What does Elle’s sustainable September Issue mean for small ethical fashion brands?

What does Elle’s sustainable September Issue mean for small ethical fashion brands?

“Call it ‘eco-fashion’ if you like, but I think it’s just common sense.” – Livia Firth

Elle Magazine has dedicated its biggest issue of the year to sustainability – a move that many in the ethical fashion community are celebrating as a big step forward in the fight against fast fashion. But what does this mean for the industry?

It’s not the first time the publication has covered ethical and sustainable fashion – their online content has some great articles on the topic and they even featured our ethical fashion event for Fashion Revolution back in April.


This time however, the whole issue is dedicated to sustainability from cover to cover and includes their own manifesto for change inside their organisation.

The issue, which is printed on 100% recycled waste paper, includes conversations with significant designers, experts and activists in the sustainability field, such as Naomi Klein and Stella McCartney.

Things are clearly starting to change in the fashion industry – from Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit where this year more top managers attended than ever before and Stella McCartney was just one of the industry heavyweights to call for change.

In her Editor’s Letter, Anne-Marie Curtis opens the iconic September issue by talking about her own ‘eureka moment’ as she realised the importance of sustainability in the fashion industry after a discussion with Marie-Claire Daveu – Chief Sustainability Officer at Kering (the parent company of major brands including Gucci and Balenciaga):

“If we don’t do this now, there will be nothing around to make fashion with in 20 years. The idea that if we don’t act, fashion as we know it will simply not exist anymore was my eureka moment that drove my decision to devote our biggest fashion issue of the year to this message.”

The issue is peppered with facts and figures that won’t be new reading to members of the sustainable fashion movement – but to see them in print in a major mainstream publication is a refreshing change. Elle themselves say on page 146:

“The world is waking up to a new set of cultural norms around the ways we consume, and becoming more aware of a more mindful, less disposable way of living.”

So what does this mean for the fashion market?


The September Issue is a big deal – both figuratively and literally.

Traditionally the biggest issue of the year for major fashion publications, these magazines fill their September issues with the best Autumn looks ready for the most important season in the fashion calendar.

The September Issue may have lost some of its power in recent years with the decline of the print industry – but the fashion giants clearly aren’t going without a fight. Elle have chosen to do this by aligning themselves alongside their readers and feature sustainability throughout the issue – as 9 out of 10 women said they are concerned about the environment.

Although the magazine is full of all the usual glossy adverts we’d expect from a September issue, to see them alongside articles questioning consumption and promoting a more mindful approach to our wardrobes is a shift away from the norm.

Pamela Anderson writes on page 148:

“What excites me most about sustainability is it’s so fast-growing. It’s exciting to see designers swearing off fur and newer fabrics that use plastic.”

In the ethical world we often get frustrated that big brands with more resources and ability to create change don’t seem care. They have a single bottom line, and it’s focused on profit.

The good news is, sustainability is fast becoming profitable.

62% of Elle readers said they’re more likely to buy from brands that value sustainability, 87% are committed to buying less plastic and 80% are more likely to buy from brands that care about their workers and give them a fair wage.

Large brands will respond to consumer demand and go where the profit is, so as ethical practices and sustainability become more mainstream, we’re likely to see bigger brands finally embrace this.

Good news for the planet, but potentially not so good for smaller ethical brands.

Only 33% of Elle readers said they already own a product made of sustainable material. Traditionally, ethical clothing has been seen as niche, expensive, less convenient than fast fashion and has fallen victim to negative stereotypes of being unstylish and unsexy.

While this may not be true, the smaller brands have less reach to prove the preconceptions wrong.

To see a mainstream fashion magazine cover sustainability on such a large scale means we’re finally breaking out of our niche and destroying those stereotypes, but the smaller ethical brands may fall victim to this breakthrough.

Large brands have more resources. More capital to invest in production and more negotiating power to bring production costs down – which means that ethical clothing may become cheaper and easier to find as demand increases.

These large brands also have extensive marketing budgets, expertise and established audiences to leverage.

The ethical market is growing – In the UK alone it’s value has quadrupled in size since 2000, and in 2017 sales of ethical goods and services were valued at £81.3 billion. (According to the Ethical Consumer Ethical Markets Report 2017).

But as the market grows and the big boys come to play, smaller brands are going to have to fight even harder to be seen and to claim their market share.

Just because ethical is going mainstream doesn’t mean every brand will thrive, or even survive. Competition is about to get tougher and in a market that targets customers who carefully consider every purchase, brands are going to have to fight harder to make every sale.

Now is the time for smaller ethical fashion brands to invest in a solid marketing strategy.

Ethics alone won’t be a strong enough selling point to stand out when the market becomes more saturated.

We already know that in the current market, 66% of consumers say they’re willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, but that talk doesn’t necessarily always translate into action.

Convenience, price and quality are still the strongest driving factors behind consumer purchasing decisions.

According to retail research agency Verdict, 60% of consumers say retailer’s sustainable credentials are an important factor when purchasing footwear and clothing, but only 15.6% said they would not buy from a retailer if they were not transparent about their ethical credentials.

From Verdict’s research, 20.2% of consumers refused to pay more for sustainable fashion, and only 3% were found to be willing to pay more than 21% more for ethical products. This is highlighted as the tipping point for retailers and consumers alike, as from the shoppers who had not purchased any sustainable clothing over the last few years, 31.1% did not do so because they felt the items were too expensive.

Availability and range were also said to be key considerations for purchase, as 18.8% of consumers did not buy sustainable fashion because they felt it was not easily available and 17.5% did not make a purchase due to lack of choice.

While small brands may not yet have the resources to invest in larger production runs, increasing their range or upgrading their ecommerce provision to make ethical shopping more convenient, they do have the power to leverage marketing efforts and build a loyal following to stake their claim in the market before the big brands muscle in.

However, for many small ethical brands this will require a major shift in mindset if they’re going to survive.

Many smaller brands see marketing as an “optional extra” or something they can do themselves with little strategy or budget behind it. But there’s a reason large brands have whole departments dedicated to their marketing function.

Marketing isn’t just the thing you do to get more sales, it’s the heart and soul of your business. It’s the connections you build, the story you tell and the impact you make, and as the ethical market grows and competition gets tougher, it’s the key to survival and success.

Too many small ethical brands are stuck with a limiting money mindset which stops them spending on their marketing. This is often because the smaller brands are usually directly involved in social impact projects with their suppliers or beneficiaries, so this mindset usually comes from a fear of spending money on anything that doesn’t directly create impact for them.

But doing everything yourself, which is often considered the more cost effective option, will involve a lot of trial and error. It’ll take time, brainspace and resource away from running your business and making your impact, and it will cost you more in the long run.

Your marketing spend and your impact should directly correlate. If not, you’re doing something wrong. More marketing (done correctly) means more sales, means more income, means more impact. Therefore, marketing is for your beneficiaries.

It all starts with the right marketing strategy.

The September Issue is significant because it signals a change in the market – a growing consumer demand for sustainability, which means the big brands will be coming in thick and fast to meet it with one thing in mind – profit.

They understand that to make money, you have to spend money on marketing.

Like it or not, they don’t usually have beneficiaries or social impact front of mind and they won’t be afraid to do whatever it takes to dominate their share of the sustainable market.

So if your ethical fashion brand is still stuck in a ‘not-for-profit’ mindset that’s limiting your beliefs about what marketing can do for you, it’s time to change, and fast.

The right marketing strategy will turn your ethical impact and commitment to sustainability into your competitive advantage, and will generate more money than you spend.

Getting it right is an investment that smaller brands can no longer afford not to make.

Elle’s sustainability-focused September issue signals a major shift change in the fashion industry which, while it might help save the planet, could also mean a battle of survival of the fittest for smaller brands, who are about to be thrown into a bigger ring against major opponents, with nothing but marketing to help them win the fight.

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