Sustainability and IP: a match made in heaven?

When British costume designer, Jenny Beavan, won the Oscar for her work in Mad Max: Fury Road at the 2016 Academy Awards, she said in her acceptance speech that the film could be ‘horribly prophetic if we’re not kind to each other, and if we don’t stop polluting the atmosphere’. Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the planet is a desert wasteland, humanity is broken and gasoline and water are scarce.

She was not the only Oscar winner to speak out about the environment. Best actor Leonardo DiCaprio also used the opportunity to address the 80 million viewers to highlight the issue. The next day there was a column in the London Evening Standard mocking them for having the audacity to foist their opinions on the public and deriding all those who regard their views as professionally or sociologically important, as they are after all ‘just fricking actors’.

Green is the new black

The point here is that in this era of unfettered access to the internet and social media, where the cult of celebrity reigns, where celebrity adoption of a social or political cause is fashionable and where using ‘social influencers’ as part of corporate marketing strategy is the norm, there is much greater public awareness of social issues as well as innumerable channels available to make one’s views known. Motivations may not always be entirely noble but for those whose basic needs are met, ‘making a difference’ in the world counts. The laws are changing to respond to this. Green is the new black and companies cannot afford to ignore sustainability and ethical issues in the way they run their businesses. This is especially so for fashion companies where being on-trend is what supposedly defines them.

Mike Dickson, the chief executive of Rainmaker Foundation, whose work includes assisting corporations in their philanthropic endeavours, says:

‘The two main drivers for companies to change are their customers and their employees. Employees these days expect to work in a place that cares about more than just the bottom line. They want to be part of something that makes a difference in the world. It’s the same with customers – when there is a choice in the market place, they want to buy from the place that is “useful” – companies that use their profits to improve the lot of others.’

Besides customers and employees, the investing community is also changing the criteria it looks at when considering the viability of a company for investment. Sustainable investing strategies are growing and besides financial performance, investors are looking at the social and environmental impact of a company.

Fast fashion; unsustainable fashion

We are some way away from customers clamouring for sustainable and ethical fashion. Fast fashion is very much still the rage. Consumers are bombarded daily with images of ‘what’s new’ and the latest ‘must have’ items that fashionistas are ‘obsessed’ with. Peer pressure adds fuel to the mindset of never having enough and never saying no to a bargain. The documentary, The True Cost by Andrew Morgan, shines a light on the true human cost of that ‘bargain’ on the high street as well as the detrimental environmental impact of our insatiable consumption. The UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 goes some way in tackling some of these issues by compelling large corporations (global turnover of more than £36m) to increase transparency in managing their supply chains. But this by itself does not solve the problem.

Fashion is supposed to be the way in which many believe we express ourselves to the world and fast fashion is supposed to allow us more choice for such expression. The irony is that many seem to be unaware that some of the clothes we wear stand for support of sweatshops, child labour, pollution and slum cities – the total disregard of the pain, suffering and exploitation of others, not to mention our culpability in the plunder of the planet we all share.


Change is inevitable – change in the way we consume, in the way we expect businesses to perform, in corporate cultures, in the way products are manufactured, in the way we treat and partner with those who are part of the supply chain, in the fabrics and materials we use, in the way we invest and use technology, in the way we care for the environment and in the way we comply with the law. Real progress can only happen when compliance is not a tick box exercise but ethical values, fair trade and ‘doing the right thing’ is embedded into the DNA of a company. Companies like Penelope Tree, Edun and Tom Cridland, who created the 30-year sweatshirt, to name a few, show that there is a better alternative to fast fashion and that a brand can be cool, products beautiful and in demand by customers with a business model that is based on ethical and sustainability principles. Big corporations are also embracing these changes. Luxury brand Kering, which owns a stable of brands, including Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane and Puma has embraced sustainability as ‘smart business’. While H&M, the Swedish retail chain, and Adidas are currently rated as two of the most sustainable corporations in the world.

How is IP relevant?

With change comes innovation and creativity leading to the creation of intellectual property (IP) rights, which are crucial assets to fashion businesses. While there is no single universally accepted definition for the word ‘brand’, the British Brands Group has defined it as:

‘A reputational asset which has been developed over time so as to embrace a set of values and attributes. As a result people hold a set of beliefs about the brand which are often powerful.’

A company’s trade mark is part of its brand. The financial value of the trade mark as a business asset very much depends on the value of the brand. The reputation of a company, its values and attributes are therefore crucial to the financial value of the brand. With the changing attitude towards sustainability and ethical practices, what makes and breaks a reputation will also change. Hard-earned reputations and goodwill in a business can come crashing down overnight – consider Volkswagen. Companies that invest in re-inventing themselves, the values they stand for and communicating these values effectively, are increasing the value of their assets.

With the increasing popularity of wearable tech and the need for developing innovative fabrics and materials that are sustainable and ethically produced, companies will need to collaborate and co-create with new partners. The arrangements with these partners, especially when there is co-branding, are also extremely important as they impact the value of the brand.

It is an exciting time for designers and inventors as there is a real call and need for them to innovate in their creative efforts. Recycling, upcycling and other new design techniques are likely to give rise to design rights which may be protected as registered or unregistered design rights. This may also lead to the creation of new copyright, which a company can add to its IP assets.

Where the new materials, fabrics and technologies result in new inventions of products and processes, patent protection will give companies a competitive edge as well as a source of income. Where it does not meet the requirements of any of the established IP rights or it is considered undesirable to rely on such rights, companies can protect know-how as trade secrets and rely on limited access and confidentiality agreements to protect such rights.


François-Henri Pinault, the chair and chief executive of Kering says that, ‘sustainability is not a constraint, it’s a field of opportunities at every level. It creates value in multiple ways – efficiency, innovations in processes and product development.’ We all have a stake in the world we live in. We are all dependent on each other and our planet, however impregnable we think the fortress we have constructed of our wealth, position and achievements is. We can make a difference by doing the right thing. The cost to us in developed nations is relatively small but the gain to all, immeasurable.