Whether it is the high-end labels of Prada or Versace or the high-street brands of Carrefour, Monoprix, and Marks and Spencer, a growing number of professionals in the fashion and retail business are responding to a latent public demand for ethical and green products.
In support of these efforts, the United Nations Environment Program is working on a new initiative dubbed "shopping for a better world," which aims to influence the $7 trillion global retail industry. At the same time, new partnerships with people from the fashion world hope to bring environmental messages to a new and increasingly influential audience.
"Consumers, especially the young, are often confronted with the seemingly contradictory choice of wanting to help the planet and the hedonistic desire to buy the latest 'must-have' brands", said UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer, speaking in Brussels at the opening of the European Commission's Green Week.
"But, what can be more modern, more fashionable, than caring about our planet," Mr. Toepfer continued. "By working with the retail and fashion industry, we can help change attitudes towards consumption, and ultimately people's actions."
The new UNEP activities are the latest element of UNEP's work to advance the positive sides of sustainable consumption and production. Earlier this year, to encourage more people to embrace so-called sustainable consumerism, UNEP launched a new project that puts an emphasis on marketing "attractive" or "desirable" lifestyles as a key way to sell environmentally preferable products.
"UNEP has stepped up its activities with the retail sector, whose role lies in helping to change unsustainable consumption patterns", said Mr. Toepfer. "We are also starting to work with partners in the fashion industry, in order to show how sustainable lifestyles can be fashionable and 'cool' as young people might say."
One of the first emerging partners in this area is the award-winning Web-based global fashion magazine, Lucire.
According to Lucire's Founding Publisher, Jack Yan, "Fashion magazines should not only communicate the labels and their offerings, they should also give the industry insight into what's hot and what's not."
"In our joint effort with UNEP, Lucire will champion those who understand sustainability, bringing them the consumer demand that they deserve," says Mr. Yan. "At the same time, we will be able to send a signal back to the fashion industry that this is what today's society desires."
With the wider retail sector, UNEP helped to kick-start its "Shopping for a better world" work when it recently hosted an informal meeting of the retail industry in Paris. Ten international retailers and associations were represented -- a diverse group involved in food, clothing and other retailing.
As the link between manufacturers and consumers, UNEP believes the retail sector is particularly well placed to help put some aspects of the "cool" green lifestyle initiative into practice.
"On the one hand, the retail sector can influence suppliers to produce in a more sustainable manner - raising questions of resource and energy use for example", said Mr. Toepfer. "On the other hand, the sector is in a unique position to help the public to adopt more preferable friendly lifestyles and purchasing habits by providing customers with an appropriate choice."
In recent years a few companies in the retail sector have not only started to green their own operations but also to become important players in global efforts to make consumption and production patterns more sustainable. They are taking action: developing logistical strategies for transport, making life-cycle assessments of packaging, marketing green products, drawing up codes of conduct for suppliers, and demanding innovation in building design and energy systems.
According to Philippe Houze, president of Monoprix: "A survey done by PricewaterhouseCoopers in March 2000 showed that 64% of consumers want to be informed about the production methods of the goods they buy and that 73% of them would be influenced by social labels in their purchasing decision.
Mr. Houze was writing in the latest edition of UNEP's Industry and Environment magazine that is dedicated to the retail topic. "Shopping for a better world: sustainability and retailing" it is available at online.