Almost everywhere you turn, sustainability has become a watchword. Consumers are increasingly concerned with what companies are doing to make their businesses more eco-conscious. And they mean business. Millennials and Gen Z’ers are starting to change the face of the fashion retail industry with their insistence on sustainable fashion.
What does sustainability in fashion look like today?
“Sustainable fashion” used to be code for thrifting, or upcycling a pair of jeans into a backpack or handbag. The focus was on the consumer, not the business.
Fashion is a 2 trillion dollar industry that carries 10% of the global carbon footprint. Armed with stats like that, the conscious consumer is now paying close attention to how their clothes (and other products) are produced, and is increasingly willing to spend more for items made sustainably.
Brands like Patagonia, Everlane, Rothy’s, Stella McCartney, and even Adidas are using recycled materials, including recovered ocean plastic waste, in their product lines. With the backing of the fashion industry, designers who create fashion with the planet in mind are promoted and lauded at awards ceremonies.
But sustainability doesn’t stop with environmental practices. Shoppers are more aware than ever of the human cost of the fast fashion industry. Low wages and abuse in factories cannot be ignored.
More and more, younger generations are choosing to spend their money on brands that show (not just tell) that they care for the planet and the people who live on it. Mass retailers of fashion need to take note.
Sustainable fashion for the conscious consumer
Millennial and Gen Z buyers have been taught to vote with their wallet – that their power lies in how they spend their money. So for many of them, shopping for clothes isn’t just about what the pieces look like, it’s about supporting companies that share their values.
Some write it off as virtue signaling, but I think it’s deeper than that. It’s conscious commerce. When you grow up being told that your strongest influence is in your wallet, and you’re granted access to inexhaustible news and information about corporate practices online, it’s no surprise that this is where we’ve landed.
So what can retailers do to win the votes of these younger generations?
1. Adopt humane working conditions
Paying workers living wages and maintaining safe working conditions seems like it should be the bare minimum, but in the world of fast fashion that has not always been the case. Companies that demonstrate they care about their employees’ wellbeing will be favored by the younger generations.
2. Reduce waste
There are billions of clothing items produced every year, and it’s estimated that almost 50% of fast fashion articles are discarded within a year purchase. And while some companies have announced various sustainability initiatives, they need to make it clear how and when these plans will be implemented to make an impact.
3. Promote reselling and recycling
The secondhand market has been a long unsung hero in the sustainability game. Online marketplaces like ThredUp, Poshmark, The RealReal, and even eBay allow buyers and sellers to connect directly for the sale of gently used or vintage clothes. Repurposing and extending the lifecycle of garments means less manufacturing waste, lower carbon emissions, and less end-waste in landfills.
ThredUp especially has positioned itself as a brand that makes it easy to make an impact. They ask consumers to clean out their closets, and will even send the kit to do so. Ultimately, clothing that cannot be sold for any reason will be recycled, and sold to be utilized in other textile markets.
Big name retailers can do their part, too. Madewell’s denim recycling program, launched in 2014, asks shoppers to bring in their old jeans – any brand, any color – in exchange for a $20 credit for a new pair. The old denim is recycled and turned into housing insulation. Every time consumers choose to purchase vintage or used clothing, they are sending a message to the fashion industry.
4. Stand for something
Promoting sustainable fashion is something everyone can do, and buyers are rewarding brands that stand for something positive when it comes to their treatment of the planet and its inhabitants. Gone are the days of brands needing to “stay in their lanes.” The new shopper expects you to take a stand.
What shoppers can do
Want to do more as a consumer? Start by paying attention to how you shop. Demand transparency and good practices from the brands buy, and commit to buying less. And when it’s time to clean out your closet, consider donating, recycling, or using a secondhand marketplace to offload items you no longer love.
The future of fashion is green. The number of shoppers concerned with brands’ eco-friendly initiatives is growing, not shrinking, and as more and more people become conscious consumers, sustainability will be the driver for sustained business growth.
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