Sustainability is good, but is it fun?

March 16, 2021
Over the last 20 years, Charles Ross, who lives in the UK, has been helping develop the next generation of designers. He now lectures at the Royal College of Art; acts as a mentor for the Design Council; sits on the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) textile committee. WRAP wrote the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), which formed the basis for the European Clothing Action Plan (ECAP); and contributed to Fixing Fashion (the UK Parliament’s report on fast fashion).

One of the original team behind the academic subject of performance sportswear design, Charles’ roots are within the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group but he is most proud of being part of The DO Lectures team, which brings together disruptors, change makers, experts and pioneers, to share their stories and encourage others to go and ‘Do’.

While being a heavyweight in sustainability and related topics he is also a truly humble and friendly guy, always happy to share his time to talk, swap ideas and find new angles on things. We were therefore excited to interview him and see what came out this time – and we were not disappointed.

“So, let me start with my focus. I work with both the very big issues as well as the very small. The reason is that most stuff that makes it into the news is somewhere in the middle. Too small to really address the overarching issues, but too big to have concrete actions and solutions. So, to me, the interesting things lie at the ends of this spectrum”, Charles begins.

This might immediately strike you as applicable to management in most companies. Most things that are called ‘strategy’ or take place in, say, the annual budget setting, are in this middle place. If you plan next year’s budget or coming collections, you seldom really have the chance to take a step back and view the bigger perspective of the overall direction. On the other hand, it doesn’t give you the time or resources to set the little things right either. But back to Charles…

We discuss how the pandemic has changed the relationship we have with our clothes. Chatting as we were via Zoom, our guest points out that being stuck at home and communicating largely via screens is changing the way we both choose and use our clothing. And, perhaps without even realizing it, we have become even more closely defined by how we look.

“So much communication these days is non-verbal; we live very much in a more visual world, so our clothing is communicating messages that we don’t have to say. This was happening before Covid, and the pandemic has emphasized it a lot more.

“We’ve had the boom in people buying tops to appear on video calls. But also, because we’ve been at home, we’ve rationalized our own wardrobe and decided ‘no, I do have standards, and this is what I want to be seen in rather than the latest trendy design.”

“Most of the people I know have now been able to afford the nice gear they want because for the last year we’ve not been spending the money. So, if we want to upgrade to an art character jacket, we can now buy it.”

And once we’re allowed to get back to socializing and traveling and all the other things we’ve missed over the past year, will these types of behavior stay with us?

Charles believes they will – so long as, for both consumers and the industry, we don’t forget about all the things that clothes gives us.

“Clothing does a number of things. It has a practical role; it’s got a comfort role, which has developed especially in the last 50 years; and then, in the last 30 years, it’s developed a tribal identification role. Your choice of clothes shows your tribe. And if the ‘tribal belonging’ is wearing environmentally conscious brands it will spread to the rest of your life. You will ask yourself if you really need two cars, or perhaps put solar panels on your house.”

We agree that it is what we consumers choose to do that sets most of the outcomes. We need to assess our own behavior. Charles points out that every local grocery store has blueberries and raspberries available year-round, but we don’t talk airmiles around them. Everything is choice. Blueberries, t-shirts, travel – it is all about what we choose to do and how often.

“That’s what I have always liked about Polygiene! You don’t say ‘buy more’, you encourage people to wash less, to discard less and such. You are about the behavioral change, and not just more consumption. That is a really good approach.”

This is of course pleasing for us to hear. But what if we are polarizing the world, and the environmentally conscious go off on their tribe but leave the rest behind?

“Yes, the industry often forgets that clothes are supposed to be fun, too! Every kid played with clothes, dressing up in their parents’ clothes or roleplaying police and cowboys and what not. Some of that is still in us when we grow up. You know a lot of the brands that are now the stars in the industry started with something quirky and fun. Fun t-shirts have started more brands than you would believe. But then they sort of forget the humor.”

It’s easy to relate to this. And it seems like the more environmental and sustainable in general a brand is, the more they risk losing the fun aspect. And perhaps as a consumer we want to be with the good guys, but don’t want to look like someone who lives off roots and elderberries and hasn’t laughed since Al Gore’s movie came out.

But can we put this to action in our industry?

“Athleisure has brought that fun and that enjoyment back to clothing. And I think that’s a lesson that we should learn from,” Charles observes.

“You see, the first thing you must do is to be profitable. Only profitable companies stay in business and only companies that stay in business can change anything, plus they will take their customer with them on this journey.

“So, it is better to be in motion away from a bad place, whilst we work out where we should be going to do better things – because knowledge evolves. And perhaps the most important thing to be profitable is to remember to be fun.

“So, everywhere you can do the fun and suggestive and imaginative, go for it. It is the way to build tribes, and tribes in turn change behaviors together.”

That sounds fun to us!

Stay tuned for our next article!

“We’ve had the boom in people buying tops to appear on video calls..”
charles ross

Charles Ross