocks to making the business itself sustainable. Funding is the obvious one, followed by relatively higher product prices. Others report the struggle with an erratic supply of designer collections and limited product assortment. Even so, this time around, such platforms are likely to find traction with customers. Claudia shares her approach: “Even as a starting e-shop, we could not just offer sustainable labels. The full operation cycle and our impact as a company are under constant evaluation. We might be too small to work with RePack, but we manage to offer 90% recycled packaging. Our local deliveries are executed by a door to door bike delivery company, and people love it.”
Alex McIntosh, sustainability strategist and founder, Create Sustain puts things into perspective. “The majority of e-tail is specifically designed to carry the customer as quickly and seamlessly as possible to the point of purchase, so embedding an educational element into transactional spaces is not easy; let’s face it who want to see the workings of the set when you’re engrossed in the play? That said those who have the skill and the creativity to make the workings of the set part of the experience can achieve genuine originality in their brand identity and offer, building long-standing trust and mass engagement.”