rewiring fashion retail: sustainability on the shop floor

The first of a series of short Q&A’s focussing on embedding sustainability into the post-Covid brandscape.

Retail heavyweight and eco-innovation pioneer Jonathan Hewlett (formerly CEO of Diesel Europe, now heading up w'air) talks to Katie Baron, Director of Retail & Brand Comms for trends, innovations & insights agency Stylus, about the purpose and power of putting sustainability on the shop floor. 

 

Katie Baron:

One of the things that’s been fascinating about the pandemic is that contrary to what some people expected it’s actually has spurred an uptick in eco and ethical attitudes – including a heightened desire for more conscious forms of consumption, specifically brands that do better for people and planet. How different do you think the shopfloor experience has to look and feel to satisfy this new sentiment?

Jonny Hewlett:

I completely agree with the sentiment that you've just shared. I think that retailers face a massive challenge - they've got an identity crisis at the moment caused by the exponential increase of online shopping. The uptake and adoption of e-commerce has gone through the roof and it's never going back. As a result, physical bricks and mortar stores are struggling with what they are going to do to get traffic back and maintain their relevance. But it wasn't until I began this journey [developing w’air – a low-impact, portable clothing cleaning tool] and really started to read around the subject that I realised that after construction and agriculture, clothing has the heaviest carbon footprint industry that man can engage in. 

So, there’s this convergence of people reflecting on what's important and an industry that's inherently hardwired in the wrong way for environmental good, and at the store level brands need to demonstrate that they're listening and reacting to what people are now demanding. For example, one of the retail partners we're working with at the moment has got a repair, recycling and refurbishment stand in store. And as the world reawakens, that kind of model is going to be front and centre. 

Stores are still a medium that adds a critical dimension to a brand, a key place to go and experience the brand, and I think that subjects such as responsible consumption are going to be far better articulated in a store environment than they could ever be on a website.

Katie Baron:

That’s links nicely into my second question, because, as you've mentioned, there is a fundamental problem here for fashion brands. If selling ‘new’ is increasingly problematic, how big an opportunity is there in after-care commerce (cleaning/repairing/refurbishing products)? 

Jonny Hewlett:

First of all, I think this is one of those pivotal moments for brands that truly understand the implications of a complete rewiring of their model and are willing to genuinely commit in order to achieve it. It will take fundamental changes – via everything from the procurement and the supply chain to the practices of how you stock and promote and then revamp the products in your stores. 

There's a foundational need for brands to not just tinker around, but to go in wholeheartedly. I think it’s a critical imperative, not just an opportunity. 

Katie Baron:

And is it as powerful a focus, or even as available to both luxury and high street brands? 

Jonny Hewlett:

I think that between fast fashion and luxury, there is a very important distinction to make. Luxury brands are just as in need of making this change as fast fashion brands, but I think ultimately fast fashion brands will have a much bigger challenge, simply because their model will require a complete reinvention.

The opportunities and the ability are much easier for luxury brands; they can put a show online instead of doing a physical runway. They can talk about the upcycling part of their collection. They can talk about the pieces that are most sought-after that are retrieved and reconditioned. I'm not saying that it's easy for luxury brands, but they've got a number of moments and things available to them that can allow them to project very loudly their eco-aspirations and credentials in a way that fast fashion brands just haven't got.

Katie Baron:

Which brands, sectors or even sub-sectors of retail culture are you already seeing doing a great/interesting job in this respect?

Jonny Hewlett:

I think sneakerhead culture has the perfect alchemy. It's not about buying more and more. If you look at the sneakerhead market today, the real value comes from the acquiring of very finite stock, as opposed to fast fashion where the emphasis is on more and more and more, and therefore the supply around it is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. With sneakers, clearly the value is in getting the ones where there’s less and less availability. That's the first part of the of the alchemy. The second part – and I'm going on the basis of people I know, the diehard sneakerheads – is that they seem to have a different attitude towards conspicuous consumption. The culture around sneakerheads breeds an attitude of responsible consumption that just isn't there in other, more mature industries or segments.

For example, consider SneakersER [a British professional sneaker care business and product line]. If you go to its concession at Selfridges today, it's got a very visible workshop, and a shop window where its credentials are being laid out via displaying ‘before and after’ trainers. It’s basically a piece of theatre – it’s almost a magician's trick to say here's what it was and here's what we’ve done to breathe new life into it.

Katie Baron:

Where does w’air fit into this new type of environment? Is it something that’s ostensibly a backroom tool or do you feel it should be a public-facing piece of a brand’s sustainability toolkit? Part of the grander bid for retail theatre?

Jonny Hewlett:

There's a place in both environments. We started off talking to retailers about w’air as a back of house item. I knew from personal experience the amount of stuff [clothing] that gets trashed every year. And that was just anathema to me, I felt it was entirely wrong that products couldn't be properly reconditioned and put back on the shop floor. 

But, if you now start to look at it in terms of the theatre, such as with SneakersER for example, they want to use w’air to demonstrate that their [consumer-facing] workshop offers a real arsenal of ammunition to recondition trainers and bring them back to you. So, in this case w’air becomes part of the theatre, as well as substantiated their credibility.  

Katie Baron:

We talked about flagship spaces. But what about the opportunity for pop-ups spaces? W’air can clearly travel to support a transient brand experience, but should or could ‘aftercare commerce’ concepts be taken out on the road as brand experiences in their own right? Could you see w’air partnering with another brand that wanted to show its eco credentials? 

Jonny Hewlett:

What I envisage, what I’d love to see happen, is that w’air becomes part of an overall sort of recycling, refurbishment, reconditioning experience, and it becomes the enabler for one or more elements of any such kind of movement. We'd love to have w’air front and centre of any retail experience, but realistically, as we try and establish our brand and what we stand for, we see w’air being part of the panoply of things that can help fashion brands to become more sustainable, to really walk the eco-walk. 

For example, there's the Sneakers Unboxed exhibition currently happening in London (Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street, at the Design Museum until October 21, 2021) which is the sort of event we’d love to have been part of. The idea would be that you could literally turn up with your sneakers and watch them being cleaned and renewed and refreshed in front of you. 

That's really where I see the beginnings of us getting out there into different spaces, in front of different audiences because it has all the right associations; it’s the right context, with w’air playing a kind of supporting role in the sustainability movement. That's where I think we're going to get most positive reaction and effect the most change, as opposed to trying to establish as its own entity that does a number of things. 

Katie Baron:

Thinking about using retail theatre to illustrate or support eco-credentials in terms of the entire store design, are there any sustainability focused flagships that particularly impress you at the moment? 

Jonny Hewlett:

Nothing really leaps out and that's the problem. It connects to fundamental challenge that we also have with the w’air brand, which is to create a tool or, as is the case with flagships, a space that will foster the right habits for people to adopt, to do their bit. If we can get people to change what they do today when it comes to their laundry habits, then we are we are off and running. And what better way than to encourage, teach, inform, educate, demonstrate, and energise the right habits than the store environment and via a piece of theatre that makes everybody think well, wait a minute, wow. What better way of getting a positive habit change to stick?

 

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