[INTERVIEW] According to Sandra Rothenberger, Professor of Marketing at Solvay Brussels School, ethical sneakers will follow the same path as organic food, albeit faster.
How do you explain the rise of ethical sneakers we've seen in recent years?
Firstly, it is important to know what we are talking about. I notice that many people still have trouble distinguishing between ethical, ethnic, ecological .... Ethics is the science of morality. When I explain this to my students, they completely change their perceptions. The more specific aspects of ethnicity or ecology must then give way to the core of the ethical issue: the willingness of consumers to act according to their moral convictions.
In other words, it is a concept that varies from one person to another.
That's right. Ethics does not mean the same thing for everyone. For some of us, buying organic apples sourced all the way from Italy is completely acceptable. For others that is not acceptable at all and they prefer to buy locally to avoid the environmental impact of transportation. And of course, there are also people who don't care. Ecological, ethical, ethnic ... it does not appeal to them at all.
How big is the market for ethical sneakers?
In terms of gross production figures, it is not a big market as yet. At the moment, we are seeing it becoming a fashionable trend but this trend will probably continue for a long time. Personally, I think it will be a lasting phenomenon as the market for ethical sneakers will grow enormously in the next ten years. Just look at the growth of the organic food market. 10 or 15 years ago, this market was very small whereas today it has ballooned to massive proportions. In a relatively short period of time, a 'peripheral phenomenon' has become completely mainstream.
I notice that generations Y and Z in particular have a very strong urge to go back to the source, to the basics. These people do not feel comfortable with the way in which mass consumer goods have been produced up to now and the way that the environment and people are treated in that process. They do not necessarily want to buy as cheaply as possible, but are prepared to pay a little more for products of known origin, whereby the manufacturers assume their social responsibilities and the environment is not disturbed. That is why brands such as Veja and N'go Shoes, which tell a positive and authentic story, are increasingly successful.
The generations Y and Z do not feel comfortable with the way in which mass consumer goods have been produced up to now and the way that the environment and people are treated in that process.
So the average consumer is changing.
That's right. In marketing, we increasingly use the term 'prosumer'. The prosumer is no longer a passive consumer, but someone who produces together with the company. If you surf to the website of Veja, for example, you can see that a lot of people express their opinion. The brand encourages them to do so and takes their remarks into account. This is part of Veja’s strategy.
What else can you say about Veja's strategy?
First and foremost, Veja has managed to create an excellent storytelling. It's a nice story and the brand is exploiting it to get customers involved. It reminds me a little of the story of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. ‘Storydoing’ is an even better word, because Veja gives the prosumer a central place in the shopping experience. Veja has been able to build a community and that gives the brand power in the market.
Besides, the company can really distinguish itself from the others. Since its foundation, Veja has positioned itself in ethical sneakers. It's all about sneakers and they've made them their specialty.
And finally, Veja addresses a very specific target audience: generations Y, Z and the youngest representatives of generation X.
Don’t forget that a lot of thought went into the design of the shoes.
Veja has managed to create an excellent storytelling. It's a nice story and the brand is exploiting it to get customers involved.
What do you think of Veja's decision to spend almost nothing on marketing and advertising?
It is true that Veja spends very little on this, but that doesn’t mean the brand has no marketing strategy. Veja applies a so-called 'subconscious marketing strategy' in a very conscious way. Their strategic choices and their ideas have an intrinsic marketing power. Concepts such as upcycling, we-integration or vegan shoes are trendy and appeal to their target group. Moreover, Veja pays a lot of attention to its press releases, so that word-of-mouth advertising can do the rest.
Can this new way of producing change the current scene of trainer manufacturers?
We should not delude ourselves that the giant brands will disappear. It takes time for a new trend to become fully accepted. Ethical production requires more investment and more thought. It is a production chain that is less volume and more quality oriented. In other words, it is a slow process, not intended for mass production. Veja, for example, carries out strict inspections in all the factories where its shoes are produced. In mass production, that would be impossible!
But the younger generations are asking for these kinds of products. And nowadays, everything goes faster and faster thanks to the social networks. Just look at the size of the Fridays For Future movement (school strike for the climate) in just two years. From a marketing point of view, that's completely insane! And that was only possible thanks to the social networks. Who knows which new movements the future will bring ...
It is a production chain that is less volume and more quality oriented. In other words, it is a slow process, not intended for mass production.
Why does the trend of ethical sneakers currently only affect the fashion sector and much less the sports sector?
Because what matters here is the technical aspect of the materials. For the time being, I do not see any other materials that are at the forefront of both technical innovation and the environment.
This argument applies to the ecological aspect. But why don’t we see any ethical and social developments?
It is true that there are not many initiatives on that front today, but I am convinced that thanks to the movement that we are experiencing, the major sports brands will eventually develop this. I deliberately say 'develop' because they are already doing a number of things in this respect. However, they don't use the ethical argument in their marketing communication, because it's not their market positioning, unlike brands like N'go Shoes, Toms, etc.
Admit that greenwashing is often just around the corner ...
In my opinion, it is important to make a clear distinction between initiatives to prepare the market or to keep a finger on the pulse, and initiatives that only put up a smoke screen. The role of marketing is to satisfy consumers but, equally, to manipulate them. However, today's consumers are much more empowered, better informed, more demanding and more difficult to satisfy than ever. They are much less easily manipulated. They find information on blogs and social media, they read online comments, etc. and they are not easily fooled. And when a brand is caught greenwashing, it really has a problem. I have recently seen it in Germany. Consumers were furious and the brand was literally lynched on social media.
Read also Ethical sneakers, where’s the catch?