Sustainability in fashion: Industry teeters on ethical catwalk


Fashion is a $2.5 trillion industry, producing 10% of global carbon emissions, 20% of global wastewater, and vast biodiversity loss. Consumers are demanding change, forcing sustainability in fashion as a requirement, not a trend. Brands are transforming to create not only the clothing and accessories that turn heads, but also to create sustainable fashion that’s rooted in environmental stewardship. 

Sustainability and fashion appear to be on opposing catwalks destined for collision. While ethical issues have been driving trends in fashion for years, when COVID-19 ground the industry to a near halt, it momentarily appeared as though the pursuits of a more purposeful fashion industry might be pushed to the back burner. 

That moment has passed.

How far passed? Well, there are folks calling for President Joe Biden to appoint a fashion czar, and it’s a compelling argument.

As people spent 2020 in varying states of quarantine and social unrest, they also became much more careful and conscious about another kind of spend: How they’re spending their money. 

No photoshopping the facts: Stats reveal the current state of sustainable fashion

There’s no filter that can mask the ugliness below the surface of the fashion industry when it comes to the hard data around sustainability, and consumers know it. Pre-COVID, brands struggled with how to best stand out in a market that’s always changing. Today, the change in consumer sentiment has made sustainable fashion a priority for both brands looking to emerge as well as the icons in the industry. 

According to Kate Brandt, Google’s Sustainability Officer, one 90-day report during the first half of 2020 showed searches around ‘how to live a sustainable lifestyle’ increased by more than 4,550%.

Baratunde Thurston discussed the issues surrounding sustainability and fashion  – while talking stark data – including the fact that 84% of the clothes in America end up in a landfill.

Following are just a few of the facts with regard to sustainability and fashion:

  1. Fashion is a $2.5 trillion industry and produces 10% of global carbon emissions.
  2. 20% of global wastewater comes from dying and treating fabric.
  3. 87% of the fibers used for clothing will end up incinerated or in landfills.
  4. More than 60% of clothes are made from non-decomposable plastics.
  5. The apparel industry is responsible for significant biodiversity loss on the planet.

To make matters worse, ethically questionable practices don’t stop at eco-consciousness. Examples of poorly treated workers in the fashion industry are rampant. 

Do a little turn on the catwalk: Retailers must adapt how they do business, or future generations won’t give them their business

While some experts wondered about the viability of ethical efforts in the wake of COVID-19, we’re actually seeing that those efforts matter more. Thanks to tighter budgets, quarantine, and social justice awareness, consumers aren’t only consuming less – they’re much more thoughtful about where and how they spend their money. 

“The time consumers have spent at home caused a radical reset to their priorities which will be reflected in their lifestyles going forward. As a result, they are going to look for brands they can trust and pay attention to the ‘collective good,’ most especially in product categories like fashion and beauty that are considered close to the body.” (Forbes)

They’re also feeling more personally connected to global issues than ever before.

According to a McKinsey report, quarantine could be accelerating these already-established consumer behavior trends, “such as a growing antipathy toward waste-producing business models and heightened expectations for purpose-driven, sustainable action.” And their latest State of Fashion report shows that sustainability is the second biggest opportunity for the fashion industry today, second only to digital. 

Consumers continue to put pressure on fashion brands to make real, substantial changes. This is especially true of Millennial and Gen-Z shoppers, who were already leading the charge for more ethical practices.

For those of us who’ve grown accustomed to a world of fast-fashion, it’s hard to imagine eco-friendly alternatives taking down this long-standing Goliath. But sustainable fashion has been building steam for a while now – it’s not the scrappy start-up industry it often gets portrayed as. 

Some studies predict the sustainable fashion market will reach $9.81 billion by 2025, and $15.17 billion by 2030 – that’s massive growth that can make an even bigger impact.

Sustainability in fashion: Examples of how brands and retailers are innovating

2021 will reveal the lasting impacts of COVID-19 with regard to consumer behavior and shopping trends – and not just in fashion – shifts will be felt across the board.

Retailers that have been planning to adapt to consumer demands for more ethical standards are now accelerating those efforts:

  • H&M – often blamed as being one of the companies – if not the company – that started the entire fast-fashion issue has already been dedicating significant efforts to reversing the mindset. They’ve earned top scores from eco-experts, and are working on a Green Machine that would allow people to recycle clothes like they do aluminum cans.
  • Companies are embracing D2C as a way to focus more clearly on delivering the precise expectations of consumers.
  • More and more brands are making very clear how they’re approaching sustainability as part of their overall business strategy, with up-cycling, recycling, and carbon footprint concerns being built into the foundation of companies themselves.

Shoppers – and investors – are paying closer attention than ever as to how companies are operating, and they’ll continue to flock to brands who reflect their values. And for those organizations struggling to define the values and beliefs for which they stand, consumers will help them quickly figure it out.

Shifting retail landscapes.
Varying buying behavior.
What makes people click “buy”?
We’ve got the answers HERE.

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Jenn Vande Zande

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