NORTH CAROLINA – Recently, I saw the news that American-made outdoor apparel brand Kitsbow was closing down. Kitsbow was an employee-owned apparel company made in Old Fort, North Carolina — my home state and one with a long history of textile manufacturing which has been gutted by globalization. Sadly, this was the first in a string of closures populating my LinkedIn feed. These announcements made me wonder: are we witnessing the slow demise of responsibly-minded, high-quality, independent apparel brands?
The rhetoric around the need and demand for more sustainable fashion has never been higher. Small independent brands like Kitsbow or my brand, Senza Tempo, prioritize the qualities the supposedly sustainably minded shopper holds dear: ethical and largely local production, high-quality materials, and thoughtful design. Why are so many small brands struggling?
Every business failure has its own story of what went wrong. The last few years have been challenging for retail brands of any size. But 30 years of environmental and labour exploitation has kept apparel prices depressed relative to overall inflation. This has created deeply entrenched, misguided price expectations about what apparel should cost, placing any responsibly produced brand on the defensive to justify their higher-than-average price point that simply reflects the true costs of production. The continued fallout from the pandemic, economic uncertainty and high inflation are creating a cost of living crisis, making consumers even more price sensitive. These macroeconomic factors are only part of the story, however.
All brands must be able to reach potential customers. However, there are systemic factors that put independent, responsibly-minded brands at a significant disadvantage threatening their ability to thrive and survive.
While exposure has never been free, the current digital, social, and traditional media landscape has become a pure pay-to-play system. And it is one that increasingly excludes independent brands that lack large marketing budgets. The internet and social media’s promise of being a great equalizer helping small brands reach a wider audience fades with every algorithm implementation.
While many independent brands aim to serve a specific market niche and are not looking to achieve massive scale, businesses of all sizes still need to reach potential customers, and this has become increasingly — shockingly — expensive. The cost of exposure via digital ads has skyrocketed over the last few years — Facebook ads were up 61%, Google Ads +75% last year and continue to rise. Is it any wonder the U.S. government has brought legal action against Meta and Google looking to break up their respective monopoly power?
Affiliate marketing has replaced earned media at many traditional media outlets, especially the magazine industry. Meanwhile, the democracy of social media’s early days has been replaced by algorithms that promote sponsors and content that serves the platform’s goals. Consumers follow brands for their content, but often only see a fraction of the brands they’ve opted to see if that content doesn’t align with the platform’s wider goals. Instagram’s shift to video to compete with Tik Tok is one of the best examples.
The skyrocketing cost of digital ads and the way any brand can dominate key search terms has the affect of crowding out independent brands. No small business can compete with the marketing budgets of a public or VC-backed brand. Independent brands cannot afford to run their business at a loss while trying to achieve brand awareness. Every dollar spent on marketing with an uncertain ROI is a dollar less to spend on quality materials and production.
In Senza Tempo’s early days, many clients organically found the brand by searching for classic quality fashion or American-made fashion. These topics populate the journal and product descriptions. Today, fast fashion and other brands that don’t technically meet the search criteria dominate those searches.
Between algorithms and ads, exposure goes to the highest bidder. Authenticity or even accuracy is irrelevant. Whoever has the budget to buy exposure will dominate the headlines and the narrative as the mainstream sustainability narrative demonstrates.
Large established brands along with VC or PE start-ups promote the misguided narrative that shopping sustainably is about consuming products that feature a checklist of meaningless adjectives and unregulated certifications. It’s a narrative that works against the philosophy that drives most independent, quality-driven brands.
The greenwashy, gimmicky noise that dominates fashion’s sustainability narrative drowns out quiet, quality-driven brands like Senza Tempo. What generates headlines and buzz does not make for a better product. Quality and craftsmanship facilitate the physical durability of the product as well as emotional durability.
Physical and emotional durability is what apparel has lost over the last 30 years. Focusing on sustainability initiatives that target these lost features would do more to create a sustainable fashion industry than any resale platform or innovations in recycling or materials, but we never read about what brands are doing to make a more durable product.
Fashion’s outsized environmental impact stems from overproduction and underutilization. How brands produce and how consumers use what they buy, along with how much, is what has changed over the last three decades — not expensive certification standards. Certifications that aren’t regulated and have no legal standing, thus are really performative and costly marketing exercises that crowd out small brands.
These certifications, along with exotic technology innovations, drive media coverage which in turn attracts funding. Bloomberg’s Matt Levine wrote there’s no bigger herd animal than a Silicon Valley VC — except for those in fashion I’d argue. Look at the brands and initiatives funded. How much money and coverage has textile recycling or mushroom tech received? Yet neither are close to achieving scale, nor do they address fashion’s fundamental problem of overproduction and overconsumption.
On the brand funding side, how many “sustainable” brands are aesthetically indistinguishable? The unbearable sameness of Instagram permeates retail broadly, but it is especially true in the “sustainable” brand space. For investors, it’s seen as less risky to simply try to copy others or previous successes. No matter how many green adjectives or QR codes you attach to a product, it isn’t very sustainable to produce thousands of units of virtually the same clothing with a different logo.
The current system works against independent brands committed to quality. Not one organization, including well-meaning non-profits, includes the quality of the product or even how brands encourage re-wearing or maximum reuse of their product in their rankings of “sustainable brands”. If you don’t have the right buzzwords attached to your product, then your brand doesn’t have a chance to make these “sustainable brands” lists.
Many independent niche brands like Senza Tempo do not need or want to scale but still need to reach new potential customers. The number one comment I receive from new clients: It’s so hard to find clothes like Senza Tempo creates. If potential customers can’t find niche brands online how can they possibly survive?
What do independent brands need to survive and thrive in today’s environment? Policy makers must find a way to put responsibly run brands on more equal footing. As the law currently stands, brands which produce in the US paying living wages receive no benefits, incentives or tax advantages for producing domestically; companies that offshore to far away countries with lax environmental and labour laws are not penalized. Regulators must also address the rampant eco-claims that dominate the sustainability narrative and have done little to create meaningful change.
In the absence of regulation, it’s up to small brands like Senza Tempo to help re-shape the dominant if misguided narrative around sustainable fashion. The question is how to amplify our collective voices.
About the author: Kristen Fanarakis is the owner of Senza Tempo Fashion (www.senzatempofashion.com)