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Fast fashion is a great example of the global supply chain’s ability to produce a wide array of products to quickly meet new trends, and fashion brands have profited considerably as a result. 

But in response to worldwide climate demonstrations at the end of last year, and shifts in sustainability attitudes due to COVID-19, many fashion companies are shifting their business models to accommodate consumers’ growing awareness of the environmental impacts of their own spending. 

Fashion brands big and small are more vocal about both their support of environmental causes and their own use of more natural or recycled materials. Even Zara, a major name in fast fashion since the 80s, has committed to use 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. 

But with so many sustainability causes to choose from, what should brands know to capitalize on this growing but complex market?

Consumers care deeply about the environment. 

There appears to be a large market for eco-friendly goods. 

Around the world, 46% of consumers say helping the environment is important to them, and the same amount want companies they buy from to be eco-friendly. 

Among all of the actions consumers want from brands, sustainability is ranked highest across every generation.

And for Gen Zs and baby boomers, this concern is seconded by a desire for brands to be socially responsible as well.

There’s good news for brands going green: consumers are willing to pay more for goods that promise a reduced environmental impact.

This willingness to pay extra to reduce one’s impact is highest in production-focused, middle-income economies, where risks of environmental disasters can feel more immediate.

However, in North America, despite a significant portion saying eco-friendliness is their top concern for brands, consumers are split about how much they’re willing to pay for these goods.

In this region, price is still a large factor in purchases, especially for older generations who are least likely to be willing to pay more for eco-friendly products. 

Younger generations are nearly always the driving force for eco-conscious behavior.

Fashion companies can do well to market their sustainable products to Gen Z and millennial audiences as their purchasing power grows, and overall consumer eco-consciousness with it. 

Older consumers don’t prioritize sustainable purchases.

Despite high rates of eco-consciousness among consumers around the world, many can’t confidently say if they own sustainable products. 

Over half of consumers in the U.S. and UK either don’t own a sustainable product, or don’t know if they do, and this missing slice of the sustainability market is mostly made up of older consumers. 

37% of baby boomers don’t own sustainable products, and a further 33% don’t know if they do. 

While environmental concerns aren’t yet a main driver for consumer spending overall, any market for sustainable goods is clearly strongest among younger consumers. 

In the U.S. and UK both Gen Zs and millennials were far more likely than average to say they own sustainable goods, and these two generations make up 65% of all owners of sustainable fashion products like clothes, shoes, jewelry, and makeup.  

A lesson from sustainable groceries

Sustainable fashion lags slightly behind the sustainable grocery category, but this could be further evidence of price focus in North America holding back eco-friendly fashion purchases. 

This year, just over 1 in 5 internet users said knowing a product is environmentally sustainable would increase their chances of purchasing it online. 

So, while eco-friendliness may be enough in itself to entice people to buy marginally more expensive sustainable grocery items in the store, it isn’t yet a large enough purchase driver for more expensive items in online retail.

The ecological benefits of many sustainable grocery items – lab-grown meat alternatives, locally-sourced and organic produce, or biodegradable cleaning supplies – are prominently marked, but similar labels on sustainable fashion products may not be enough to drive sales. 

What do consumers want from sustainable fashion?

The amount of consumers who can’t identify if they own sustainable products makes it hard for fashion brands and marketers to zero in on the correct messaging and product features to entice consumers to buy.

While consumers evidently care about their environmental impact, there isn’t yet a clear direction for what exactly they’re looking for in sustainable fashion products, and our data reveals the solution is not one-size-fits-all.

Men and women who own sustainable goods have different concerns when it comes to these products.

While men show more concern for the durability of their goods, women are more likely to focus on the effects of the supply chain and the materials that go into the products themselves.

Female eco-fashion consumers are nearly 40% more likely to say free returns are an important driver for online purchases, so it’s no surprise that they’re more aware of the ecological costs of transportation and more likely to find sustainable packaging and carbon-neutral shipping important.

Differences aside, men and women both show a more nuanced view of sustainability than popular products may lead us to believe. 

Instead of ocean-plastic bracelets and fair trade shoes, consumers are associating environmentalism with durability and reusability, understanding that constant consumerism can be more detrimental than any particular product. 

This is probably good news to fashion companies trying to add more sustainability to their operations overall, as consumers are currently drawn in large volumes to companies that can provide the products they already love without overtly harming the environment. 

What lies ahead for eco-friendly fashion? 

While sustainability concerns aren’t yet a main purchase driver within the fashion industry, we can expect more eco-friendly brands and products to gain market share, as younger generations accrue more purchasing power.

It’s clear consumers and brands are both trying to lessen their impact on the planet, and as we approach a critical mass of consumers who own eco-friendly products, we can expect sustainability concerns to grow in importance. 

Successful sustainable products don’t need to look or feel different from non-sustainable versions, but bringing these products to market in more environmentally friendly ways will no doubt become a greater focus for consumers. 

In the meantime, brands can get ahead of the curve by investing in eco-friendly infrastructure, upcycling wasted materials, using more sustainable fabrics, finding ways to ship without much impact, and better explain these changes to older generations.  

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