On Aug. 23, days ahead of the most recent meeting of G7 leaders, executives from 32 leading fashion and apparel companies signed the “G7 Fashion Pact,” a nonbinding sustainability accord designed by French president Emmanuel Macron and François-Henri Pinault, chief executive officer of Kering, a French conglomerate whose portfolio of luxury brands includes Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen.
The pact has three stated goals: achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; restore biodiversity by reinstating natural ecosystems and protecting endangered species, and address ocean pollution by eliminating single-use plastics by 2030.
Old Habits Die Hard — How Should the Industry Change?
When the G7 Fashion Pact signatory companies reconvene this October to confirm more in-depth pledges and talk strategy, what should brands take into consideration if they hope consumers will take notice? Two pieces of research inform our view: research from Quantis [see addendum below] that measures the environmental impact of the fashion industry on the environment, and from A.T. Kearney [also below] that took the pulse of consumer attitudes toward fashion and the environment.
Based on the findings in our report, Harvesting the Green Opportunity for CPGs and Retailers, there are several ways for the apparel industry to move from intent to action on their environmental goals, in a way that is recognized and rewarded by consumers.
First, make the targets real for consumers by tying them to tangible activities and goals, with proven environmental benefits for consumers and local communities. Avoid “remote” targets linked to elements of a transaction, product, service or policy that consumers cannot see, are not aware of, believe they have no control over, or lack immediate connection to their lives.
Focus instead on “immediate” claims which are anchored on actions, products, services and policies that impact consumers directly. Currently, the pact’s three stated objectives are intentionally aspirational, but each brand must translate them into a set of immediate targets and actions in order to build trust among consumers that progress will be made.
Secondly, look across the value chain for opportunities to make progress against your targets, including in fiber production, yarn and fabric preparation, dyeing and finishing, clothing assembly, distribution, retail, and even end-of-product life. Since consumers are unlikely to accept higher costs associated with environmental benefits, identify (best-case) minimally invasive “green” benefits which do not require consumer trade-offs, and (next-best) opportunities to make “lower pain” changes.
Ensure those efforts are shared: educate your consumers about the clothes they wear and listen to how consumers perceive your clothing’s environmental impact by encouraging dialogue on social media. Enable consumers to contribute through their shopping behaviors by offering, for example, clothes made from sustainable materials and alternative leather, or clothing recycling and resale programs.
Lastly, go beyond the pact’s expectation for self-reporting on progress toward environmental goals, and instead make specific claims backed up with objective data. Tangible product attributes like recyclability or reusability resonate more strongly with consumers due to their immediacy and simplicity, compared with, for example, a claim of reduced energy consumption.
Clearly communicate, for example, how many items of clothing per consumer have been recycled instead of sent to landfills, or the volume of plastic bags per shopper diverted from oceans due to changes in stores. Consumer expectations will only increase for brands to deliver transparency and trackability against their environmental commitments.
Is this realistic?
President Macron recruited Pinault to the industry-based sustainability initiative this April based on his track record on sustainable business practices. Their shared mission was to set pragmatic, science-based goals for the fashion and textile industry that would allow companies to reduce their carbon footprint and other negative environmental impacts. In addition to Kering, signatories include Adidas, Burberry, Capri Holdings, Carrefour, Chanel, Ermenegildo Zegna, Gap Inc., Giorgio Armani, H&M Group, Hermès, Nike, Nordstrom, Prada, Puma, PVH, Ralph Lauren, Salvatore Ferragamo and Tapestry Inc.
The apparel and footwear industries generate somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of global pollution and, while industry leaders and heads of state attempt to reduce that impact, the question of whether or not Millennial and Gen Z consumers — so critical to the fashion industry and increasingly concerned with the environmental impact of their fashion choices — will see these efforts as authentic reforms or just more corporate posturing remains an open one. Key to success, according to the consumers A.T. Kearney surveyed, is for the apparel industry to move immediately and tangibly on all fronts, but not to raise prices, otherwise, brands will meet resistance.
Natalie Shield is a manager in the consumer and retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm. She serves as director of the firm’s Global Consumer Institute, an internal research arm charged with analyzing consumer opinion and producing analysis on its strategic implications for consumer brands and retailers. She can be reached at Natalie.Shield@atkearney.com.
According to “Measuring Fashion: Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study,” a comprehensive 2018 Quantis study of the industry’s environmental impact, “Together the apparel and footwear industries generated between 5 and 10 percent of global pollution impacts in 2016. Footwear alone represents approximately 1.4 percent of global climate impacts, while apparel represents 6.7 percent of global climate impacts. Combined, they account for an estimated 8.1 percent of global climate impacts (3,990 million metric tons CO2eq).”
“Harvesting the Green Opportunity for CPGs and Retailers,” recent consumer research conducted by A.T. Kearney ahead of Earth Day 2019, suggests that nonbinding accords may not be enough to satisfy consumers, especially younger shoppers.
The A.T. Kearney study found:
• Apparel is the next “green” wave among younger consumers: Approximately 50 percent of consumers aged 18 to 44 intend to shift toward “eco-apparel” in the coming year. That’s up versus the 38 percent of younger consumers who shifted their apparel purchases to more environmentally friendly options in 2018. Among younger consumers, apparel is leading the way as the consumption category with the biggest planned shift toward enviro-friendly products.
• Eighty percent of consumers across all ages and demographics believe changing their everyday behavior and shopping habits is the best way they can help the environment: Over 70 percent of consumers carry that mind-set into the store, considering environmental impacts while shopping and 52 percent reported changing their purchasing behavior in response to environmental claims.
• Over 65 percent of consumers believe that companies should exceed governmental standards on environmental impact — but most consumers need more than a company’s word to believe a claim: Forty percent of consumers 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 shoppers said they never believe product claims.
• And consumers are unlikely to settle for higher costs in exchange for environmental benefits: Over 50 percent of consumers across all income levels note cost as the primary obstacle to purchasing “green.”