I can vividly recall the visits to the mall in the 1990s with my mom. Inevitably we'd pass by the black-and-pink-clad store with scantily-clad sirens in the window: Victoria's Secret. On one such occasion my mother remarked I was looking a little too long, with an open mouth. No doubt she thought it was cute and recounted the experience to a friend of hers over dinner one night. I overheard and was mortified. After that experience I adopted a ritual as we passed that store in the mall of covering my eyes. I did this from 1992-1996 - much to my poor mother's chagrin.
But there's something more embarrassing that modern-day Victoria's Secret's not doing that should make us all cover our eyes in shame: they have no published practice or future plan to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs - in other words, they have no message around sustainability.
This past Earth Day, Future Commerce did a deep dive into the carbon offset initiatives of brands like Amazon, Everlane, and Allbirds; and how modern cities like New York City are encouraging sustainability practices at the public policy level in both building code and enforcement and through economic incentive. The podcast was timely, as just one month earlier the United Nations warned that the world had only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage due to climate change.
It’s no surprise that brands like Allbirds are taking bold steps to save the planet. The best products and branding in the world won’t amount to anything if we don’t have a habitable world in which to enjoy them. And even if a brand executive truly believes that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to diminish US manufacturing, embracing sustainability is still a smart business move. Per Nielsen, more than 80% of consumers across most nationalities, ages, and genders say it is “extremely” or “very” important for companies to implement programs that improve the environment.
After an in-depth search turned up empty I was unable to find how Victoria's Secret is adapting to the requirements of modern brands and playing toward the subjects that their core consumer cares about: body positivity, social consciousness, and sustainability. Which makes me wonder: why doesn’t Victoria’s Secret have a sustainability message, and what does that portend for the brand’s long-term viability?
These are urgent questions given that Victoria’s Secret’s market share has been on the decline, dropping from 31.7% in 2013 to 24.% in 2018. And the immediate future doesn’t look any more promising, which is why the chain will close at least 53 stores in 2019.
Can I show causality between the brand’s lack of sustainability and its decline in performance? Maybe not directly, but I would argue that a commitment to sustainability is an accurate proxy of a brand’s understanding of today’s consumers. In other words, the more a brand strives to shrink its carbon footprint, the more it demonstrates that it understands the priorities of the 85% of millennials and 80% of Gen Z-ers who want brands to mend their environmental ways. And that understanding undeniably has a direct impact on a brand’s viability and success.
Don’t assume that consumers won’t notice a brand’s sustainability position. If consumers weren’t passionate about it, sites like The Good Trade, a digital media and lifestyle brand covering sustainable fashion and lifestyle, wouldn’t exist. If I were John Mehas, Victoria’s Secret CEO, I’d read the pub’s piece, 11 ethical and organic lingerie brands for women, Huff Post’s 8 Ethical Brands That Are So Much Better Than Victoria’s Secret, along with the many others that cover the topic. He might learn something about what women value.
What’s fascinating to me is how profoundly the types of brands profiled in the articles mentioned above are upending the $13 billion U.S intimates’ market (a phenomenon that Coresight Research documents in its report on the sector). Rather than market to men with sexy (and scandal-ridden) fashion shows, the new digitally native vertical brands are marketing to women with messages that emphasize comfort, body positivity, and inclusivity. They’re actually taking cues from women, not men, as to what’s sexy and what’s not.
And to my point, sustainability and social responsibility are critical components of all of these companies’ brand identities, and they’re not shy about leading with those messages. Everlane, a believer in “radical transparency,” makes detailed information about its factories available from its top navigation bar. ThirdLove also provides an inside look at its factories(and offers to donate gently worn bras, presumably those returned by its customers, to women in need).
Pact keeps a running total of water usage on its home page. Boody asserts that “comfort is nothing without peace of mind” and goes on to detail its eco and ethics credentials, as well as the four pillars that support the brand’s conviction. All of these brands are upfront about the challenges they faced in implementing their values, the steps they took to overcome them, and the reasons why they persevere against all odds. Consumers love reading what they have to say.
Now, John Mehas may shrug this off as do-gooders appealing to a handful of consumers, but he would do so at his own peril. Although Victoria’s Secret is still a dominant player with 24% of the market share, last year the smaller brands managed to seize 36.2% of the market. More women are choosing green over sheen, and that doesn’t bode well for Mehas and co.
Let’s widen the lens a bit: Is sustainability a deal breaker in all market segments? My sense is yes. Referring back to the Nielsen research, consumers want all brands to implement programs to improve the environment, not just those in Apparel & Accessories. Coresite Research predicts that up to 12,000 stores could close this year in the US as numerous brands go into bankruptcy. Visit any of the troubled brands’ websites and compare their sustainability messages to those of the rising stars. Dollar Tree, Payless, and other discounter brands are not alone and they need to get with the program, and fast.
One last thing, a contrarian may argue that Victoria’s Secret is owned by L Brands, which does have a sustainability message on its site. Fair point? Not really. Shoppers won’t go hunting for it, even if they could name the parent company. And why should they? If a brand truly values sustainability, it would promote it front and center. Besides, if you slog through L Brand’s sustainability message, which I did, you’d see it’s pretty focused on lighting in stores. Maybe that’s why outside environmental evaluators say the company is far from eco-friendly.
To its credit Victoria’s Secret does have a Modern Slavery Transparency Statement that’s accessible from its home page (if you scroll all the way down to where things like the site map are listed). But as the first sentence states, the company doesn’t have a choice about it. The statement is made “pursuant to Section 54 of the U.K. Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act,” and not necessarily altruism.
Victoria’s Secret probably made a fatal mistake by assuming its version of sexy will last forever. But consumers, it turns out, desire happy futures for their children and their children’s children more than an opportunity to turn a man’s head. Increasingly consumers seem to have little use for brands that don’t support that goal.
From a cold-hard-business perspective, sustainability is an unavoidable reality that storied and legacy brands of all sizes eventually will have to face - and if they're doing so already, great. Then let's hope it's one secret that Victoria can't keep to herself - for the good of us and everyone else who calls Earth home.
Let's hope this is just an awkward phase like little Phillip - that Victoria's Secret and legacy retail brands like it are able to stop covering their eyes in shame and grow up.