The Rise in the Sustainable Consumer: How Fashion Brands Can Meet the New Green Demands of Consumers

Find out what an increasing consumer buying preference towards planet-friendly and humanitarian brands means for the fashion industry and strategies for meeting this growing demand.

In lockdown, sustainability has become a central focus for many consumers – as they begin to reassess their values and how they have been impacting the planet around them. A recent McKinsey & Company report, entitled, “Survey: Consumer sentiment on sustainability in fashion,” highlights this recent shift in consumer attitudes since the crisis began. The survey was taken by more than 2,000 UK and German consumers reflects a deepening interest in sustainability globally – including the U.S. In this post, we explore the main findings of the report and what they mean for the fashion industry.

The findings of the report: changing consumer sentiments

The COVID-19 crisis has led consumers to refocus their attention on environmental concerns. Two-thirds of consumers surveyed by McKinsey & Company state that it is now even more important to limit impacts on climate change. And 88% say more attention should be paid to reducing pollution.

What does this mean for consumer behavior? Of those surveyed, 57% have made changes to their lifestyles to help reduce their environmental impact. For example, 60% of consumers say they now recycle more.

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Screenshot from McKinsey & Company.

This shift in attitudes also changes the expectations consumers have for leading fashion brands. The results of the survey show that consumers are now most concerned with a brand’s social and environmental commitments. For example, 67% consider a company’s use of sustainable materials to be a deciding purchasing factor. Additionally, those surveyed also expect brands to look after their employees, including workers in Asia.

Reinforcing these findings, another study by Nielsen found that 46% of surveyed global consumers said they would buy eco-friendly products over a brand name. This suggests that in the unfolding months, fashion will have to go beyond the status of a brand and provide consumers with choices that mirror their deeper values.

The dark side of fashion: what consumers are looking at in lockdown

Fast fashion has been a key contributor to environmental decline. Fast fashion brands can put out up to 24 collections per year – using mass amounts of energy and water. Fashion has also taken its place at the head of global landfills: everyday consumers bin clothing amounting to 1.5 empire state buildings every day. Putting people before profit, the industry underbelly is also riddled with death, exploitation, and slave labour in places like Bangladesh.

The slowdown of everyday life and ongoing mass consumption has provided consumers with space to slow down and realize these destructive elements of the industry and seriously question the role they play in keeping the cycle going. The latest report shows that 65% of surveyed consumers support fashion brands delaying new collection launches due to COVID-19.

Screenshot from McKinsey & Company.

A mass re-evaluation of values

What’s inspired this change in consumer attitudes?

The COVID crisis has led people to put the focus on fulfilling intrinsic motivations, such as spending time with friends and family and exploring nature. This intrinsic focus has moved consumers away from fulfilling extrinsic motivations, such as buying more. This shift has also led consumers to question the sustainability of the fashion industry and old purchasing habits.

This change in focus is predicted to lead to a “waste nothing scenario”. The defining feature of such a society will be consumers that treat their time, the wellbeing of other people, and natural resources as equally important with the aim of taking nothing for granted. Here, social status will be replaced for mindful reflection on the impact of consumer choices and the drive to bring about social good.

What this means for the Fashion Industry

However, despite the desire for change – before the COVID crisis, consumer consumption of apparel was growing year-on-year. From 2000 to 2014, according to McKinsey & Company, the number of clothes the average person purchased each year increased by 60%. While the McKinsey & Company report notes that consumers are cutting back on spending – both now and post-lockdown, apparel is still one of the last categories to go when it comes to spending cuts.

How can the fashion industry meet consumers’ love of clothes with their increasing desire for greater sustainability?

As Lexology argue, sustainable consumption doesn’t have to mean a fall in consumption revenue, but rather a shift to consumption patterns that are better for the planet and improve wellbeing. The UN Environment Program notes that the global fashion industry highlights that sales in fashion and luxury have spiraled 70% from March to April.

Michael Stanley-Jones, of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), co-secretary of the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion at the UNEP asks, in light of such losses, “The question is now, how do we build back better?”

He states, “We need to map the value chain and identify opportunities to limit the negative environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, while building in accountability and transparency.”

How the Fashion Industry can meet consumer demands for sustainability and ethical practices

How can the fashion industry embrace what’s ethical and keep consumers happy?

At the center of sustainable fashion sits innovative developments in greener materials and production, such as the new earth-friendly denim dying procedures being used at Reformation.

Many argue that investing in high-quality materials, built to last, crafted by workers provided with safe and economically fair working conditions could go a long way in helping to meet consumer demands for a greener industry. As reflected in the McKinsey & Company report, such a move would mirror the desires of consumers – as 65% are planning to purchase more durable fashion items.

Thanks to the wealth of digital information at fingertips, consumers are looking for brands who provide transparent insights into the everyday running of their company. Fashion brands would do well to provide consumers with information on where materials are sourced from, the sustainable practices used in production, and how companies support fair and safe working conditions for workers.

As well as offering greater transparency on sustainable business practices, fashion brands that expertly navigate the shift to greener practices will also make use of technological innovations. For example, pollution sensors and real-time energy monitoring will allow companies to more easily manage sustainability. Use of technology will also be embraced in the form of virtual showrooms, look books, trade shows, and fashion shows that reduce the need for travel and accompanying carbon emissions.

Ethical fashion brands will also need to put workers’ rights at the top of the agenda to keep consumers happy. Reports show that consumers are turning their backs on fashion labels who have let workers down during the COVID crisis – leaving them to struggle with the financial fall-out in the U.S. and Europe and mass poverty and disease in countries such as Bangladesh. The outrage surrounding these images has also bought into focus the way that brands treat their workers outside of the current scenario – the recent scandal surrounding British retailer Boohoo and allegations of slave labor is just one example of this new reckoning.

Meeting the demands of the new green consumer

Following the coronavirus outbreak, consumers are becoming more and more aware of the devastating impact of fashion on the environment and how their old shopping habits have contributed to the problem.

The shift in consumer attitudes is predicted to long outlast the current crisis. To meet this shift in attitudes and ensure longevity, fashion brands will need to reassess their old ways of doing things and move towards more planet-friendly, humanitarian choices.

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