In his closet, Mariano DeGuzman has a selection of stylish, decades-old clothes – not things he purchased in an upscale vintage boutique, but well-made clothing handed down to him from his grandparents. Those time-tested family heirlooms were the inspiration for what would later become his own clothing company, Appalatch.
DeGuzman and his business partner, Grace Gouin, started their Asheville, North Carolina-based business two years ago with the goal of promoting American-made, ethically-produced goods. The company aims to be an antidote to throwaway “fast fashion” by producing naturally-dyed wool and cotton clothes that people will want to keep, perhaps for generations.
“My grandparents clothes were classic and engineered to last. I think about the clothes I buy today, and they’re engineered to self-destruct after a year,” says deGuzman. “We want customers to think about our clothing and their long-term use by connecting with them emotionally.”
The company’s marketing strategy is to hook people on sustainability, but not by hitting them over the head with the message that it’s the right thing to do. Instead, their website encourages people to value the relationship they develop with the clothes over time and building connections between people based on this shared ideal.
It’s a lesson deGuzman and Gouin had to learn the hard way, after trying to appeal first to those who shared their ethics and considered themselves environmentalists. But to their surprise, they discovered that this group was reluctant to pay more for higher-quality, longer-lasting clothes. Fashion-conscious consumers looking for quality and exclusivity, it turned out, were better customers, and they were attracted to the emotional story of the clothing.
So the company changed tactics. Instead of marketing Appalatch first as a green company, they focused on highlighting what made their clothing unique, and emphasized the emotional bond customers might develop with their products over time. Since making this shift in strategy, sales have increased 20%.
“Storytelling is a huge part of our marketing and not just the story of in-your-face sustainability and ethics … but also wanting to make sure that in our photos, in our blog posts, and in the product descriptions themselves, there are emotional stories that the consumer can connect with,” says Gouin.
Companies that specialize in sustainable products often swim against a powerful tide of cheap, poorly-made goods intended to be quickly discarded. From flimsy household appliances to smart-phones to inexpensive clothes made in sweatshops, consumers scrambling to keep up with rapidly changing trends and technologies get caught in an endless cycle of discard and replace.
In the long run, it costs more than investing in products designed to last. According to the US Federal Reserve, Americans spent 71% more on clothing and shoes in 2013 than they did just a decade and a half earlier. Today, the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the country generates more than 14m tons of textile waste and nearly 2.5m tons of electronic waste annually.
Concerns over the environmental and social impacts of all that waste are leading to a new movement in design innovation aimed at creating stronger personal connections between people and their stuff. Particularly in Europe, research centers, design firms and retailers are experimenting with so-called emotional durability: how to make everyday items both functional and emotionally compelling enough that people want to hold on to them longer.
Products that emulate the concept often reflect some unique quality of the owner’s personal story or taste – a teacup that forms new patterns on its surface as it becomes stained; a colorful messenger bags made from recycled plastic featuring one-of-a-kind patterns.
Emotionally durable design hasn’t caught on as quickly in the US. But some American companies, like Appalatch, are embracing the concept and coming up with marketing strategies that encourage people to prioritize the well made and personally meaningful over what’s new.
These experiments in emotionally durable design are helping to create new expectations about the life cycle of our possessions, says Jonathan Chapman, a professor of sustainable design at the University of Brighton in the UK who developed the concept and authored a book on the subject. But to have a significant impact, he adds, innovative products demand equally innovative marketing.
“The whole marketing approach needs to start with helping people see that we already view material things in this way,” says Chapman. “We are capable of forming attachments, repairing things and keeping stuff. We do it every day.”
The outdoor company Patagonia is a pioneer in emotional durability. It offers free repairs of its products, and its Worn Wear program highlights customers’ stories about their favorite Patagonia clothing and gear. But today a broader spectrum of businesses are experimenting with emotional durability as part of their sustainability platform.
Project Repat, for example, is a two-year-old company that creates quilts from people’s cherished t-shirts. Customers send in their old shirts, which then get stitched together with a fleece backing made from recycled plastic bottles. Co-founder Nathan Rothstein says the company has sold 45,000 quilts and recycled about a million shirts.
The Appalatch website encourages people to make emotional connections with their products in various ways. A first-person blog penned by deGuzman, Gouin and other staff features luminous photos of their products alongside personal stories – about how Gouin learned to make natural dyes from the plants in her garden, for example – with how-to’s about how to care for clothing as long-term investments. One entry explains how to use special stones to remove fuzzy pilling from sweaters, and “home ec” lessons on using dryer balls and laundering in sustainable ways to prolong the life of clothing. The blog encourages feedback and interaction from customers.
The company also emphasizes the individuality of its products. Last summer, the company purchased a special knitting machine to make customized wool sweaters. Rather than mass-producing sweaters that sit around in a warehouse waiting to be purchased, the company lets customers provide their measurements, and the machine knits the sweater on demand. It arrives in a “keepsake” quality box complete with cedar balls and instructions for laundering and storage, signaling that it is meant to endure.
So far, there’s scant research on whether the promotion of emotional durability really leads to reduced consumption overall. And there’s a potential downside to features like personalization, warns Tim Cooper, professor of sustainable design and consumption at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and editor of the book “Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society.”
“As soon as product is personalized and unique, you might keep it longer, but to a second user it might be less desirable,” says Cooper, who also cautions that attachment to an item doesn’t necessarily ensure that the product will change the owner’s consumption habits.
Google’s new smartphone, Project Ara, set for release early this year, might be a good test. The Ara phone is modular, made of many interlocking parts that can be easily swapped out as technology changes and new features become available rather than becoming obsolete within a year or two. Customers can choose colors and designs, creating “a colorful canvas to tell your own story,” the Project Ara website promises. But while it’s marketed as a product that can be personalized, users can also exchange parts with one another, so there’s less of a barrier for subsequent users.
Ara is also a powerful example of a developing corporate interest in emotional durability. Jonathan Chapman sees potential for products like this to engage large, vibrant online user communities – and in doing so, encourage brand loyalty. Companies will build market share, he says, if they successfully create forums where customers can exchange tips and parts, generating enthusiasm and connection with their products.
“You feel that you are part of something, not just someone clicking their way through Amazon’s pathways until you end up with that thing. It’s a slightly richer way to engage with your stuff.”
For Chapman, these approaches to marketing sustainability have much more potential than methods employed a decade or two ago, which tended to use guilt trips and scare tactics to encourage sustainable purchasing decisions and ended up turning people off.
That’s been borne out by Project Repat’s experience as well. The company’s website informs customers about its sustainability practices, which include contracting with fair wage manufacturing companies in North Carolina in Massachusetts and reducing landfill waste. Rothstein says most customers don’t come to them because of these practices. But it’s something they end up feeling good about, and that reinforces their emotional connection with the product.
“It’s reaching people who may not be thinking about recycling or fair wage work, but by reaching a much broader audience … you actually can grow the sustainability movement.”