Do Consumers Want Sustainable Fashion?

“Fashion is what you’re offered four times a year by designers. And style is what you choose,” model Lauren Hutton once said. And now, consumers are choosing a style with sustainability in mind. 

Sustainable and eco-friendly aspects are increasingly becoming top concerns for consumers – and the market is growing fast! Recent studies show consumers are now turning to fashion brands with sustainable practices much more than in recent years. 

 These practices include:

  • Recycling materials
  • Upcycling other products, which means reusing it 
  • Reducing textile waste
  •  Reducing environmental harms like pollution from manufacturing

Why? Because consumers are realizing that caving into fashion trends can come at more of a cost to the environment than the entire airline industry (8-10 times more emissions to be exact).

Or perhaps they are just realizing that the fashion industry is designed to make you feel “out of date” and annoyingly persuade you to buy into trends you don’t need. 

Who exactly wants sustainable fashion?

A McKinsey study released in 2019 shows Google searches for “sustainable” fashion have tripled, as consumers are searching for alternatives to fast fashion. 

Another study from Social Standards Consumer Analytics shows that consumers between the age of 35-44 years old are most likely to favor sustainable apparel, as this older age group have “likely abandoned trendy fast fashion in favor of more functional and work-appropriate staples.”

Millennials and Gen Z consumers are spearheading this movement on social media, bringing attention to eco-conscious fashion on platforms like Twitter, where they’re trying to raise the standards for back-end manufacturing. 

Why do they care so much about fast fashion?

Fast fashion is defined as cheaply-produced and inexpensive clothing that emulates latest trends in fashion. Essentially, this creates a cycle of fashion brands pumping out new pieces of clothing constantly, encouraging consumers to constantly switch out and add to their growing wardrobe. 

But the actual price is not the one on the tag. 

Fast fashion emits 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide yearly, produces 20% of global wastewater, uses 80 billion cubic metres of freshwater and uses about 3,500 different chemicals in order to produce approximately 1 billion garments annually. 

All in all, that makes the fashion industry the world’s second largest polluter, behind the oil industry. 

In order to maintain low costs for consumers, fast fashion has equally high social costs. Workers report unsafe working conditions, with low wages and long hours.

“It is clear that the fashion industry needs to change gears. It needs to become environmentally sound and support a social transformation towards decent and healthy jobs,” said UNECE secretary Olga Algayerova at a United Nations event exploring key sustainability challenges and solutions for the fashion industry.

Green Marketing in Fashion

As fashion brands are responding to consumer demands, the conversation surrounding fashion is also changing — to be more transparent, more eco-conscious and STILL fashionable.

With that, green marketing has rapidly permeated the way fashion brands advertise themselves and their products. 

Green marketing is the practice of developing and advertising products based on their real (or perceived) environmental sustainability, according to Investopedia. Examples of this include emphasizing the particular manufacturing process of a product, using recycled packaging, or even contributing to different charities and environmental initiatives. 

In the fashion industry, this boils down to three main points: 

  1. Sustainable business practices. This includes making sure all workers are provided a safe environment to work in, are given a fair wage, work reasonable hours, and are treated with respect. The flip side of the coin is to make sure that business practices are not only good to the people, but to the planet as well. Manufacturing practices, including how textiles are disposed of, how clothes are chemically-dyed, and the waste and toxicity associated with those products must be considered in that conversation as well. How safe are these clothes and the dyes and materials they use? How can we show our consumers that these products are ethically-crafted and safely-produced? 

To get started with a sustainable supply chain, we recommend this resource from GreenBiz.

  1. Be socially responsible. In other words, put your money where your mouth is. Many fashion brands support various charities, eco-friendly programs and work with their local communities on environmentally-friendly initiatives. Giving back is an important way to show your brand truly values the planet and its people, and this even includes educating your own customers about protecting the environment, what you’re doing on your end, and what they can do on their end. 

Here is a list of popular programs to give back to.

  1. Be transparent. It’s ok to not be perfect, but it’s not ok to mislead your customers on what you’re doing. Don’t capitalize on “trending green keywords,” particularly if you aren’t actually implementing any of it. Words like “ethical,” “sustainable,” “organic,” and others may seem vague sometimes, which is why it’s important to have a thorough explanation of how you meet those words through your practices, your values and your mission. But don’t be a greenwasher (or basically a “fake eco” business) and don’t use empty language. 

Here is an example of a really effective and transparent marketing messaging from Everlane.

Ultimately, green marketing is a way to make sustainability an inherent aspect of your fashion brand. Which in the long term, is on track to be both profitable and reputable — the future of the fashion industry. 

Sustainable and Profitable? Yes, It Can Happen

Now, you might be thinking: Sure, fast fashion is terrible. It’s hurting the environment. But if that’s the way the profit model in the fashion world works, how do we actually change things? 

If sustainable fashion continues to be on-trend, these (eco-conscious) brands are poised for success,” concludes the Social Standards report

 We’re already seeing brands embracing business practices that are making them extremely financially successful. Below, I’ve included a short case study of two major companies with sustainability in their main brand messaging and strategies. 

First up is Patagonia, probably the most recognizable eco-friendly brand. The brand is worth over $1 billion, proving that companies can still profit immensely while doing good. How are they doing it then? For the consumers, it’s about the longevity of the product. Patagonia products last for a long time, and even if they wear and tear, can be repaired in store or by yourself — encouraging the concept of  “reuse and recycle.” 

“We have a very obsessive commitment to making the best product,” said Joy Howard, Patagonia’s Vice President in Marketing in an interview with Echo Engage. “People come into the brand through the product but it takes them a long time to learn about what the company stands for. Once they do, they’re hooked on the brand forever.” 

Once the consumers are introduced to Patagonia through its product, they then have access to a wide array of documentation of the environmental impacts of the brand — from carbon emissions, to supply chain processes, to their work with environmental organizations combating climate change. 

These green marketing strategies have made Patagonia one of the most recognizable “green” fashion brands — and quite the successful one, at that. 

Let’s take a look at another example: this time, a shoe company called Allbirds. In four years, the company went from a startup to a $1.4 billion company, all while incorporating sustainability in its design (of the shoe and company!) from the start. 

The transparency in their work and materials, as well as the comfort of the shoes, has made Allbirds an extremely successful venture. In an interview with Forbes, CEO of Allbirds Joey Zwillinger addresses the seemingly paradoxical nature of the interests of the environment and the interests of shareholders: 

“Until we’re carbon negative, we’re making a compromise,” Zwillinger said in the interview. “I’m not trying to create this pristine picture of perfection and utopia, but we are striving for that. We’ve become increasingly focused on making sure we make the right decisions about where we manufacture material. That’s just an evolution process we work on every day.”

This idea of imperfection but striving towards “better” embodies sustainability at all levels: that it’s ok not to be perfect, that what matters is we progress towards it. And that idea has led Allbirds to shoot to the top of shoe companies in a matter of years: acknowledging their imperfections but steadfastly working towards a better future for the planet. 

So yes, sustainability can be profitable. Sustainability in fashion can be profitable. After all, it’s what the consumers want, and these rising and trending brands in fashion are paving the way for a sustainable future.  

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