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Fashion Week Reminder: Balancing CSR and Public Relations

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Consumer Trends
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The market research firm Clutch is out with a new report that provides some good advice for businesses that want to leverage their corporate social responsibility (CSR) platforms for publicity: tread carefully.

The devil is in the details

The report is in the form of an article straightforwardly titled, “How Businesses Can Approach Corporate Social Responsibility and Public Relations.”

To construct the report, Clutch asked 420 U.S. consumers how they expect businesses to show their commitment to social responsibility. Two intertwining trends emerged.

First, today’s consumers do place a great deal of importance on corporate social responsibility. In fact, a significant majority expects corporations to make a commitment to social responsibility. The expectations are especially high for categories that are intimately entwined with daily life: food, technology, and fashion.

Second, this report reiterates that consumers also expect companies to back up their words with action:

“People expect businesses to do more than simply express support for a cause and call it corporate social responsibility; they want to see businesses act on social issues."

That sounds simple enough. However, the devil is in the details, as Clutch warns:

“…corporate social responsibility is not ‘one size fits all.’

“Businesses must consider their customers’ values, their brand's unique purpose, and where they can make the most impact when implementing a corporate social responsibility effort.”
 

This all boils down to a complicated balancing act. Clutch suggests that companies can work out an effective strategy by asking themselves three simple questions:

  • What actions do my customers want?
  • Which issues align with my brand?
  • How am I uniquely positioned to make an impact?

Saving the planet with swimwear

That’s a lot to digest, and Clutch peppers the report with a generous dose of examples and mini case studies as illustration.

Coincidentally, earlier this week TriplePundit had an opportunity to speak with the high-end New York fashion designer Mara Hoffman, who is President of her eponymous named company, Mara Hoffman. Her company’s recent shift into the recycled materials supply chain mirrors some of the points made by Clutch.

In 2017 Mara Hoffman struck up a relationship with the fabric solutions company Unifi to use its recycled plastic fabric, REPREVE, in her swimwear collection.

If REPREVE rings some bells, back in 2015 3p took note of its use by Ford for upholstering the seats of its iconic F-150 pickup trucks.

That’s quite a leap to the world of high fashion, but in essence it is a seamless one.

“Moving in to recycled material was a natural evolution,” Hoffman explained. “Four years ago, our company was 15 years old and we were on a different trajectory. We were poised to grow, but we literally hit a wall.”

Hoffman attributes the company’s “change or die moment” four years ago to an environmental awareness sparked by her three-year-old son.

Since then, her company has embarked on a slate of CSR measures focusing on sustainable fibers, trims and packaging.

She is also keenly aware that designers and manufacturers can push the corporate social responsibility movement ahead of consumers, though she emphasizes the importance of doing so in a way that engages customers:

“It’s always hopeful and exciting to hear that consumers are holding us accountable, but the price point can be an obstacle.

"Trying to compete in this [high end] space is difficult, and you are speaking to a privileged silo.

“The important thing is that the conversation is spreading, and you can communicate and do it in a way in which people feel part of the change, and feel that their purchases do matter.”

Engagement matters

That element of communicating and engaging is a critical factor, and Hoffman’s relationship with Unifi demonstrates how partnerships and collaboration can have a broad impact on brand identity.

By choosing to feature REPREVE in the textured swimwear part of her collection, Hoffman builds on brand recognition of REPREVE as a high-performance fiber. That reputation has been established by other early adopters in the sportswear field.

The swimwear angle also connects Hoffman — and by extension, her customers — to a global community of people and businesses working to reduce ocean plastic pollution.

That echoes the approach taken by AB InBev’s Corona brand, when it launched new biodegradable six-pack rings last year. The Corona brand is built around beach lifestyle and the company takes an active role in recovering ocean waste from beaches.

Unifi also underscores and reinforces consumer engagement with Hoffman’s company by tracking the number of plastic bottles it recycles into fabric, in real time, on a REPREVE web page featuring Hoffman’s swimwear collection.

CSR and PR

Because Hoffman embraces her customers and her products in a holistic way that reflects her personal views, the publicity follows naturally.

One example occurred earlier this week, when Hoffman received a “REPREVE Champions of Sustainability Award” from Unifi in during New York Fashion Week, in recognition of her commitment to socially conscious fashion.

The award formally credits Hoffman with having a hand in Unifi’s recycled supply chain, which currently stands at 14 billion bottles (yes, that’s billion) and counting.

In a conversation with TriplePundit, Helen Sahi, Vice President of Global Corporate Sustainability for Unifi, noted that Hoffman exemplifies a trend in which both consumers and designers are growing awareness together.

“Designers are recognizing that 80 percent to 90 percent of the footprint of their product comes from their design. They are learning how to design out waste, and design for recycling,” she explained.

The association with Hoffman can also catapult Unifi into new markets, as Sahi explained in a press statement:

“The Mara Hoffman brand perfectly represents what the fashion industry can achieve when it pairs visionary leadership with sustainable materials that perform at the highest level with reduced environmental impact,” said Sahi.

This is just the beginning. Unifi has set a goal of recycling 20 billion bottles by 2020 and 30 billion by 2022.

Image credit: Mara Hoffman

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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