Carbon calorie counts, dresses made from recycled plastic and sweaters that claim to be climate-positive have become familiar fixtures for fashion brands seeking to engage an increasingly eco-conscious consumer base.
But as the industry has started to lean into demand for more sustainable fashion, it’s also facing increasing pressure to back up its claims. Consumers are becoming more savvy and calling out brands for greenwashing, or failing to operate in a way that matches their marketing. Regulators and advocacy groups are also paying more attention.
The result is a growing market for communications agencies that can help brands credibly navigate a technical and confusing landscape, provide expertise on how to set and meet sustainability targets, and offer advice on how to translate those efforts into messaging that will resonate.
It’s a business that’s booming, according to Carrie Ellen Phillips, co-founder of 22-year-old agency BPCM. The company, which represents clients like Calvin Klein and Longchamp, wasn’t founded with sustainability at its heart. But lately, that seems to be the main thing clients are asking for.
“Two out of three unsolicited calls that we get are about our sustainability practice,” Phillips said. “It’s the fastest-growing thing in the agency.” Sustainability-centric roles that open at the firm are “some of the fastest things we’ve ever filled,” she added.
A Shifting Landscape
It wasn’t always this way. Phillips remembers years ago when her own teammates were put off by her talk of sustainability, worried that it might communicate that the whole fashion industry — and what they as PR professionals did for a living — is “bad.” But where it once took courage to venture into those waters, it’s now a selling point.
Phillips isn’t the only person who’s noticed a shift. Erin Allweiss started her firm, No. 29, in 2013 after years of working for organisations like the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Oxfam. For a while, Allweiss said, she and her co-founder Melody Serafino were known as “two nerds who worked on do-gooder stuff.” When then-obscure conscious sneaker brand Veja decided to link up with No. 29 in 2015, the agency and brand felt like two Davids surrounded by a whole lot of Goliaths.
“It certainly wasn’t cool to talk about sustainable fashion,” said Allweiss. “It was such an uphill battle to make it compelling. And now that it is cool, I think the opposite problem exists.”
In other words, while fashion is talking a lot more about sustainability, it’s harder than ever to distinguish between the companies that are actually making a difference and those that are guilty of greenwashing.
As brands come under growing pressure from consumers and regulators to back up sustainability claims, some communications firms are building out their expertise in order to stand out — both to fashion brands looking for representation and to journalists looking for PR contacts whose sustainability claims they can trust.
Marketing With Meaning
Shannon Welch is the sustainability division director at Chapter 2, the agency that helped launch Pyer Moss and the climate and culture advocacy group Slow Factory. After working with conventional fashion companies like Diesel earlier in her career, stints at sustainability-focused luxury retailer Maison de Mode and advocacy group Fashion Revolution USA convinced Welch that sustainability was worth investing in. She enrolled at Glasgow Caledonian New York College and completed a graduate degree in impact-focused business and investing.
Co-founder of Chapter 2 Kenneth Loo says that Welch’s in-depth knowledge is a clear asset for the agency, which works with clients like denim factory Saitex and silk manufacturer Bombyx. Both companies have positioned themselves as part of efforts to make fashion’s supply chain more sustainable. But their endeavours to reduce emissions and eliminate toxic chemistry are complicated and technical to communicate.
“Sustainability clients are super intense from a PR perspective,” Loo said. “It’s a lot of research, communication, site visits, Zoom calls and data sifting.”
For companies that are themselves newer to the sustainability conversation, PR expertise is important for a different reason: these brands need help figuring out how they fit into the movement without coming off as opportunistic greenwashers.
For this reason, many firms have started offering more than just PR: they’re also increasingly serving as consultants. George Macpherson runs an independent agency called GWM Consulting where he represents brands like Maggie Marilyn and Christy Dawn, in addition to organisations like nonprofit the New Standard Institute. Macpherson both communicates with press and also works closely with brand founders to shape new initiatives. For instance, he advised Christy Dawn on a “land stewardship” programme that allows customers to invest in plots of regeneratively farmed cotton rather than just buying product.
“My understanding of PR has shifted away from, ‘Oh, it’s just about promotion and marketing,’” he said. “It’s about guiding through the many changes within the landscape, whether that’s the media landscape or the consumer landscape. Clients have become familiar with the expectation of being challenged by their PR partner.”
Phillips said about two-thirds of BPCM’s work across the agency now consists of consulting as opposed to communication. Earlier this year, the company recruited François Souchet, formerly of circularity-focused non-profit the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to boost its sustainability expertise. Elsewhere, Eco-Age, the agency co-founded by fashion campaigner Livia Firth, views the two as such natural complements that the consultancy aspect of the company actually preceded the PR side.
“We like to see ourselves as a ‘critical friend,’” said Eco-Age chief brand officer Harriet Vocking. “We see PR challenging [clients] rather than just being celebrated on the success of media coverage.”
Building a Responsible Business
Sustainability communications means different things to different agencies. For Eco-Age, No.29, MacPherson and Chapter 2, it entails carefully vetting potential clients and turning down those whose values don’t align in an attempt to avoid contributing to greenwashing.
BPCM doesn’t screen clients in this way, but does use its influence at senior levels to push a sustainability agenda, Phillips said. For instance, BPCM’s gentle nudging convinced long-time client Longchamp to switch to recycled nylon for its signature Le Pliage bags, a process that will be complete by the end of 2022, according to Phillips.
Outside this group of sustainability-focused agencies, pressure on the wider industry is mounting. Governments in the UK and Netherlands are looking to crack down on greenwashing, and the EU is in the process of creating standardised methods for communicating about the sustainability of a given product. Advocates in the US are pushing for the Federal Trade Commission to review its own standards around environmental messages in marketing.
And there’s also growing scrutiny on the responsibility that lies with agencies that help promote polluting industries. Any company that’s contributing to pollution and human rights abuses relies on PR firms to maintain their social licence to operate, said Duncan Meisel, co-founder of Clean Creatives, a group that’s focused on pressuring PR agencies to stop working with fossil fuel companies. Though fashion brands might not have as direct an impact on climate change as Exxon Mobil or Shell, the principle still applies: Without the best creative minds in the business working for them, brands would have a harder time greenwashing their actions, Meisel said.
“The biggest impact of a PR or advertising company is the work they do for their clients. When you’re looking at the sustainability impact of your company, it’s not the flights you take or the cups you use,” he said. “The absolute biggest impact is how people end up buying and consuming as a result of your actions.”