The Problem with Transparency in Fashion

This article was originally featured in Glossy on November 28th, 2018

In fashion, transparency is hot. The problem is we are doing it wrong.

The current dominant modes of enforcing transparency in fashion — through green capsule collections, sustainability pledges and raw material traceability via blockchain — are all focused on cleaning up fashion production, but that’s not enough to create real change.

There’s little about fashion that has changed on the demand-generation side; fashion is still marketed in the same way it was 50 years ago. Real change must happen in the domain of a business, in the shift from supply built around consumption to demand built around social influence. Without social influence creating a mood of susceptibility and allowing new ideas, practices and habits to spread, there is no lasting change.

In fashion, demand is tricky. Consumers’ tastes are fickle and hard to predict. Things that worked in the past will not work in the future. No one knows what’s going to become a success until it does, because much of it comes from social influence: We almost never make decisions independently of one another. We like new ideas, practices and habits because other people already like them. There’s a cumulative advantage; something becomes popular mostly because a lot of people like it.

In addition to engineering better fabrics and supply chains, we need to engineer social influence. Success of an idea or a new practice has more to do with how susceptive consumers already are to it and how easily persuaded they are to invest in it than it has to do with whether it received a Green Carpet Award. Dynamics of how new ideas and habits spread shift from brands and media to the networks of niches and taste communities.

Starting from an already existing subculture, already passionate about transparency, is a good way to engineer social influence, like Patagonia has done. Hardcore fans and their social activity are the best mass ad. Piggybacking on the already existing consumer mood around transparency, and amplifying it through content, community and communication muscles works wonders.

The most culturally resonant and fastest growing newcomers today successfully capitalize on this type of social dynamic. They encourage social interactions among customers and create value through proprietary content even before a single product purchase has been made. They curate personalized products, create membership programs and reward their most loyal customers. They also ask questions unrelated to their brand, like what else their customers are wearing, reading and listening to, in order to amplify their cultural relevance.

No one knows what the next winning transparency strategy is going to be. Instead of projecting the next success story, we can create one by making new technology inherently social. In the complex and unpredictable world of fashion, designing for social influence is our best bet.