The fashion industry is the world’s second largest contributor to pollution. Talking about ethical commitments has become an expectation for brands, but many in the industry are secretly wondering if consumers are willing to put their money where they mouth is.
While climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg may be Time’s Person of the Year, fast fashion retailer Boohoo expects its revenues to grow over 40% in 2020. Consumers are more skeptical than ever, and are weary of greenwash and female empowerment messages created in boardrooms full of men.
The topic of sustainability in fashion is full of contradictions. Fashion, by definition, is ever changing, whereas to be truly sustainable, you would not buy anything new at all.
Yesterday, I chaired a panel on making fashion sustainable for Enty Live with people who have the power to make genuine change. These are the main trends driving sustainable fashion today:
Consumers want to have their cake and eat it
Many people want sustainably made clothes and ethical working conditions, but they also want cheap prices. Since organic cotton is around 30% more expensive than the stuff covered in pesticides, the decision to buy sustainable clothes really does hit the pocket.
While some consumers are devotees of the green message, most put style first, with sustainability as a pleasant addition. Hugo Adams, CEO of the Frugi Group, an organic cotton brand, says the company has two distinct customer types: the dark green and the pistachio green.
The dark greens prize sustainability and ethics over everything else, and tend to be the most vocal. The pistachios put style and comfort in prime position. While the brand must be consistent in its communications, the marketing messages to either group emphasize different aspects.
What to do with unsold items is a big problem for luxury brands
End of the cycle for luxury brands remains a difficult issue, with many brands putting unsold items in the incinerator, said May Al-Karooni, founder of Globechain, a reuse market place.
If clothes do not sell, some high street brands are willing to remove their labels and sell the items at lower prices. Others give them away to charities, using platforms like Globechain. Yet luxury brands are so focussed on protecting their brand, that heavy discounts are not an option. Instead, many luxury brands still choose to burn unsold items.
Ignorance of the supply chain is no longer an option
If a supplier or manufacturer is discovered to be a major polluter or has a human rights disaster, brands and retailers can no longer get away with feigning ignorance. Since the 2013 Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh, in which over 1,000 people who were making clothes for companies like Primark and Benetton, lost their lives, the press and consumers have a higher expectation that Western companies will know their supply chain.
Smruti Sriram, CEO of India based manufacturer Supreme Creations / Bags of Ethics, said the best way to understand your supply chain is to see it with your own eyes. That means going to the factories and meeting the people who would cut and sew the clothes you commission.
Investors are pushing for sustainability
Venture Capitalists are focussing more on sustainability and ethical investing, partly because the institutional investors that invest in VC funds, are pushing them to do so, said Oksana Stowe, Head of True Seed Fund, a leading European retail tech investor.
This reflects the top down and bottom up pressure in sustainable fashion and ethical investing: consumers are concerned about climate change, so the pension funds that manage their money make green pledges. If those pension funds are then seen to invest in contradiction to these pledges, they may have a scandal on their hands, so they push the venture funds they invest in in the same direction.
Fast fashion and sustainability are strong contradictory forces
Despite this, on my way to the event through Central London, I saw adverts for £10 jeans. Fast fashion labels like Boohoo, Missguided and I Saw It First are growing in popularity, so clearly not everybody is letting sustainability and ethics drive their purchasing decisions.
While some consumers genuinely cannot afford to leave these brands, it is not always a question of price. If wearing the same outfit on Instagram is a social faux pas, buying a new pair of jeans for £10 ($13) every week serves that demand. That consumer is still spending over £300 ($390) on jeans per year, but rather than making one luxury purchase, the distribution is different.
It was telling that no fast fashion brands agreed to participate in yesterday’s panel discussion. I suspect this will change with time, as sustainability becomes more fashionable than fast fashion.
Yet currently, we are in a state of flux, which can only mean one thing. More change ahead.