Fashion often shies away from discussing the elephant in the sustainability room: consumption. How can an industry built on growth respond to the fact that we all have too much stuff?
While consumers, especially those within Gen Z and Millennial age brackets, are increasingly aware and concerned about social and environmental responsibility in the fashion industry — and as a result are demanding brands to offer them with a wider range of sustainable alternatives to the current provided options — it’s not the way they truly shop.
Proprietary research by the Boston Consulting Group shows that 75 percent of consumers surveyed by the group view sustainability as extremely or very important. Meanwhile mentions of sustainability in social media increased a third faster than overall social media growth between 2015 and 2018, and more than 50 percent of consumers say they plan to switch brands in the future if another brand acts more environmentally and socially friendly than their preferred one.
Yet a “green gap” between what they say, and how they act in practice, persists, as for just 7 percent of consumers sustainability is the key purchasing criteria with low-prices, high quality, convenience, and trend-driven style remaining key decision-makers when purchasing new fashion. For the time being, sustainability considerations are seen as a prerequisite rather than a driver of purchasing decisions.
While it needs to be the obligation of brands to provide consumers with a wider range of choice in sustainable fashion alternatives, along with providing the consumer with better and more information around the way it sources and produces its apparel, consumers, too, need to start putting their money where their mouth is.
At Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the subject remained high on the agenda. During the conference’s final panel talk it was clear that both consumers and brands aren’t held accountable enough.
“Your conversation online is important but it needs to extend to other areas,” concurred artist, model and anti-consumption activist Wilson Oryema, who says on the business side, too, there’s a radical need to redesign how fashion companies produce clothes.
Back to liability. The sustainable fashion conversation must extend its reach beyond brands and consumers alone, argues Vogue contributor and screenwriter Maya Singer. “There’s a power that influencers with big followings have. Their power will come when they take actions as coalitions,” she said. “If there’s a group of people coming out against something in mass, that will make a difference for brands thinking about how they come across.”
Next to the media and investors who must continue pushing businesses and consumers into supporting this transformation, policy makers, too, are the missing link and often overlooked as incremental influences in changing the tides. Only with them on board can changes be brought to scale.
“I believe the next thing is policy because it’s the only thing that’s going to be truly disrupted to the business models. Fashion has been massively under-regulated and it’s getting away with not paying its costs. That’s why fast fashion brands can get away with selling as cheaply as they do,” Singer added.
American model, ambassador, and consultant for sustainability in the fashion industry, Arizona Muse, agrees, adding that even the smallest shifts in policy can have an effect. “We need a policy change around labels as you currently don’t get enough from them besides where it’s from. It would be nice to see where our money goes and who’s getting paid for what,” she said. “The wonderful thing about fashion is that it creeps into so many other industries, so when you put legislation on fashion, others are also put into motion.”
When asked what the everyday person can do to drive change, Muse is quick to answer. “As a consumer, read the label and do a little research. If you chose not to buy something, it will be trickled down. As a consumer you do have power.”