Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

Levi Strauss & Co Sponsored Series

Sustainably Attired

Sustainable Textiles: Harnessing a Spark in Customer Engagement

By Jan Lee

If there is one truism that sums up sustainable marketing today, it is that product sales don’t make a business successful, productive customer engagement strategies do. Levi Strauss and Co.’s popularity as a sustainable producer relies on its ability to continually tap into the values of its customers and reflect that vision in how it sells its products – as well as how it makes them.

It puts recycling and human rights, for example, at the core of its business model because it believes such ethics are part of its own vision, and because it knows that these are key concerns for many customers. Its success as a respected clothier is dependent not just on the quality of its product, but also on its ability to convey its understanding and loyalty of those customer values.

As one survey conducted last year by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Review and the Boston Consulting Group discovered, customer opinion is at the core of many of the green changes that businesses are making today.

“[Companies] are 80 percent more likely to increase collaboration with customers as a result of sustainability than are companies that did not change their business model,” say the authors. “They are also much more likely to collaborate with competitors, suppliers and across their own business units.”

But can customers’ green values and engagement in sustainability be enhanced by business strategies?

Several businesses we consulted recently gave a resounding “yes” to this question. Business strategies and ethics do help to shape a progressive sustainable culture. Yet interestingly, each source we consulted had a different take on what was most crucial to the success of that goal. Here are a few of those tips:

Be willing to walk the walk

Eric Fleet, co-founder of Threads 4 Thought Sustainable Apparel, said that how you portray the significance of your message through your own lifestyle and actions speaks loudly to your customer base. He went on to explain that examples and image resonate when customers see your own conviction to sustainable living -- and when they see how it can be integrated into the lifestyle they live.

“[We] encourage people to live in the most sustainable manner they can while obviously doing all the necessary things they need to do in life,” Fleet told TriplePundit.

MIT and BCG’s research surveyed this question in relation to the message and image put forth by senior management. According to the survey, 62 percent of companies said the CEO’s “strong support for sustainability” appealed to and motivated their customers.

Don’t be preachy

Mariano deGuzman, co-founder of Appalatch Outdoor Apparel Co., said his company emulates this concept of restraint by getting rid of the word “sustainability” in their dialogue and concentrating on how they project the concept through actions. Do more, suggest less.

“We believe that sustainability should be in everything we do and inherent in business as usual. We always talk about doing what is right and treating the people, suppliers, customers and stakeholders with the same respect as friends and family," he told us.

Fleet expressed it a different way: “At the very beginning we were doing all kinds of graphic [T-shirts] that really kind of wore the message or cause on your sleeve, in a sense.” He said he found the “overt” framing of that message didn’t work as well as subtlety. “Try to show them why you care about it and hope that the reasons that [you] feel so passionately about it is how everybody else feels as well.”

Communicate honestly and educate sincerely

MIT/BCG’s survey showed that second to having a strong, confident and “green” CEO at the front lines of sustainable marketing, communication was the next key component to success. Forty-two percent of respondents said clear communication about sustainability goals and measures were critical.

Fleet agreed, saying that it “helps people understand why they need to care about these issues. Being specific and being straightforward definitely helps both our brand but helps the whole sustainable movement as well.”

DeGuzman added that finding ways to educate consumers is also important: “We think that if people really knew how clothing is made, they would really care about responsibly made fashion.”

Be willing to learn and receive feedback

DeGuzman said listening to customer feedback is critical to creating a culture that supports progress in this arena.

“They constantly ask us how we are improving our responsibility to society and the environment when it comes to our manufacturing,” said deGuzman, who noted that customers have often asked about the sustainability of textile dyes. “Because of these questions, we have been accelerating the process of introducing natural dyes in our garments.”

Don’t be afraid of collaboration

MIT/BCG said that 40 percent of respondents confirmed that collaboration with customers increased as a result of the business’ focus on sustainability. They found that being willing to seek out feedback through customer advisory groups, or finding goals that resonate with customers is important.

According to Fleet, community relations projects underscore that message as well. Threads 4 Thought found that the organizations to which it donates help to mirror the goals of the company. This speaks to customers who want to see change in their community.

Businesses committed to sustainable fashion thrive when there is an engaged, committed customer culture that is in sync with their values. Finding that niche is a collaborative process that benefits stakeholders, as well as a vibrant ecology.

Image courtesy of Appalatch Outdoor Apparel Co.

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee