The stories we tell

Around the launch of his book, All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin wrote a lot about stories – the stories businesses tell when selling their products, and the ones that we, as customers, tell ourselves about products and companies.

I’ve been thinking a little about this over the past few weeks, thinking about what sort of story the (yet to be named) clothing label will tell, and also looking at what sort of stories existing ethical labels are telling.

One of the key motivators for me heading down this path is that, by and large, I think the stories aren’t resonating with me. There are many labels that have styles that are simply not what I’m looking for.

But there’s one story that seems to be pretty prevalent – that it’s not possible to be ethical in the fashion industry while making affordable clothes. This story is sometimes told explicitly (through marketing collateral, magazine interviews etc.), but other times it’s told implicitly in the form of significantly higher prices.

Clearly, with the way the industry is structured and with current practices it does take a lot more work to ensure that the various checks and balances are in place to ensure that products are made ethically in this space.

This is the case whenever someone tries to move away from “the way it’s done” to “the way it could be” – this is one of the “costs” of innovation. But of course that cost, or risk, is also potentially rewarding, which is why innovation happens and why innovative companies can become so successful.

And conventional marketing wisdom says that if you can charge more for your product – by reducing availability, increasing brand appeal, or through other measures – you should.

However, as a labour rights and environmental activist, I’m concerned a little about the message this sends to both the industry, and to customers. I fear that this lets manufacturers that aren’t doing the ethical thing off the hook.

Why? Because this is the story I think it tells: “It’s so hard and expensive to do things ethically. If you want to keep buying affordable clothes, you’ll have to accept that cheap labour and damaging environmental practices are the only way to do it. If you want to do things properly, then you’ll have to pay a big premium.”

When faced with a significant price difference, I think many customers choose the cheaper option – even if they’d prefer to “do the right thing”. I personally baulk at coughing up $300+ for a pair of jeans, even if they’re ethical – and I’m a convert to the cause! So we’re educating the market that they can’t afford to do the right thing, whilst also giving manufacturers an easy out.

One of the challenges that I’ve set my new venture is determining how to produce ethically whilst remaining within a reasonable price point. Of course “reasonable” is very subjective – but let’s say the price point is around $150-200 for a pair of jeans – around the same price as Ben Sherman jeans or similar (I’m not talking competing in the “bargain basement” department here).

As a customer, and an activist, I find it hard to believe that a business can’t make a reasonable profit (again “reasonable” is subjective) selling jeans in that price margin, even when produced ethically.

As a business person I understand that it’s not as clear cut as it may first appear – especially with retail rents, tight margins that require high volume sales and the market practice of “perpetual discounting” by retailers making it very difficult to compete.

But it is my belief that unless we can change the story from “it’s so difficult and hard you have to pay a lot more” to “it’s possible to be ethical and make a profit if you apply yourself to it – everyone should be doing it” (or something similar) we won’t see significant industry change.

And that’s one of the cornerstones of my vision for this label – to tell a different story; to be part of the movement to shift the industry from “ethical” being a competitive differentiator to a norm. I hope it’s possible – I wouldn’t be embarking on this enterprise if I didn’t have that hope. Only time will tell if reality backs up my belief.

A couple of quick points related to the above:

  • The fact that not doing things ethically results in lower prices is a clear externalisation of the human and environmental cost of the industry – these costs need to be internalised if we’re to have a sustainable future. Ultimately that means higher prices – but perhaps some of that increase should be absorbed by the industry in lower profits (shock! horror!) – which is anathema to the prevalent “growth at all costs” mentality.
  • The premium prices associated with ethical clothing are somewhat exacerbated by the fact that top-line designers, who already charge a lot more than mainstream producers for their products, are leading the charge towards ethical production. This is absolutely a good thing – as the trend leaders will help influence the public and mainstream producers. However, there needs to be a follow-on movement producing affordable variants. Target and Muji are examples of brands that fit this kind of mold – design led innovation at affordable prices.
  • Premium prices for “ethical” is not isolated to fashion – it’s a similar story presented in relation to Fairtrade products, organic food and other “health” products.

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