Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Changing The Game

You may be rolling your eyes at War On Want's Big Rebrand (there's still time to get your swing tags, people). It's just a silly little stunt, right? Activism never changed anything.

Well, actually, it does. And in the age of social networking and quicker, slicker ways of getting a view or a message across, fashion activism can be astonishingly effective.

Let's look at one brand, and what the heck, it might as well be the world's biggest. 10 years ago, Nike was the exemplar of everything that was wrong in fashion retailing. Unaccountable, unethical, uncaringly pollutant. But years of activism and boycotts has proved one simply fact to the company: that approach is (Ah-ha!) unsustainable.

In May, Nike produced a sustainability report that was half confessional, half rewrite of the corporate culture. You could argue that they had little choice in the matter, that the old way of doing things was eating into profits and ultimately doing damage to the brand as a whole. But the fact that Nike not only recognise that, but are prepared to put some fairly significant funds behind the changes, shows that they see the way the goalposts are shifting.

Resources are becoming scarce, energy costs are rising. Add that to the pressure from activist groups and concerned consumers turning their back on the brand and--well, something had to give. The great thing is how whole-heartedly Nike have embraced the need to change, and the surprising humility in the report. You could dismiss it as corporate flim-flam, but the fact remains that Nike are spending billions on a root-to-branch reworking of their supply and manufacturing chain, that will increasingly embrace innovation, green thinking and sustainable practice.

What does this mean down the line, especially for Nike's competitors? The fact is that they are all more likely to listen to activists and more importantly, do something about it. Greenpeace's Toxic Challenge highlighted the way big manufacturers were dumping toxic chemicals into rural waterways around the world. Within weeks many of the big players were falling over themselves to announce plans to go toxin-free. It could be that these plans were already in the pipeline, and the Greenpeace action simply appeared at the right time. But in an era when brand loyalty is all-important, any damage that the inherent corporate culture can do to that brand is slowly starting to be edged out.

The claims that the 2012 Games will be the greenest ever is, sadly, under fire precisely because of the refusal of Adidas and others to see past the massive payday that the Olympics has become for them. But they are protective of their brand, and little actions like War On Want's upcoming event could have surprisingly major outcomes. It's a game with a remarkably level playing field, and one where the final score is not at all guaranteed.

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