"You Are How You Buy" was the premise that kicked off the second day of ModaLisboa's Check Point. “We are what we buy”, an influencer, an institution, or a friend tells us; but let us not forget that the way we buy is equally crucial. That “how” has the power to link practices, ideas, consciences and especially communities. Big and small. It also has the power to turn off the "unconscious" without even giving the switch. In the urgency of decision-making, we hear countless opinions and perspectives on how we can accelerate and disentangle the process of education (and re-education) of industries and consumers. Time is the greatest adversary of these two sides, being used both for and against circumstances; but if in the space of an hour it was possible to find several answers, let us imagine what might be achievable through dialogues and daily actions.
The conversation was moderated by Manuel Moreira and had the participation of three guests from different areas, who share the same drive: promoting more sustainable behaviors and habits.
Maria João Rocha is the co-founder of The Level store, an online second-hand and vintage clothing store. 10 years of experience in the Fashion industry made her abandon a professional reality out of alignment with the attempt to live a more zero waste and sustainable life, thus creating a space of careful and thoughtful consumption, which bypasses the most harmful factor in the industry, the clothing production.
Eunice Maia is also a co-founder, but of the organic grocery of bulk products, Maria Granel. Betting on tradition and ‘saudade’, the space was born with the desire to recover the spirit of neighborhood grocery stores and to pay tribute to the roots and communities from which the founders come from, Azores and Minho.
The work of Ângela Morgado, Executive Director of the NGO WWF Portugal, supports the difficult and challenging task of raising funds to invest in nature conservation, convincing governments and companies of political, associative and economic power, to transform their activities into more sustainable practices. Following the same mission, WWF also provides information to citizens in order to promote an open circle, made up of informed and active people, who contribute to a conscious future.
Consumer and Industry. Who is most responsible for the change?
In the midst of countless “pointing fingers”, this is one of the issues that insists on raising voices. Each sector, each level, defends its difficulties as indisputable mitigations, incapable of being changed or improved; and by default, the small and large efforts that each of these roles can invoke are forgotten; as a potential “hidden harm”. Under the idea shared by Manuel, that the consumer is pressured to take responsibility for much of the change (regardless of his individual difficulties), Ângela believes that there is a wrong, and global, idea that major transformations are difficult and lonely; WWF defends the distribution of responsibility throughout society, in the name of a better quality of life. Consumers, industries, and political power form a single fabric made up of actions adapted to each context; in the case of consumers, their responsibility is to remain informed in order to create a more responsible consumption profile.
It is certain that the feeling of powerlessness and defeat in the face of a catastrophic scenario, is inevitable; sometimes ordinary people do not have the availability or the socio-economic position necessary to have access to the tools of transformation: unfortunately, access to quality information and the power to choose how to live are still two forms of privilege. However, the large layer that holds these possibilities also carries the role of spreading information and embracing more people in this change in behavior.
Eunice tells us that from the moment she opened Maria Granel in the Alvalade neighborhood, she also carried a counter-cycle concept in her hands: given the convenience of a supermarket, her grocery store asked consumers to slow down; Bulk selling implies a slow purchase, and planning of quantities or the necessary containers, from home. Right from this first step, conscious consumption happens, unconsciously. The first customer to bring their own bottles (the practice is based on the acronym “BYOC”, bring your own container), appeared weeks after the opening, and the event was celebrated in the middle of the store; those present watched the client who was getting supplies, and from there, as a phenomenon, the rest of the clients started to do the same. Currently, Maria Granel is proud of its transgenerational profile, receiving older customers who visit the store for the nostalgic factor and younger generations looking for new consumption habits. Indirectly, or subliminally, Maria Granel embraces her people in this sustainability mission, and proves that with messages of optimism, it is possible to bring more people into a positive future scenario. The message is unanimous: there is no single engine; we are all responsible for the change; the conscious consumer has the power to transform supply and the industry, the power to respond effectively. However, the current state of urgency requires that the distribution of efforts be studied: the introduction of a sustainability culture is a slow education process, as we are talking about the withdrawal of decades and decades of increasing consumerism.
"It is necessary to talk about individual freedom and give power to each individual to make decisions for themselves, for their conscience and for the information that is in their hands. The consumer will not suddenly stop consuming, it is something that is done with education, a lot of patience, and not from one generation to the next. The moment of urgency that we are experiencing requires that responsibility be shifted to the side of power and large-scale impact, which is why it is essential to put pressure on large companies.”
Sustainability and its Synonyms
In the path towards a greater understanding of sustainability, it is also necessary to recognize the different approaches that it can take. Ângela reminds us that in addition to the environmental context, sustainability extends to sectors such as health, nutrition (as a general rule, a sustainable diet will also be a healthier diet) and economics, as sometimes, more responsible products are also those of more accessible value. Together, all of these issues form what we can consider quality of life, something that is in everyone's interest and that overcome socioeconomic and literacy barriers: it is a value sought and sought after by any lifestyle.
Outside the individual sphere, we have another type of sustainability that appeals to our collective conscience: ethical sustainability. The probability of wearing an organic cotton t-shirt at this moment is great, given that the “green labels” are well democratized in the fast fashion market; but who actually cut, sewed, or ironed that t-shirt? Are you a mother? How many hours do you work a day? What is the reality of that person? If we pay attention, all these issues are visible to the naked eye, yet ignored by a consumer who does not want to think about what is happening on the other side of the world. Ideas like polyester or recycled cotton are easier to observe, communicate and consequently sell to the consumer; the human factor prevails as a subject that is difficult to solve, or explain, but that needs to be demystified and considered when purchasing.
The Case of Fashion
We continue with this reflection on responsible consumption, now in the direction of the Fashion industry. Questioned about the challenges and growth of her business, Maria João recognizes that although The Level depends on worldwide circulation and transport, this same factor proves to be both necessary and positive; major brands operate on the same method, and The Level manages to cut a large part of its impact, just because it does not produce clothing. The online store wants to facilitate access to second-hand clothes, for an audience that is not used to consuming this type of product, through a sharp but also careful image.
“We want to be the alternative for Zara and H&M. The Level's client knows our aesthetics and knows what is looking for, but what we have noticed is that this same client is not necessarily a sustainable consumer; we are simply facilitating something he was going to do ... but when that customer chooses to buy at The Level, he is at the same time choosing not to buy fast fashion; and this is a very positive gesture.”
Maria João believes that it is possible to scale the business and that the biggest challenges will always be the clothes shipping, due to the digital nature of the store, as well as the consumer education.
“Who buys second-hand clothes, knows that the process and the demand are quite exhausting; and I think this is the biggest reason that keeps people away from this type of purchase. I usually say that we do dirty work for our customers, because we try to get around this step, and even because many people do not feel comfortable doing it. Convenience is a factor that greatly undermines the path to sustainable consumption, and needs to be relieved from our pattern of consumer behavior.”
Duel of Scales
We now understand that between the consumer and the industry there is a range of responsibilities and practices to adopt, in the name of a future of conscious consumption. It is up to us to better understand the role of each company, large and small scale, in promoting change. It is a common and general idea to think that microenterprises lose to large companies and corporations in terms of reach; there is a feeling here that resources are unfairly distributed, as small-scale businesses represent major efforts for change, while industry “giants” continue to agree with convenient and greedy practices; Ângela explains it to us better:
“At both levels, there are good and bad processes; according to WWF's opinion, according to their own scale, everyone must transform their business into something more sustainable. Regardless of its impact, responsibility and good practices will have to be shared, only then will we be able to find a positive solution for everyone. We need to transform production chains, product sourcing and focus on major sources of pollution.”
In the end, Ana Costa from the Catalyst platform, shares with us a series of data that, in addition to being informative, carry with them a great reflection for “today” and for tomorrow:
“The Global Fashion Agenda is a forum that develops annual reports, which measure the Fashion force. The first was published in 2017 and at this moment we can already consult the 2018 and 2019; and what is said in this most recent report is that it is the big brands that are mobilizing sustainability, as well as investing in innovation. So, when you think that large groups and brands are not doing anything for the sustainability of the industry, it is important that we all have the notion that this is not the case. These three studies also show that the pace of innovation in relation to sustainability is slowing; this means that the easiest issues to deal with have already been resolved, obviously for large industries this is something simple to streamline, because with the right investments, there is a big leap. Therefore, it is important to underline that sometimes buying smaller or niche brands is not necessarily the most correct act. On the other hand, responsibility is shared 360 degrees, not only by brands and consumers, but also by institutions, the media, influencers, content creators, by ModaLisboa, by schools ... only together will we be able to go further; But big changes will not be achieved by pointing the finger.”