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Book Reviews

Sustainable Fashion: Italian style and quality too

Il Bello E Il Buono - Marco Ricchetti, Maria Luisa Frisa

Il Bello E Il Buono – Le Ragioni Della Moda Sostenibile
[English: The Beautiful and the Good: Reasons for Sustainable Fashion.
Publication of translation scheduled for 02/2013.]
Editors: Marco Ricchetti, Maria Luisa Frisa
ISBN: 9788831709101 (Italian original)
ISBN: 9788831712606 (English translation; out 03/2013 app.)

The ethical fashion world is divided. This is old news. Only: I’m talking of geographical and linguistic divisions rather than those of opinions. Even on a European level, the consequence for instance is that English books are hardly ever translated into any of the other languages. And vice versa.
In this post hence, I would like to take a first step to remedy this by reviewing a book that for now has only been published in Italian , although the English translation is scheduled to become available early spring 2013.

Where Kate Fletcher’s books are the ultimate handbooks for fashion creatives and don’t leave much to be desired to guarantee them a dedicated space on the designer’s bookshelf, this is the first book that makes – at least in parts – a serious attempt at creating a compelling business case for sustainability in the fashion industry.

But let’s start at the beginning, and look at how the contents and topics are structured, and build momentum.

The book is divided into five parts, of which the fifth and last is a visual journey across the different brands mentioned in the book.
The other four parts are composed of chapters addressed to practitioners and businesses, and aim at building the foundation of a business case by addressing the most important and relevant variables:

  • Foundations: In the Anglo-Saxon world of sustainable fashion this section would normally be dedicated to the environmental impact of the fashion industry as a whole, the material processes that cause them, and the invention and evolution of the fast fashion phenomenon.
    The approach in this book is quite different, and in a sense more radical. It tries to take the sustainability sceptics by their horns, by asking – and answering – one single question from three different angles: Why should we engage in sustainability in first place?
    The three angles are: risk management and stakeholder engagement; sustainability, metrics, and the shareholders; and customer relationship management.
    These chapters alone merit buying (and reading) the book – simply because so far hardly anyone has cared to spell the need for responsible (sustainable) business behaviour out for executives in the fashion industry as it is done here.
    It is an almost compelling opening for a book considering that – or maybe precisely because – Italy as a market is otherwise considerable lagging in this discussion.
  • Designs and Materials: It is this chapter which explains the range of challenges that arise – environmentally, socially – in relation to the manufacturing of textiles and fashion. While interesting, this section is in fact the weakest in the book, but at the same time could not be left out simply because it illustrates – in Italian, for the Italian market – to what extent the state-of-the-art has progressed already, not the least on an international level. Well thought through though is the fact that every aspect, from concepts such as ‘upcycling’ to the certification discussion, is suitably localised: The exposé starts off from a pan-European angle, but in the end always illustrates the key points by citing examples taken from Italian brands, and their market and consumers.
    The principle merit of this section is that it lifts the technical discussion to a level which is conceptual and theoretical at the same time, which allows the reader to progress beyond the specifics of a given brand to look at the processes and impact of an industry as a whole, and where its strengths and weaknesses are.
  • Consumers: Together with the first section, the insights we are provided with in this part of the book contain some of the gold nuggets of this book. For starters: There is very little pan-European research into how consumers perceive products with ‘eco’ or ‘green’ credentials. It is for the first time that we consumer clichés are compared across European geographies, and are then detailed for one specific geographic market (Italy in this case). This is unique, because there remains an eternal marketing doubt about how to position a ‘sustainable’ product, as well as if the old ages clichés indeed to affect the image we have of ourselves if we opt to buy better product.
    The answers are short and couldn’t be any clearer: While consumers overall are positive about ‘better’ products being around, their mental image of how these look – and as a consequence how such products will look on them – is undoubtedly stuck in the past. For one, the assumption is that sustainable fashion can be identified visually as being ‘good’ – namely, through its lack of attractive design. And second: The typical ‘sustainable’ consumer in Italy is either a female hippy that suffers with plants, or else the wife of an affluent personality at liberty to spend vast amounts of money egoistically on her own well being.
    The conclusion from this section is clear: We’re light years away from a reality where sustainability and fashion go well together in the mainstream.
  • Doing Business: The fourth, and as far as written content goes, last section of this book deals with more practical issues of how to make sustainability work in the business context. It is, in essence, about business models, business attitudes and the processes to make sustainability work for brands and manufacturers.
    From possibly shocking insights that ‘business as usual’ – meaning: continuous growth – being a thing of the past, to the fact that raise of sustainable fashion can be traced to be a consumer need by such a simple tool as Google trends, and the role of process and certification frameworks to help brands and manufactures achieve their goals, this section mentions it all.
    Interestingly also: the concept of True Cost Accounting – most recently and prominently in the news through Puma’s Environmental Profit & Loss Accounts – is mentioned as an unavoidable necessity to become reality rather sooner than later.
    Worth noting: This statement was written down before Puma had even made any public statements about their E P&L …

Summary and Conclusion
If I had to choose 2 books from the ethical fashion arena to be stranded with on a deserted island, it would without a doubt be Kate Fletcher’s most recent work, and Il Bello E Il Buono. Between them, they make a robust case for the sustainable fashion cause, both from a designer’s (Fletcher) and from a business’ (Il Bello e Il Buono) point of view.
There are areas where I however see room for improvement in this present volume. While the book is certainly the first to even try and tackle the business case for sustainability in the fashion industry, it could do it sharper, and in a less general way. The book in its current form is adequate for Italy and its market specifics, but it still falls short to make a strong and unmistakeable case in point for the fashion industry as a whole.
Aspects such as innovation or certification are all presented, but with exception of the introductory part, they all fall short of the actual business case. A business case notably, if tackled well, would not only apply to the fashion industry, but thanks to our industry’s complexity and conservative attitudes, would make an equally compelling point for pretty much every other industry on the globe.

The book is no doubt a worthy read, well written, concise and with many very explained arguments. Its style is enjoyable while at the same time demanding full attention by its reader.
And: It shows once more that sustainability is a journey, not a goal in itself.

This book is available from your nearest book store as well as online from Amazon, in both, the Italian Version as well as (soon) the English Version.

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