“Do you know where your clothes come from? Would you wear plastic?” Those are questions Australian wool group Woolmark poses as part of its latest campaign.
Launched last week, it features a strikingly haunting video of an oil-slicked trio scrambling from a pool filled with crude against apocalyptically overcast skies. As they emerge, they strip off their tar-drenched garments in favour of wool and the surroundings transform into a natural paradise. The campaign’s tagline: “wear wool, not fossil fuel.”
The choice is “a false narrative,” said filmmaker Rebecca Cappelli, whose documentary “Slay” launched a few days after the Woolmark campaign and highlights the negative impact of animal skins in fashion. “It’s kind of textbook, something you see across the fur, leather and wool industry to attack synthetic fibres … that doesn’t make what they are promoting magically good and ethical.”
Claiming the moral high ground is increasingly important for brands and their suppliers, as sustainable fashion — once the niche domain of only the crunchiest consumers — becomes big business.
It’s more than just marketing at stake; brands from H&M to Gucci have made high-profile commitments to avoid materials that don’t meet baseline environmental and ethical standards in the coming years. And regulators are stepping in with policies that fortify those ambitions as more than simply voluntary goals.
But the industry has no standardised way to measure sustainability, or even a clear definition of what “sustainable” means. That’s opened a branding battle that stretches from diamonds to leather, as upstart materials vie with established players to present themselves as the best option for conscious consumers.
“You can’t really finish a sentence these days without the word ‘sustainability’ being in it,” said Woolmark chief executive John Roberts. “Whilst I don’t think we’ve come to any serious agreement on what that means, we know we need to state our case.”
A Marketing Battle
The shift in attitudes was underpinned by decades of campaigning by animal-rights activists, but once anti-fur sentiment became mainstream, the material’s disappearance from the shelves of many of fashion’s biggest luxury brands and retailers was swift.
Now those shifting cultural currents are challenging even fashion’s most entrenched materials.
Take leather, a profit engine for the luxury sector, prized for millennia for its versatility, durability and cultural value. In 2020, leather goods made up around half of the roughly $100 billion Europe’s five largest luxury companies generated in sales, according to equity analysts at Bernstein.
But the leather supply chain is also linked to animal cruelty, high-impact industrial cattle farming and polluting tanning processes. Alternatives once dismissed as tacky plastic derivatives have been rebranded as luxurious and fashionable vegan materials by labels like Stella McCartney. Associated sectors like plant-based meats and milk have grown rapidly, fuelled by demand from young consumers concerned about both animal rights and the climate crisis.
Luxury’s biggest players from Kering to Hermès are dabbling in buzzy leather alternatives derived from mushrooms or grown in a lab. Last year, Danish label Ganni said it would stop using virgin leather by 2023, after finding the material accounted for the bulk of its emissions. Demand for vegan leather products nearly tripled last year, according to fashion search engine Lyst.