In contrast to some of those in power thumbing their noses at the notion of climate change and an overall eco-friendly outlook, more consumers are becoming interested in living more mindfully, according to market researchers.
Maria Coronado, senior consultant, natural resources at Euromonitor International, said 61 percent of consumers are worried about climate change, while 53 percent believe their purchase choices could make a difference in the world.
“Sustainability has become the new normal,” Coronado said. “The fashion industry, which is considered the second-most polluting sector in the world, is no exception.”
Consumers become interested in conscious consumption when they’re educated about the extent of the environmental or human rights problem. “The eight tonnes of plastics that end up in the ocean is perhaps the most visible problem,” she said, adding that 30 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for clothes that last longer if the resources used to manufacture them will produce less waste.
“The higher price of ethical products along with the lack of transparency and traceability across the supply chain are the main factors preventing consumers from making more ethical decisions,” Coronado added. “Understanding where products come from, how the materials were sourced, transported and manufactured could make a difference in their willingness to pay more for ethical products.”
“Disposable fashion is draining our wallets and wreaking havoc on the planet, and consumers are waking up to this waste,” said James Reinhart, founder and chief executive officer of ThredUp, which operates a resale site and brick-and-mortar stores. “Consumers want the closet-flipping fun of fast fashion without the eco-hangover. They want better quality clothing at fast-fashion prices, and they can get that from resale.”
“As a nation, we’ve become addicted to cheaply made, disposable clothing,” Reinhart added. “Retailers will have to react because consumers are increasingly choosing secondhand and sustainable brands such as Reformation, Everlane and Eileen Fisher, among others, over other options. Those brands are educating consumers about the impact of their fashion choices and providing better alternatives.”
Resale can help counter the fashion waste crisis: Buying a used garment extends its life, on average, by 2.2 years, which reduces its carbon waste and footprint by 73 percent.
Ten years ago, Reinhart peered into his own closet and saw abundance. Wanting to divest of some unwanted clothing, he realized there was no easy way to get rid of items he’d only worn a few times. “I looked around and realized everyone had the same problem,” he said, adding that thrifters plan to double the amount of used clothing they buy in five years, and 71 percent of consumers will spend more on resale apparel and less in department stores during the same period, according to ThredUp’s research.
ThredUp’s 2018 Resale Report pegs the market at $20 billion, on track reach $41 billion by 2022. According to the report, resale is growing 24 times faster than retail.
Consumers are increasingly making the connection between the products they buy and their impact on the environment. When Reinhart launched ThredUp a decade ago, there was a stigma around used or gently worn clothing. “The stigma around resale has all but disappeared and secondhand has gone mainstream,” Reinhart said. What changed? The ceo points to the auto industry, where a few years ago, used cars were highly stigmatized. “Certified pre-owned’ vehicles allow consumers to trade their old car for a new or used car at the same dealer. The same shift happening in the clothing industry, with resale offering value to consumers, and opportunities for retailers.”
Euromonitor’s research suggests that our society is getting greener, but the desire to make disciplined purchasing decisions varies with age, income, education level, culture and access to information.
Experts may not name the same cohort as the catalyst of conscious consumption, but most agree that younger consumers have been behind the push.
“Millennials are leading the shift to thrift,” Reinhart said. “We found that 77 percent of Millennials prefer buying eco-conscious brands and are the most likely age group to switch to thrift for environmental reasons.”
“We know that one size doesn’t fit all, and although globally, younger consumers are more environmentally aware than previous generations,” Coronado said. “Our research shows that in developed markets there’s stronger engagement with environmental values among consumers aged over 60. There’s also differences in consumer behavior between countries in the same region. While shoppers in India show strong environmental values in their consumption habits, regardless of income, in China, income levels affect ethical interest.
“Consumers’ interest globally in ethical [issues] peaks after age 30,” Coronado added. “Interest is usually higher in consumers with children. Most ethical brands looking at the global [research] are targeting young, highly educated and digitally engaged shoppers with high incomes.”
Sustainable and ethically sourced and manufactured brands have high hopes for Generation Z, the biggest cohort to come along since the Baby Boomers. With an estimated $143 billion in spending potential by 2020, Gen Z members, who are now between the ages of three and 23, are concerned about products’ back stories and connect the dots between the apparel production and workers, consumers and the environment.
Planet-first brands catering to young, conscious customers, are wearing their commitment on their 100 percent organic cotton sleeves. Pangaia, which launched this month globally, is a collective dedicated to accelerate the world’s transition to responsible production and consumption. Starting with basic clothing, Pangaia said it’s “creating a global open source platform for the latest eco-innovations and solutions connecting like-minded individuals and organizations who care about the environment.”
The brand has a philanthropic element with 1 percent of the purchase price of every Pangaia product donated to 5 Gyres, a nonprofit organization focused on plastic pollution. The brand is committed to a zero waste circular system and said it joined with The Renewal Workshop to ensure that every product lives on by being repaired and upcycled or recycled.
Consumers aged 18 to 34 are the most inclined to spend more on sustainable apparel, and about 33 percent of women would pay a premium for clothing described as sustainable, eco-friendly, organic or ethical, according to the NPD Group. But the majority of shoppers — two-thirds — weren’t willing to fork over more cash to alleviate their conscience, the research firm said.
“An increasing number of environmentally conscious shoppers are looking for sustainable apparel, and nearly a quarter of U.S. adults said they’ve purchased sustainable apparel,” said Marshal Cohen, chief economist of the NPD Group. “As consumer interest in sustainability grows, so do the efforts of the apparel industry, but there’s a clear need to educate shoppers in order to make this connection.”
Bishop Collective, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is doing just that by hosting community-driven ethos sessions with independent designers. “By hosting designer sessions, we hope customers can learn more about ethical design and the design process directly from those who are making changes in our industry,” said cofounder Mai Vu. Added cofounder Dimitri Koumbis, “When you shop in our store, you’re not just buying a product, you’re supporting the story behind brand and the entire production chain.”
NPD’s research found that consumers aren’t always consistent in their support of the environment. About 14 percent of shoppers said they’re furthering the cause of sustainability with their awareness of the conscious consumption process. “That doesn’t mean they always practice what they preach or act on their beliefs in everything they buy,” Cohen said, adding, “The interest level has gained traction. Five years ago, the number was less than 5 percent.
“Retailers’ efforts have been sluggish,” Cohen said. “Manufacturers have been more proactive; it’s more about logistics and production. Retailers such as Patagonia and L.L. Bean have built sustainability into their DNA and are committed to protecting the environment.
“A fantastic example of an ethical brand taking responsibility beyond regulation is Patagonia’s recent announcement that it was donating the money saved as a result of President Trump’s tax cut to organizations fighting back climate change,” Coronado said.
Acts such as Patagonia’s largesse moves shoppers to pay a premium — up to 10 percent more — for products that demonstrate a legitimate green initiative. “A lot of consumers don’t connect with a brand’s efforts unless it’s part of its identity and core culture,” Cohen said.
Woe be it to the retailer that talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. When H&M was caught reportedly burning and shredding unsold clothes several years ago, consumers were outraged, but destroying excess inventory isn’t the exclusive domain of fast fashion companies. To keep apparel in the hands of elite clients, Burberry and other luxury brands were said to have destroyed apparel to prevent it from being sold at off-privets and outlet stores or ending up in the gray market.
H&M has since launched a Conscious Exclusive collection, whose eighth season bowed in the fall. The retailer gives pieces in the collection, which is priced higher than the Swedish retailer’s traditional labels, interesting details with embellishments and trimmings. “We’re pushing the boundaries with fashion and sustainability,” said Cecilia Brann, sustainability manager. “We’re one of the largest users in the world of Tencel and recycled polyester. We used organic cotton in our collection before we launched Conscious Exclusive.”
Fashion companies with a conscious mindset sometimes think outside the box and team with unlikely partners. Kering and The Savory Institute said they recognize the positive effect that regenerative agriculture can have in the fashion industry. As a first in fashion and luxury, Kering has become a frontier founder under Savory’s Land to Market program to advocate verified regenerative sourcing solutions and expand the regenerative agriculture framework in fashion’s global supply chains. Through its use of agricultural raw materials, the fashion industry and its supply chains are directly linked to the degradation of soil, conversion of natural ecosystems and biodiversity loss, Kering and Savory said.