Sustainable Fashion: A Moment or a Movement? – This was the topic discussed by a panel of entrepreneurs working towards revolutionizing the fashion industry at HEC Paris on the 21st of November. Organized by five students from the MSc in Sustainability and Social Innovation, the event attracted the interest of over 70 students from various degree programs at HEC.
Sustainable Shoes by Veja
The evening started out with an inspiring presentation by Artaud Frenoy, Head of Sales Europe and Middle East at Veja. Veja, a French footwear and accessories company that works with cooperatives of small producers and social associations in Brazil and France, is a successful, growing brand and one of the leaders in sustainable footwear today.
Artaud stressed the importance of transparency for any company on a path towards greater sustainability. Veja is a pioneer in information disclosure, informing consumers not only about their successes, but also their areas of improvement in terms of the usage of organic materials. It is even possible to find the salaries of the co-founders on their website.
Interestingly, although Veja’s production costs are four times higher than those of conventional manufacturers, Veja sells at the same price as these brands. How? Veja does not spend anything on marketing – the shoes, and their stories, sell themselves. Yet, Artaud reminds us that “Veja wants the first trigger for buying their sneakers to be the product itself; its design and timeless style. Sustainability is just the added value.” By not only targeting the conscious consumer, but designing a desirable product for the mainstream, Veja has the potential to transform the footwear industry. And the company has big plans, hoping to double its sales next year.
The Panel Discussion
Following the introduction by Artaud, the other panelists joined the roundtable. The speakers were:
- Aymeric Mautin, President of Les Mouettes Vertes, which creates organic cotton accessories for brands, offering alternatives to plastic bags
- Lucie Soulard, Co-founder of Place2Swap, a start-up that works with brands to develop innovative ways of integrating the second-hand market into brands’ strategies
- Anaïs Dautais Warmel, Artistic Director and Founder of Les Récupérables, a trendy, elegant, and cool brand that upcycles materials to create retro-modern fashion pieces
- Anne Michaut, Affiliate Professor of Marketing at HEC Paris and Director of the LVMH Academic Chair, who moderated the discussion.
The role of technology in sustainable fashion
After a round of introductions, the panel turned towards the role of technology in the movement towards more sustainable fashion. Aymeric noted that “social media changed the game. Consumers want to know what happens beyond the store fronts. Today, we are much more connected what happens in the supply chains, as it only takes one worker with a smartphone to give us insight to the conditions in a factory.” Artaud agreed. “If you don’t share, they will discover,” he warns.
Market readiness for sustainable fashion
Next, Anne Michaut inquired about the readiness of the market for sustainable fashion. Lucie insisted that consumers pay much closer attention to the labels on their clothes nowadays. She finds that big brands are interested in working with her and other sustainable fashion start-ups, precisely because consumers want more sustainable clothes. “Brands know that if they do not satisfy this demand for more sustainable clothing, someone else will,” she added.
Aymeric agreed, stating that large retailers are asking him for a more sustainable solution for to replace their plastic bags, because they are receiving criticism from their customers. Additionally, in order to satisfy consumer demand, large online retailers are working to create filters, so that shoppers can selectively view only sustainable brands in their online stores. Finally, the panelists cited the activities of big players in the field of sustainable fashion. Nike, for example, is using recycled leather for some of their trainers. The H&M group, too, is entering the sustainable fashion market through their new brand called Arket, which communicates on the sustainability and organic materials of its products. The panelists agree that these brands’ activities are responses to consumer trends, demanding for more sustainable products.
Aymeric, who used to be the Chief Financial Officer at Chanel before starting his own business, also noted that consumer demands create pressure for brands. Luxury brands, he argues, are expected to produce sustainably: “At a certain price level, your brand needs to be sustainable. Consumers expect quality to equal sustainability.”
The changing concept of fashion
Anne Michaut introduced an interesting discussion by noting that the very concept of fashion is not very sustainable. “Fashion is the definition of planned obsolesce,” she said, “clothes do not even need to be broken to not be worn anymore. If we want the fashion industry to become more sustainable, we might need to change the concept of fashion as a whole.” Anaïs agreed with her, arguing for a trend towards timeless basics. “We should buy less, but of better quality and invest into pieces that we really love,” she advised. Lucie agreed, noting that her start-up promotes a new business model for brands: “By offering products of higher quality, brands will be able to re-sell their products again, earning more money with the same item.” In supporting Anaïs, Artaud noted that Veja decided not to take part in the Black Friday sales, which are taking place later this week, in order not to promote over-consumption. “Choose well, buy less,” he concluded.
To end the evening, the audience had the opportunity to ask several burning questions about their own consumption habits. Following the event, we spoke to several students, who remarked how interesting and inspiring the panel discussion was. Sephra Abraham, from India, noted: “I have always been interested in thrift shopping. Where I am from, thrift shopping is not very common. Listening to today’s speakers gave me a better idea of the possibilities for more sustainable consumption here in France. I am now motivated to make it part of my lifestyle.”
At the closing of the evening, the event organizers were enthusiastic. Anna Ko, who worked in luxury fashion prior to joining the MSc in Sustainability and Social Innovation at HEC Paris stated: “We hope to have inspired students interested in working in fashion to choose to work for a sustainable brand, or to promote more sustainable practices within their chosen company.”