We have the pleasure of penning this month’s article from the ‘cool’, in all ways, city of Helsinki. 2012 is Helsinki’s year as the World Design Capital. The theme for the year places an emphasis on openness, continuity, collaboration and the social dimensions of design. They are promoting the concept of Open Helsinki with a broad agenda – a city where information, ideas, thoughts and people can move freely without unnecessary creativity-hampering obstacles. It is as much about the design process as about design per se.
Design cuts to the heart of Finnish culture, embracing practicality and durability as fundamental principles in design. Finland prides itself on designing and producing products that have a long life and are repairable, hence positioning them ahead of the curve in sustainability.
Increasingly the design principles that the Finns inherently pursue are becoming front and centre for a number of leading global brands. In some circumstances the ideas being embraced almost feel counterintuitive, but in practice they are serving to truly differentiate. Take the outdoor clothing and equipment brand Patagonia, actively promoting the need to reduce consumption. Its Common Threads program has five dimensions, the first being Reduce – simply, they ask their customers not to buy from them what they don’t need or can’t really use. They advocate that what they make – everything anyone makes – costs the planet more life than it gives back. They suggest the biggest, first step we can all take to reduce our impact is to do more with what we have. The rest of their Common Threads mantra is equally enlightened: Repair, Re-use, Recycle and Reimagine. Importantly, the program is authentically aligned to their brand. From day dot, Patagonia has been driven by a strong environmental mindset.
Another global brand excelling in sustainable design is Nike. Considered Design is Nike’s ongoing commitment to design without compromise – either to performance or the planet. They envision a future where the shoes you wear today become the shoes, shirts or equipment you use tomorrow. They see “closed loop” manufacturing process, where nothing is wasted and everything is kept in play, as not just wishful thinking, but the future.
There is a different mindset emerging amongst many brands, one we increasingly think will gain momentum. Certainly the approach of Patagonia is at odds with the trend towards ‘fast fashion’ that has been so successfully unlocked by fashion brands such as Zara. One may argue that fashion brands will always promote the need for constant consumerism with their new collections. But even in this category the winds of change are starting to blow. Our time in Helsinki has exposed us to a number of boutique labels who are producing ecological clothing. One particular boutique, Ainokainen is promoting the idea of ‘slow-fashion luxury’, which is not about creating new collections all the time, rather creating variations based on new colours, fabrics and details. The difference comes from the second-hand materials sourced to create the clothes, and adaption of the same designs. The creative flair that underpins the fashion design industry provides a real upside in its ability to adopt a more ‘reconstructive’ approach to fashion – one that continues to reinvent fabrics rather than disregard them into landfills.
It is estimated that 10 million tonnes of textiles are discarded every year in Europe and America. A quick google and one finds equally disturbing numbers playing out in Australia, where we send 22 tonnes of second-hand clothing to the Brotherhood of St Lawrence every day, of which only 10% is re-sellable. Likewise it is suggested that Australians spend $1.7 billion on clothes annually – that we don’t wear. It is a big problem, even before one includes the pollution and energy costs associated with creating fabrics in the first place.
But do consumers care? Increasingly we think they will. We think that the new frugal mindset of consumers has the potential to become wider in meaning than simply growing numbers of cautionary spenders. We envisage that the discerning consumer will begin to embrace a more holistic perspective of what value represents – sustainability and ethics will increasingly be factored in. The more leading brands such as Patagonia and Nike advocate and promote the environmental design and consumption principles they are pursuing to consumers, the more it will be on their radar.
It may have taken close to a decade, but the words of Clive Hamilton, author of 2003’s Growth Fetish (Allen & Unwin) that ‘people buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like…’ may in fact be heeded by consumers.
The Boston Consulting Group’s eleventh annual consumer sentiment survey, conducted in April, found that the percentage of Australians saying they will spend less on discretionary items in the next year increased from 47 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent in 2012. And if Chris Farrell is half right in his 2010 book The New Frugality (Bloomsbury) we are about to witness a new paradigm in consumerism, whereby consumers focus on the interplay between creating a margin of personal financial safety and living a life that is mindful of sustainability values. More discerning customers means that all brands need to truly add value to the lives of the customers they target. Exceptional brands will however do more; they will also seek to add value to the planet that those customers share.
Peter Singline and David Ansett
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