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Sustainable fashion is a term that’s difficult to avoid, largely due to the size of the fashion industry’s impact on the climate. 

The lack of traceability makes it hard to put an exact figure on it, but McKinsey estimates it to account for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. To put this in perspective: the fashion industry creates the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the countries of France, Germany, and the UK combined. Safe to say it’s significant. 

Search interest for “sustainable fashion” and “sustainable clothing” peaked during the pandemic, and there was hope 2021 would lead to a climate reality check with world leaders meeting at COP26. And with fashion industry leaders collaborating to address environmental concerns, the tide is starting to turn on fast fashion. 

Sustainable solutions exist, and consumers are ready for them.

Drawing from all our datasets, including our latest Zeitgeist research, here are some of the latest sustainable fashion insights you need to know.

Importance of sustainability on the rise among Gen Z

Production is not always a supply and demand relationship. In 2020, the French government passed a bill to ban companies destroying unsold or returned goods, following in the footsteps of similar measures implemented in the UK. Still, with a huge number of clothes being manufactured, it’s important to understand consumers’ purchase habits.

Around 1 in 5 Americans buy clothes or shoes on a monthly basis, rising to nearly 1 in 3 among Gen Z. 

They’re also the generation most likely to buy clothes or shoes even if they don’t need them (29% do). 

Despite these excess purchase trends, it’s not all doom and gloom. When buying such items, U.S. consumers’ interests in style, price, and brand name have all decreased since the start of the pandemic, while interest in the items’ sustainability has seen the greatest growth.

This makes it possible to engage entire generations with sales of sustainable products, but a trend to look out for is the growing engagement with clothing rentals and subscriptions.

14% of U.S. consumers subscribe to clothing/accessory/cosmetic services, 16% more than Q2 2020. 

Gen Z and millennials are the most digitally active generations, with the influence of social platforms like Pinterest, TikTok, and Instagram meaning they don’t want to be seen always wearing the same outfits. They stand out for wanting other people to like or notice what they’re wearing, and fashion brands are finding new ways to satisfy these needs.

Companies like Rent the Runway are stirring up the fashion industry, and to great acclaim. Like many businesses, they have been affected by the social restrictions enforced during the pandemic, but with their IPO estimates of over $1 billion, fashion rentals and subscriptions are a trend to be taken seriously.

Sustainable fashion is more than the product

The growing interest in sustainable fashion is no fad, as consumers’ actions are starting to speak volumes. Etsy’s acquisition of selling platform Depop shows that consumers are interested in buying secondhand, and importantly, that engagement in the circular economy is gathering momentum, especially among Gen Z.

Fashion brands have an opportunity to capitalize on this interest, with the added reputational bonus that comes with investing in, and promoting, sustainable practices. Fjällräven offers guidance on how to wash, store, care, and even repair their range of clothing and outdoor products, with the right to repair movements making waves in consumer goods this year. Their brand identity puts sustainability front and center, to increase the lifecycle of their products, and encourage sustainable practices.

Our research shows that consumers care about the materials and quality of a product, but for brands/retailers, that should not be their only focus.

H&M created the Green Machine, technology that separates and recycles polyester and cotton-blended clothing at scale. Other clothing brands such as Patagonia have a dedicated Worn Wear store to sell second-hand products and reduce waste. These are important steps. 

53% of shoppers who buy sustainable products think it’s important to use  recycled materials.

Many of the desired factors go beyond the material qualities of the product itself. Eco-friendly/carbon-neutral shipping, sustainable packaging, and part of the proceeds going to eco-friendly causes are all important factors to consumers. 

It’s not just high street retailers who are well positioned to make these investments. Luxury retailer Moncler is regarded as one of the world’s most sustainable brands due to its material tracing, recycling, and investment in charity projects, such as their Warmly Moncler for UNICEF campaign. Burberry have transformed its branded retail and digital packaging, with at least 40% of the packaging material made from recycled coffee cups. 

If there’s one thing to learn, it’s that brands should put people and the planet first.

Fashion brands/retailers should take these factors into account when planning their sustainable strategies, but should be wary that the price of a product is important to over a third of sustainable shoppers, and not all are comfortable with the additional expense. 

The challenge they face is justifying to consumers why the increased expense is worth it, communicating why they’re investing in sustainable production methods, and why consumers should buy in too. Marketing teams should not just be involved in the end-sale of a product, but throughout conception, production, and distribution. 

As Vogue Business highlights, “the fashion industry will only achieve its sustainability targets if brands dedicate communications to making sustainable lifestyles desirable.”

Making sustainable products accessible to everyone

Nearly 2 in 3 consumers who describe themselves as fashion-conscious would rather pay more for an eco-friendly product. The challenge for brands and retailers is to make such products available at scale, and now we’re seeing the industry starting to meet these needs.

H&M is taking positive steps in sustainable fashion, and it’s one of the major retailers trying to tackle the issues of pricing and availability. Its Conscious products, using recycled and sustainably-sourced materials, are sold at a more accessible price point. If they can bring such changes to the high street, then other retailers could follow, although in some cases significant investments may be needed.

There are many ways that fashion brands and retailers can work toward creating sustainable and accessible products.

Recycled materials, selling secondhand goods, and collaborating with other industry thought leaders are just some of the ways to encourage a culture shift. Consumers’ eyes are open to sustainable clothing, but it’s down to the brands and retailers to make the offering accessible and attractive to everyone.

To gain consumer trust, brands should be transparent and accountable for their operations.

But there’s a danger that sustainability data is used as a vanity metric, and doesn’t represent the full business picture. 

While companies are becoming more environmentally and socially conscious, greenwashing is becoming a common issue, with studies suggesting as many as 40% of environmental claims could be misleading to consumers. 

Retailer OVS is an example of the steps fashion brands can take to lead sustainable change. The Fashion Transparency Index 2021 ranks OVS as the leading fashion brand for transparency, as it provides consumers with information about suppliers and products to help them make mindful purchase choices. 

Brands need to look inwards to address their own sustainability issues, but communicate it in a way that provides value so consumers can make informed decisions. Social media puts brands under a sustainability spotlight, and those who are lagging behind need to adapt or risk falling out of favor with sustainable shoppers.

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