The heat is on.
The weather has been a popular topic, particularly in the Northeast this week, as temps have returned to the balmy 80s. But this latest warm wave is just a part of an ongoing trend. This past July, as vacationers cooled off at beaches along the Californian coast, Florida, the Hamptons and San Sebastian, Spain, a report from NASA was published noting that the average surface temperature of the Earth reached the highest level for the first six months of the year since the data was first recorded by scientists in 1880.
The report punctuated a series of warnings, reports and evidenced-based data from climate scientists that the human impact on the planet had reached a point of no return; that excessive flooding, drought and extreme temperatures will now be commonplace. Economists expect the global gross domestic product to be 23 percent lower in the next 80 years than it is today due to the effect of climate change, according to researchers at Stanford University. These reports helped fuel President Obama’s meeting with Chinese officials, which resulted in both countries signing onto the Paris climate agreement.
For the world of fashion apparel retailing, the issue of climate change and its impact on business has woven its way through a variety of discussions and initiatives across the market and involved brands such as L’Oréal, Levi Strauss & Co. and VF Corp., among many others. And government agencies and nonprofits have spoken in detail about best practices for textile firms to mitigate the impact of climate change.
For consumers, there’s been a not-so-subtle shift — led by Millennials — toward supporting brands and products that are made by good stewards of the planet. Meanwhile, the economic impact of climate change continues to be a burden for many as innovators respond to these planetary changes with new technologies.
One easily noticeable effect of the impact of climate change on fashion apparel and retail are sales of outerwear. Last year’s lack of “sweater weather” caused by record warmth during October, November and December, resulted in excess inventory of sweaters, jackets and coats.
Benjamin Auzimour, U.S. managing director for Saint James, said the winter of 2015 “was a sad example of how people just don’t know what to wear anymore, which had a direct impact on one of Saint James’ core businesses: wool knitting.”
“We’re famous for our tight-knitted wool seaman sweaters that originally protected sailors against the elements, and although we don’t want to renounce that heritage and know-how, we’re presenting some collections that are now more disconnected from seasons — lighter, softer, airier, with finer gauges, so as to give people more flexibility,” Auzimour said.
Dr. Steven J. Hausman, a futurist, technology consultant and president of Hausman Technology Presentations, said climate change is “indeed having a direct effect on fashion and apparel retailing.”
“For example, a number of large retailers indicated last year that there were major shortfalls in selling winter-related apparel such as coats, hats and scarves,” Hausman said. “Last January, Macy’s stated that they would be cutting approximately 4,500 positions. This was at least partially attributable to the reduced sales level.”
Hausman also noted that over the years “winter apparel shows up in stores at the end of summer. But if weather patterns continue to result in hotter and longer summer seasons that extend into the fall, then the public will be more likely to delay their purchases until a time when they feel that winter is imminent and the cold weather actually arrives.”
As a result, Hausman said early sales of outerwear and sweaters “would be delayed and producers may decide to ship in-season rather than with so much lead time. Consumers have also become accustomed to buying when an item is on sale. If inventory levels of cold weather goods are bloated by a lack of early sales, then price cuts are more likely to occur.”
For consumers, Hausman described this price-slashing scenario as a benefit. But it harms retailers and suppliers. And played out, ongoing climate change can redefine the entire retail apparel market.
“The retail clothing industry in most of [the U.S.] has historically been accustomed to four distinct seasons,” he said. “If the winter season is curtailed or even eliminated and summer is extended, then we could potentially be seeing a retail environment with only two major seasons. The first would be a long, hot and protracted summer. This would be followed by a season consisting of a temperate fall, moderate winter and warmer-than-usual spring.”
On the supply and textile side of the business, Hausman said fabric production and cost is sensitive to changes in climate. He noted, for example, that the “cotton plant is best grown within a certain specific temperature range. With temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the yield of the plant increases. Above that temperature yields begin to dip sharply. Similarly, cotton requires sufficient amount of water to grow optimally. As the amount of water that can be drawn from rapidly deleting aquifers is reduced crop yields will decline.”
Combatant Gentlemen chief executive officer Vishaal Melwani said climate change has not impacted his company’s wool sourcing or manufacturing, “but it has affected us on the cotton side. Climate change has been slowing crop growth, and we’ve seen prices inch upward between 5 and 6 percent within the past two years.”
Cotton prices per pound have jumped from $60 in early 2015 to more than $70 today.
Melwani said that more importantly, the biggest impact is on the end product. “We haven’t been experiencing particular cold weather, especially here on the West Coast, and that dictates demand for particular goods, which informs our design and sourcing processes,” the ceo explained. “We’re using lighter fabrics, materials and canvasing. Our shorts were selling out in January. That’s something I’ve never seen before. We are, though, a non-seasonal brand. Climate change doesn’t affect us as much as it might a bigger label that operates on a more traditional, seasonal lifecycle.”
To mitigate the impact of weather on his business, Melwani turns to technology and data as well as on-demand manufacturing, which is offsetting climate change-related costs. “We’ve built a technology system that accrues and analyzes the data we need to inform our business strategies,” the ceo noted. “Climate is so fickle and we know not to rely on the idea of seasonality or weather alone to make sourcing and purchasing decisions, which is why we invest so much time and energy refining our technology. The more information we know, the better we can communicate with our material providers and make decisions for Combatant Gentlemen.”
Meanwhile, the shift of collections to a “buy-now” model is also being influenced in part by climate change. Earlier this year, Scott Tepper, fashion buying and merchandising director at Liberty, told WWD that the store has been seeing “a very distinct change in our customers’ shopping patterns” and therefore decided to take some calculated risks for the early spring buys to reflect them.”
Tepper noted that it is no longer viable “to offer the customer nothing but lightweight fabrications in December, January and February. We’ve learned there is a substantial customer block that wants newness in everything from overcoats to chunky knits to cold-weather accessories when the weather warrants them — and not before — but he’s bored by carryover fall styles.”
Kat Rosati, brand manager at Apparel Booster, a branding, marketing and production coordination firm, said the preference for more “in-season fashion” is due to changes in weather patterns. Rosati said there are “smaller collections and more frequent releases where the products on the shelves at the retailers are more reflective of what is going on now.
“There seems to be this shift and focus into more transitional collections featuring some colors from the previous collection and some that will be featured in the next collection as a way to bridge and be there for the consumers,” Rosati said. “I am also seeing with several of my clients that when it is very hot out consumers are not out shopping as much. Or rather, they are browsing less.”
Rosati said this consumer behavior is typical of bad weather in general, “but for example, a boutique I work with in California notices that when temperatures get around 100 degrees people tend to try and stay inside and sales are really low. They just simply do not want to go out in the heat.”
Rachel Tabbouche, ceo and founder of the UnderCoverWaterWear.com, which offers fitness and “on-the-go apparel” for women, said “when warm weather starts as early as March and extends into October and sometimes even November, in regions where this is nontraditional, it throws off the seasonal retail calendar. Consumers are wearing the same clothes for longer periods of time and just forgoing the seasonality. The calendar might say it is fall, but you’re not thinking of down coats and bulky sweaters when it’s 80 degrees out.”
The notion of losing the seasonality of fashion apparel is not new. In January 2000, WWD reported on how “global warming” was affecting fashion. In a reported dated Jan. 31, 2000, Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director at Bloomingdale’s at the time, told WWD that shoppers “in any of the departments are now wanting to see how the weather goes each season before they buy anything. Big, thick bulky coats — to buy them in July and save them for fall? People don’t do that anymore. People layer and buy closer to the time of need.”
In that same report, warm weather was blamed for poor sales of the Donna Karan New York Collection, which was anchored by double-faced cashmere blanket dressing. Weak outerwear sales were also cited by many department stores that winter.
Today, despite more advanced weather forecasting, the issue remains problematic for retailers. But on the product development front, manufacturers have responded to climate change by offering better wicking fabrics as well as UV-blocking materials. Comfort has also played a role, which includes the launch of Fruit of the Loom men’s “cooling boxer briefs,” for example. Other innovations include Cocona Inc.’s 37.5 Technology, which is designed to cool the body via a unique fabric design. And late last year, WWD reported that unpredictably warm winters and a rising number of consumers who are residing in perpetually warm climates just north of the equator as well as the Middle East has spurred the creation of “trans-seasonal collections.”
In the September issue of Science magazine, a team of researchers led by Po-Chun Hsu and Alex Y. Song published a research report on “Radiative human body cooling by nanoporous polyethylene textile.”
“Energy consumption and climate change are two major issues for humans in the 21st century,” the authors said in the research report. “The high consumption of energy directly leads to excessive greenhouse gas emissions, which severely disturbs the climate balance and causes global warming and extreme weather.” As a result, the authors said efforts are well underway to focus on renewable energy sources as well improving energy efficiency. If households cut their cooling and heating requirements, the impact would be huge, they speculated, which led them to an alternative way to save energy: through personal thermal management that uses nanotechnology in textile fabrics.
“The objective of personal thermal management is to provide heating or cooling only to a human body and its local environment, without wasting excess power on heating and cooling an entire building,” the scientists said.
While such technology may be years off, in the meantime, consumers concerned about climate change may look to brands and designers who have greener business objectives. But it is not always easy to be green, especially when consumers are ill-informed. Rachel Faller, designer and owner of an ethical fashion company Tonlé, said although her zero-waste, eco-friendly fashion brand “gets us press that a typical fashion brand might come by less easily, the majority of customers still base their buying decisions on what they like.”
Faller said although “recently there has been more attention paid to fashion’s impact on the people making our clothes and some of the pollution that has been caused by the fashion industry (Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign for example), most consumers are largely unaware of the innumerable ways fashion contributes to climate change. [Everything] from chemical off-gassing in landfills to the fact that 50 percent of the world’s textiles come from petrochemicals, to the leather industry’s contributions to methane emissions, to massive waste across the industry, to the fact that 80 percent of a garment’s carbon footprint actually comes from the care of the garment — dry-cleaning, use of machine dryers.”
Faller said when consumers are asked to think about how they directly contribute to climate change, most look at their transportation habits or consumption of electricity. But that’s only a small portion of the overall impact.
A shift in how consumers respond to climate change is slow to come. John Oppermann, executive director of Earth Day Initiative, which organizes “large-scale sustainability events and programs” done in partnership with brands such as H&M, Zady, Patagonia and Levi’s, said “unlike the earlier environmental movement that rose up around the first Earth Day in 1970, the recent climate change movement has had relatively few well-publicized examples of environmental disasters connected to climate change.”
However, with recent floods and other natural disasters, this could be slowly changing. “Unfortunately, we are starting to see many of the very real effects of climate change arrive in our local communities,” Oppermann said. “The silver lining to these encroaching threats is that it could help to spur us into action. As the effects of climate change become more salient and receive more widespread coverage in the media, we see more and more people turning toward climate change solutions.”