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Ethical Fashion: A Real Cause or A Temporary Trend in Japan?

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In the last few months, the concept of Ethical Fashion has become a key theme for Japanese department stores. Whilst a number of small-scale brands with Ethical Fashion approaches had occasionally showcased their products at some department stores, this is the first time that so many Japanese department stores hosted large-scale collections in their top-location branches.  Selling ethical fashion brands allows department stores to differentiate themselves and appeal to shopper desires for products with an emotional connection.  To be successful, though, department stores need to treat ethical fashion as long term trend, not a short term fad.

Department stores embrace ethical fashion

Mitsukoshi Isetan took lead in showcasing ethical fashion brands when its Isetan Shinjuku branch hosted a campaign ‘Isetan Ethical Fashion Week’ from 11th to 26th May 2015. Other department stores shortly followed suit; Tokyu Department Store hosting ‘Ethical Days’ in their key shopping centre Shibuya Hikarie from 14thMay, and Sogo’s Yokohama branch hosting ‘What’s Ethical? / Let’s start Ethical Fashion’ from 19th May. Seibu’s Shibuya branch also exhibited some fair trade accessory brands within their ‘Art meets Life’ campaign.

Isetan Ethical Fashion Week at Isetan Shinjuku Branch


Source: Euromonitor International

Fair Trade Accessories at Seibu Shibuya Branch


Source: Euromonitor International

During these campaigns, the department stores showcased a number of brands across such product categories as clothing, jewellery, handbags and other fashion accessories, sometimes with additional events like workshops and art exhibitions. The participating fashion brands take various approaches to Ethical Fashion – fair trade, organic and natural materials, upcycling and even promoting the Japanese traditional craftsmanship.

Corporate social responsibility activities are nothing new to Japanese department stores; many have engaged in such schemes as reducing packaging materials, minimising energy usage and more innovative approaches like Seibu Shibuya’s monthly talk sessions called Think College featuring people committed to social causes since 2012. Alternatively with the concept of Ethical Fashion, it seems that Japanese department stores have found a cause that not only matches but also enhances the premium brand value of department stores.

Why department stores see ethical fashion as an opportunity

Over the years, Japanese department stores have recorded poor sales performance, largely influenced by the long-lasting recession. Retail value sales of department stores shrank from ¥8.8 trillion in 2001 to ¥6.1 trillion in 2011. Whilst the positive economic outlook and the increasing number of foreign tourists contributed to the positive performance from 2012 through 2014, sales are projected to turn into a decline again in 2015 by 0.5% in value sales terms. In such a tough business environment, particularly with the intensified competition against other types of retailers and increasing luxury online channel, it is clear that Japanese department stores are making attempts to differentiate themselves by repositioning themselves as premium, fashionable, and now ethical.

Japanese consumers and Ethical Fashion

Generally, the concept of Ethical Fashion has yet to become widely understood by Japanese consumers. Japanese consumers are known for their high standards for quality and most principles of Ethical Fashion traditionally exist in the Japanese culture as demonstrated by the Japanese term Mottainai. This term conveys a sense of regret concerning waste, and discreetly promotes maintenance and long-term use of an item. However in the recent years, and contrary to the principles of Mottainai, fast fashion has been commonplace in Japan and taken over such traditional ideas.

Nevertheless, seemingly after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake in March 2011, Japanese consumers are increasingly steering away from fast fashion consumption patterns. Instead, Japanese consumers are seeing more value in shopping experiences with a meaning and storylines through products they purchase. In other words, Japanese consumers are increasingly seeking emotional connections with others rather than simply finding the lowest prices. This is presenting a timely opportunity for department stores to embrace Ethical Fashion.

In-Store display at Isetan Ethical Fashion Week, Isetan Shinjuku Branch


Source: Euromonitor International

A mutually beneficial partnership for department stores and Ethical Fashion is needed

Department stores will likely continue experimenting on unique attempts to differentiate themselves in the increasingly crowded Japanese retailing industry; namely to position themselves as premium, fashionable and ethical. In order for this to be a sustainable movement, however, department stores need to build a mutually beneficial partnership with ethical fashion brands that is sustainable for the long term. The ethical fashion brands benefit from the ability of department stores to promote those brands as premium and trendy while department stores gain the ability to differentiate themselves with new products that resonate deeper with shoppers.

However, there is a risk in department stores seeing Ethical Fashion as simply one of the ephemeral trends whilst Ethical Fashion needs more profound approaches. For the long-term success of this attempt, department stores need to work closely with designers and entrepreneurs with passion and stories behind these products whilst utilising their strengths like influence on the fashion industry, brand value, their stores and resources.

If department stores make a real commitment to Ethical Fashion, this will likely turn into a mutually beneficial partnership that is unique and sustainable. Given the changing consumer demands for emotionally powerful brands and high level of media interest seen in 2015, it is likely that ethical fashion will continue to grow in 2016 and beyond.

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