LIZ BACELAR (LEFT) AND RACHEL ARTHUR, THE CURRENT
Rachel Arthur - CIO at The Current, an innovation consultancy at the forefront of retail and technology.
"While consumers today are more connected than ever, making them more informed than ever, we’re also living in a time where truth and trust has been disrupted in a big way on a macro level."
Hi Rachel, Your focus is on the intersection of technology, retail and innovation. Can you share with us how you came to be interested in these areas, and give us an idea of what you do now on a day to day basis?
I’ve tracked all of these areas my entire career. When I first stepped into the world of work, social media was only just coming into existence and the impact it was going to have on consumers and accordingly on businesses alike was immediately apparent to me. I have always been enamoured by finding the new and the next – tracking where the world is moving and how new influences are going to reshape it as we know. It was for that reason I went into journalism in the first place.
Today, I continue with this focus, analysing the front line of retail and tech, through my role as Chief Intelligence Officer and partner of innovation consultancy firm, TheCurrent. What we do is help brands across fashion, beauty and consumer retail strategise through the lens of innovation. We then scout for and integrate the most relevant startups as solutions to their challenges. We work with teams of innovators all around the world to find the very best results time and time again.
Part of your role is understanding market trends and how they are shifting. Can you talk a little about the current state of the fashion retail market with us, and how you see that it’s moving? I’m particularly thinking about areas such as direct to consumer brands, new retail experiences and the role of technology in this changing landscape.
The industry has fundamentally shifted at the hands of the digital era. That’s an incredibly obvious statement, but it’s still one that businesses today are getting to grips with and understanding in order to transform accordingly. As that happens, the landscape keeps evolving faster around us. We’re now seeing consumers spoiled by the rise of the on-demand economy and services as varied as Uber to Deliveroo. We’re also seeing a wealth of new direct-to-consumer brands stepping in to capitalise on this instant gratification generation.
What these new businesses are really getting right however, goes beyond just this sense of frictionless or ease of access, and instead is about presenting a point of difference in the market by really standing for something.
While consumers today are more connected than ever, making them more informed than ever, we’re also living in a time where truth and trust has been disrupted in a big way on a macro level. We’re increasingly looking for brands that mirror or reflect our own values then in a bid to be able to believe in something again. Technology isn’t in any way about something that sits on top today therefore – it’s not just a gimmick or a tool attached for press worthy value, because that doesn’t fundamentally align with the authenticity that customers are seeking. Where tech used to be the shiny new tool, now it’s fundamentally about an underpinning that can impact the bottom line of the business.
(L-R) LIZ BACELAR, TOMMY HILFIGER, AVERY BAKER, RACHEL ARTHUR AT THE BFC FASHION FORUM 2018
IMAGE: THE CURRENT
You recently spoke at Copenhagen Fashion Summit about transparency, and brands sharing their sustainability efforts with their customers. I’ve pulled a quote from the panel:
“Consumers are wanting something that supports their values, that reflect them. It comes back to this need for a sense of trust.”
That’s the ‘why’, and the ‘what’ is transparency. In a challenging retail climate where trust is at an all time low, what’s the how? Is there technology available for brands to put forward meaningful information to consumers about their sustainability efforts, to be transparent, and what level of detail do you think consumers are interested in/want to know?
The ‘how’ is our big focus. We can help validate why something is necessary, look at and analyse what that should look like, but none of that strategy matters if we don’t put the how in place to make change a reality. When it comes to transparency, we’re at a real inflection point in terms of consumer expectation here. We’re also however in a very early stage for making this possible throughout the supply chain. Our industry is a complex web of different relationships, suppliers and transactions, which isn’t easy to gain complete clarity on in the majority of cases. There’s some incredible work being done to drive this forward in some of the major traditional retailers, however, with a lot more to come.
The obvious example to give here in terms of where this is moving from a tech perspective is blockchain. We’re bullish on that for the longterm - for the ability it has to help authenticate and validate the provenance of product - but this is still incredibly nascent at this point. We’re closely tracking the startups in the space and the use cases being presented, but we’re very aware of the hype that can all too readily build around something if it’s not managed properly. The fact is, our industry is fundamentally a human business, meaning there’s always going to be that factor involved.
What will matter with something like blockchain therefore, is all of the supporting technology around it to make it viable and reliable at scale, not to mention the front-end consumer platforms put in place to make it ultimately translatable to the shoppers at the end of the chain.
There is a proliferation of transparent, ethical and sustainable brands entering the market, industry stalwarts touting their so-called sustainability credentials loudly, and influencers with varying levels of knowledge. It can be incredibly difficult for consumers to know who and what to trust. There is a real danger of greenwashing as more brands recognise the importance of ethics to a values-driven consumer. How can consumers navigate these challenges and work to ensure they are not being misled?
I completely agree that we’re in very murky waters. I consider myself fairly versed on this space and yet find myself entirely confused and often disappointed when it comes to the customer experience connected to it. The biggest issue from my perspective is a lack of clarity as to what we mean by ethical or sustainable, or any other of those keywords you want to use. Are we talking about the impact a single item has had on the planet? Are we talking about the social aspect and the human lives impacted by the making of said item? Are we merely referring to when something has now been upcycled or recycled?
It’s a complex landscape with so many different elements impacting what could and couldn’t be considered sustainable.
The challenge then is how we move this forward, and I think it lies in two things – the first is in the education of consumers so there’s an understanding of what actually goes into making all of our clothes; from farming to dyeing, shipping and beyond. If we start to get that bit right, then we also need some sort of standardisations introduced so there’s transparency around what level of ‘sustainable’ something truly is. Longer term on top, there’s also genuine need for regulations in the industry too so that it’s the businesses driving these changes and not the slow demands of consumers for it.
RACHEL ARTHUR - TEDX COVENT GARDEN WOMEN 2016
You’re also the co-host of The Current Innovators Podcast, along with Liz Bacelar. The show features interviews with a diverse range of innovators across the spectrum, including Stefano Rosso, CEO of Diesel, Dan Widmaier, founder of Bolt Threads and Tomas Roope, creative lead at Google Zoo to name just a few. Let me say now, i’m a big fan. I learn so much from every show. What are some of the key ideas that have come up in these conversations for you?
That’s incredibly kind of you to say so. I have to say, hosting a podcast is like nothing I’ve experienced before. It’s an enormous amount of hard work to do every single week, but it pays off in an incredible way. We have met some of the most interesting people in the industry and have had some truly fascinating conversations along the way. Our aim with these interviews was to really dig into what innovation means today by speaking with the visionaries, entrepreneurs, disruptors and indeed innovators driving real change in the industry.
Our discussions have spanned everything from the impact streetwear culture is having on luxury, to the power of customer data to drive business in new directions, the role voice technology will play for next generation consumers, and even how the store of the future is shaping up at speed.
I’m glad you say you learn something from every show, because that means I’m doing my job right as that is our primary objective with every episode. We have some really exciting new ones coming up that I can’t wait to share with everyone.
There are exciting technological innovations being developed that have the potential to create a real change to the way that we make, buy and use our clothes. From your perspective at the front of what’s happening in technology, what are some that you think have the potential to create a real shift? This question has huge scope, so it would be great if you can give me an example from the manufacturing side and one from the retail side as well.
This is a huge question because there are of course endless ways that innovation can change how we make, buy and use our clothes. I’m interested in looking at this sort of thing through numerous different lenses – from production through to customer experience, exploring efficiencies in operations along the way. We’re now entering the fourth industrial revolution, which is a complete integration of our physical, digital and biological selves. This is a treasure trove to me of exciting innovation that is only going to shape and impact our industry down the road in a good way if we do it right.
Bioengineered materials are a huge opportunity for instance, as is machine learning applied in a way that helps to predict volumes and reduce the amount of clothing waste. There’s also the way that personalisation is continuing to evolve, with data impacting what gets surfaced to consumers in terms of relevancy through to the types of pieces that get created for them in the first place. All of this applied to our industry is still incredibly early, meaning I believe we’re at the very beginning of what’s possible. What’s critical is that as our population continues to grow, we’re aware of the changes necessary in how we operate in order to protect our planet and make our businesses viable longterm.
Finally are there any great resources you can suggest for brands or consumers who are new to the issues of sustainability, technology and fashion and want to know more?
Listen in to TheCurrent Innovators podcast of course, and also sign up to our news site TheCurrentDaily.com, where we keep you up to speed with everything that’s happening in innovation each day.
Thank you Rachel for sharing your insights on the intersections of fashion, technology, retail and innovation.