Concern about the environment isn’t just a preoccupation, it’s becoming a foundational element of purchasing decisions. As consumers become more aware of how their everyday purchasing choices impact the natural world, ignoring or underestimating their demand for “green” products and solutions will result in a flood of red ink for apparel and accessory retailers, designers and manufacturers.
That’s one of the insights contained in A.T. Kearney’s 2019 Earth Day Consumer Sentiments Survey, which found that 80 percent of respondents across all ages and demographics believe changing their everyday behavior and shopping habits is the best way they can help the environment. Seventy-one percent of respondents carry that mind-set into the store, considering environmental impacts while shopping, and more than 65 percent of respondents believe that companies should exceed governmental standards on environmental impact.
While most respondents are thinking about the environment, fewer are acting on those thoughts. Of the 71 percent of respondents who say they frequently consider the environment while shopping, only 52 percent have adjusted their purchasing decisions based on the environmental benefit claims of products marketed as “green.”
Most consumers think “green” while shopping
But, even at 52 percent, that’s more than half of all shoppers. By the same token, while only 43 percent of respondents say they shifted their product choices based on environmental benefit claims over the past year, 66 percent of respondents indicated they planned on adjusting their 2019 purchases based on environmental benefit claims.
Some shifted their purchasing behavior last year, most are looking to make that shift in the coming year
What’s more, the survey found respondents are willing to make legitimate sacrifices for environmental benefits: 80 percent of respondents — including 58 percent of respondents who don’t currently consider the environment while shopping — say they would consider delaying the shipping time of an online purchase in exchange for a clear positive environmental impact.
The apparel industry, one of the worst environmental offenders
A growing consumer commitment to sustainable environmental solutions isn’t all good news for the textile industry. Today, textiles — after oil — is the second-worst polluting industry in the world, generating well over one billion tons of greenhouse gases each year, just on the manufacturing side of the ledger. It is estimated that textiles are responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions — no surprise since 60 percent of the world’s textiles are sourced from China and India, two nations still reliant on coal-fueled manufacturing.
There are, of course, other issues associated with textile production, from land use and the toxicity of certain dyes to water pollution and agricultural sustainability. Further, the environmental impact of shipping and transportation brings forth the potential of on-shoring and near sourcing to mitigate environmental impacts. In fact, companies like California Cloth Foundry are capitalizing on the slogan “grown and sewn in the USA” — the apparel equivalent of “farm to table.”
But the problem isn’t limited to manufacturing. Changes in marketing and merchandising practices, from the introduction of fast fashion to the move from a traditional fashion calendar with two to four seasons to calendars with 12 or more micro-seasons, have had additional environmental impacts.
So, what can the apparel industry do to change the conversation?
The fastest way to allay consumer concerns about these issues and the industry’s role in terms of the environment, in general, is at the point of sale. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds since consumers are wired into countless information sources — not all credible, by the way — and can easily challenge any environmental benefit claim. So, it becomes crucial that retailers understand what kinds of “green” benefit claims are effective, as well as the constraints consumers cite when trying to make environmentally friendly purchasing decisions.
A.T. Kearney research found benefit claims fall into one of two categories: immediate, which refers to actions, products, services, and policies that impact respondents directly; and remote, which indicates elements of a transaction, product, service, or policy that a consumer cannot see, is not aware of, believes she or he has no control over, or lacks any immediate impact on, or connection to, their lives. Respondents found benefit claims more influential if they are tangible and actionable.
For example, survey respondents ranked a simple, immediate claim like “Product is recyclable” highly in terms of purchasing influence with nearly half listing it as one of the three most effective product claims. More abstract claims such as “Product is made in a way that reduces energy consumption” are less influential, with 83 percent of shoppers reporting it below their top three list of credible benefits.
Making an environmental benefit claim is one thing. The next step is to prove a claim’s veracity. Most survey respondents said they needed more than a company’s word to believe a claim. Forty percent of respondents believe that providing facts and evidence to support the claim is the best way to make it trustworthy; 37 percent are more easily convinced by external third-party verification, and 11 percent of high-income shoppers and 12 percent of lower-income respondents said they never believe product claims.
And while consumers are clearly interested in the environment and are willing to make some trade-offs for a positive impact, they are not willing to pay more. While companies like Patagonia have successfully captured a premium market with a sustainability-focused identity, there is overwhelming demand to make these products more financially accessible. Across all income levels, higher cost was the most commonly cited factor preventing respondents from shifting their purchasing decisions toward environmentally friendly products.
Further, there are notable examples of apparel manufacturers increasing their focus on supply chain digitization to create transparency and trackability to the source. There is an additional trend toward a closed-loop fashion system which increases recycling, reduces resource usage, and engages third parties to limit impact overall. Manufacturers are advised to focus on vendor compliance and upholding corporate social responsibility standards beyond local requirements.
The younger the shopper, the bigger the opportunity
While all generations care about making a difference and helping our planet, young people are more likely to take that interest to the store with them. 70 percent of respondents of ages 18 to 44 believe that they will shift their shopping preferences to products that claim environmental benefits in the coming year.
Younger respondents indicated plans to increase “green” apparel shopping. While just 38 percent of young, environmentally conscious shoppers shifted their purchases toward apparel with environmental benefits in the past year, 49 percent believe that they will do so this coming year.
There is reason to believe them. This past year witnessed a 130 percent increase in Google searches for “sustainable fashion.” Companies also have an opportunity to introduce new product types and materials, expanding their portfolio to appeal to new customers. For example, searches for vegan leather have increased by 119 percent since October and the appeal of recycled materials and new fibers are also on the rise.
Fabrics of the future
From designers’ studios to the retail shelf, fabrics can be one of the most visible signs of a commitment to helping build a sustainable environment. But not all “green” fabrics are created equal. Picking the right fabrics requires a nuanced understanding of what apparel shoppers are looking for.
Wool, for example, is sustainable, but not as popular with animal rights activists. Cotton is a perennial favorite on the eco-friendly fabric lists, but some green shoppers insist that it must be organic, unbleached, and dyed with only natural dyes. The same goes for linen – popular, as long as it is unbleached.
There are several fabrics on the market today made of recycled polyester, denim, plastic bottles, and other post-consumer materials. The rise of “thrift shop chic” is another example of how recycling has caught on with fashionistas.
And there is a multitude of “vegan fabrics” from soy cashmere/silk, bamboo, and hemp to lyocell (cellulose sourced from dissolved wood pulp), cork, and even pineapple leaf leather.
Again, any eco-benefit claim must be authentic and carefully documented.
Our 2019 Earth Day Consumer Sentiments Survey discovered, growing consumer concern about the environment holds significant opportunity for the entire apparel industry from farm to retail shelf, but that opportunity must be carefully and honestly earned, and it can’t come with a consumer “green tax” added to the price. The time is ripe for retailers to act on what is rapidly becoming mainstream consumer sentiment.
Corey Chafin and Nora Kleinewillinghoefer are principals in the consumer and retail practice of global strategy and management firm A.T. Kearney and can be reached respectively at Corey.Chafin@atkearney.com and Nora.Kleinewillinghoefer@atkearney.com