Image of sustainable fashion brand YOKU belt buckle on a tree

Why fashion brands will struggle to truly become sustainable fashion

YOKU seeks to be a leader in truly sustainable fashion. This post explores how the typical fashion brand will battle to becomes sustainable as it is completely opposed to their current values and business model. 

We'll get to that but first what are brands? why do brands work? and how does this show up in fashion?


What are brands?

When people initially think of brands they think of a collection of company logos that identify these companies but what brands really are is the ideas and stories and feelings we associate with the companies. The direct purpose of these ideas, stories and feelings is to inform everything the company ‘does’ (ie what it makes, who it serves, how it shows up, how it sounds, feels and looks and what it stands for) and the ultimate aim of the brand is unite a set of people around the aims of the brand. Typically these aims are centered on some form of esoteric mission (ie to make the safest cars in the world or to organise the world’s information ) and the commercial success that comes with owning whatever mission / category they have articulated. 


Why do brands work?

Firstly, we have to define 'work' in this context. We take it to mean that brands can support or even completely underpin commercial success measured in category ownership or delivery against mission. The reason why brands work is the create neural pathways that drive customer behavior to select a product or service from that brand for the first time, continue to select it and extend or deepen the relationship (ie buy more) over time. These three things (all other things being equal) create a lasting competitive advantage for the companies that have them which leads to them owning an existing category or inventing an entirely new one. These neural pathways are the heuristics that our brains use to make decisions, typically driven by higher order needs in the classic Mazlow’s hierarchy. 

According to Maslow, basic physiological (ie food, water etc) and safety needs must be met before an individual can focus on higher order needs. Once those needs are fulfilled, individuals strive to meet their needs for love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Self-actualization is the highest level of the hierarchy, and it refers to the need for personal growth and self-fulfillment. This includes the need for self-esteem, autonomy, and personal development. Self-actualization needs are unique to each individual and may include things such as personal growth, creativity, and a sense of purpose. These needs are not necessary for survival, but they are important for leading a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Brands that win are a promise to help people whose basic needs are already met to meet their higher order needs.

(Fashion) Brands that seek to serve themselves

For those old enough to remember the 80s were a chaotic time. The free market was rife, the stock markets were booming. Sustainable fashion brands were nowhere to be found.

Fashion brands in the 80s and 90s reflected the zeitgeist of the period, a focus on materialism, consumerism and personal advancement. For someone to fulfill their own need for belonging or self-esteem required them to associate with and actively display brands to demonstrate their status, identity or wealth. 

The poster child of this shift (quite literally) was the Calvin Klein ‘Marky Mark’ campaign that featured a 21 year old Mark Wahlberg shirtless with a pair of low hung jeans, revealing a strongly branded pair of white Calvin Klein boxers. 

What these brands promised was that their products would make you fashionable, sexy and desirable on one condition. That in buying them them you actively displayed that you bought them. They reduced fashion icons to logos, typically word brands (ie stylized logos incorporating the brand name) and then applied this logo to literally everything they sold. The logo became the brand and the fashion industry built itself around the appeal of the image it created (celebrity, styling, lighting etc) and the logo on the item you bought was the shortcut to the idea. This model of ‘logo fashion’ is now the default fashion model, especially in the mass affluent category.  

  • Create a brand ‘look’
  • Associate that look it with a logo
  • Market heavily using the overly marked up underlying product clearly showing the logo
  • Have your mass affluent customers advertise your product for you

Ironically in the world of belts this is more true than just about any other fashion goods item. 

YOKU was started in part by the observation that a belt for fashion brands was merely an add-on, another product to stick the logo on. A way to increase the ‘average order value’ from a customer who is already bought into your brand promise. A belt costing $20 to make that might last 2 - 3 years and would be ‘out of fashion’ by the time it fell apart anyway could be sold for $150.

Don’t believe us? Check out the Randa Corporation, who make belts for literally dozens of brands. We’re not here to say Randa doesn't run a great business, they do, but it serves the needs of brands who serve themselves.

YOKU spoke to hundreds of men and they consistently told us the wanted to avoid putting a small billboard around their waist. Men want a great product, they are using brand as a shortcut to make a purchasing decision but are then forced to market that brand for the rest of the product's useful life.

Brands that seek to serve others 

It would be remiss to suggest that nothing good in fashion (using the term quite broadly) came out of the 80s. Ironically it was in this period that a company that is the pioneer of sustainable fashion came into being. That company, of course, is Patagonia. There have been numerous articles written about their strategy, unchanged over 50 years, in essence they exist to preserve the natural environment. They generate revenue and profit merely to enable them to further this mission and never in opposition to it as their ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign famously illustrates. Their stated mission is to "build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

The emergence of mission or purpose led brands is in sync with the changing zeitgeist or ‘cultural narrative’. Basically customers want the companies and brands they have in their lives to be more aligned to their values and how they want to be seen (ie their self-actualisation) and brands who do this are doing better than those who aren’t. 

There is no more significant cultural narrative right now than sustainability and environmental preservation, but for fashion, this is kind of a problem. 


The challenge in building a sustainable fashion brand

The business of fashion is the business of consumption, and consumption is at odds with sustainability. This is the inherent challenge with building a sustainable fashion brand and company, especially if that purpose is in service of the environment.

It is important to make things in an environmentally sustainable way (ie less chemicals, less water, less waste byproducts etc) but unfortunately this is only a small part of the picture when trying to tackle environmental sustainability. 

In a system (think of the world as a system) of finite resources, there are really four levers to achieving sustainability (written from the consumers perspective)

  1. Reduce - buy less
  2. Reuse - use it over a longer timeframe 
  3. Repair - fix it if/when it breaks
  4. Recycle - make it an input to something new

 But re-written from a fashion brand’s perspective

  1. Sell less
  2. Make it last longer
  3. Fix it if it breaks
  4. Make it into something new

Sounds like the worst business plan in the world, especially for a fashion business, even more so if your fashion business is based on ‘fast fashion’ or ‘logo fashion’. You can see the challenge. Even one of the leading environmentally conscious fashion brands, Allbirds, remains focused on HOW things are made not HOW MANY things are made. It’s a lot better to have consumers who are buying lots of stuff to buy stuff that is made with better practices and materials but it takes a brave brand to tackle the elephant in the room.

If you want to be truly sustainable you have to make better things that last longer so that people buy less of them and you have to fix them if they ever break. You have to spend more time working this out less time working out what else you can put your logo on.


How the YOKU brand works

YOKU exists to inspire people to strive for ‘one less thing’ 

We want you to buy less, and own more. There are an estimated 400 million belts sold every year, we want to make a dent in that number. We want to bring it down.

We don’t think of customers, we think of keepers. When you have a YOKU belt, you keep it.

We design and manufacture a belt that will outlast its keeper. If it breaks, return it, we’ll fix it or replace it. We focus on durability both physical as well as emotionally durable design

We want to inspire the next generation of designers and makers, in both fashion and more broadly to create products and brands aligned to the idea of ‘one less thing’

We don’t have logos on our products as logos represent everything we’re not.

Not having a logo is entirely aligned to our ethos of 'one less thing' 

Being truly sustainable fashion brand means building your product in a way that encourages less of them to be bought, not more.

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