ASOS boss: The circular economy is the only way forward for fashion retailers

Fashion retailers that fail to adopt circular economy principles and encourage consumers to make their clothes last longer will fail to survive in a new era of consumer awareness, ASOS's chief executive Nick Beighton has argued.

Speaking at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) hearing on Tuesday (27 November), Beighton appeared alongside representatives from Boohoo and Missguided as part of a debate surrounding the social and environmental impacts of online “fast fashion” brands.

During the hearing, Geraint Davies MP asked the panel how they were addressing accusations that their company business models are “built on frequent purchasing” and their advertising therefore “motivates people to dispose of clothing more quickly”.

“Some years ago, we realised what is blindingly obvious now – that unless we close the loop on sustainability, demonstrate responsible behaviour and actually act on our claims, they will buy less from us,” Beighton responded.

“We are commercially incentivised to get this right. We’ve gone through that journey already.”

Recent EAC research revealed that UK residents are consuming new clothing at a faster rate than their counterparts in mainland Europe, purchasing an average of 26.7kg every year. The World Wear Project similarly estimates that the average household generates more than 35kg of waste clothing annually, with 85% being sent to landfill.

Beighton cited the fact that ASOS conducts life-cycle analysis to test for product durability at all stages of every line’s life as evidence that the brand was “refusing to design for single-use”, highlighting the company’s decision to offer onsite information on post-purchase product care on every item.

“We’ve got to a place where the take-make-dispose society and approach to manufacturing has to end,” he argued.

“[The circular economy] is not an area where competitive advantage should work – this ought to be something that’s open-source.”

ASOS, which stocks more than 850 brands and has 18 million customers worldwide, notably requires all of its core designers to have undertaken a sustainable fashion training programme with a specific focus on circularity and resource efficiency. According to Beighton, this training will be complete by the end of 2018, embedding circular principles in ASOS’s products from the design stage.

Responsible advertising?

Beighton highlighted the fact that ASOS never emphasises prices in its advertisements as evidence that it was not encouraging young consumers to buy past the point of necessity in the name of cost savings.

This strategy has led to the average ASOS consumer purchasing three items, three times a year, Beighton said. Nonetheless, Beighton was unable to cite an example of the company promoting the longevity or durability of a product in its advertising.

Boohoo’s joint chief executive Carol Kane argued that her company aimed to foster a “very similar [advertising] experience” to ASOS, despite the fact that it markets dresses based on price for as little as £5.

She justified the company’s decision to advertise in this way as a way of “striking a balance between commerciality and sustainability”, with cheap dresses acting as a loss-leader for the firm.

Specifically, she highlighted the fact that Boohoo has been publishing “how to wear” videos alongside its products since it was founded in 2006.

“These demonstrate to customers how to wear things lots of times in lots of ways,” Kane explained. “We’ve also worked with quite a lot of influencers on this issue, which is about encouraging the multiple uses of anything that we are currently selling.”

Missguided’s head of product quality and supply, Paul Smith, was then asked why his brand targeted its advertising at young women within Instagram’s fashion community, where influencers regularly wear items once before discarding them.

“Our mission is to empower women to look and feel comfortable for any occasion they may find themselves in,” he argued.

“We do live in the Instagram generation, but we don’t promote the use of our clothing as a one-off – there is a longevity and a quality built into our product, which we are invested in.”

Experts have previously argued that these purchasing and disposal trends are evidence that the “democratisation of fashion” – a process which has made the latest trends accessible to customers from all economic backgrounds – has led to poor value for shoppers.

Sarah George

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