The big transition: Fashion following the path to sustainability

Sustainable Fashion

Sustainability once only existed in talks, but now is reflected in actions. The Ethical Fashion Market has grown at a CAGR of 6.5% since 2017 and was valued at nearly $7.5 billion in 2022 which is further projected to surge to $11 billion in 2027 at a CAGR of 8.1%.

While the growth was led by transpiring market trends, a rise in foreign direct investments, and augmenting customer push toward sustainability, it was restricted by inflating costs of ethical fashion and reduction in free trade.

Consumers are prioritizing sustainability

In 2022, according to an IBV study on 16000 global respondents, consumers’ mindsets are shifting. Out of the total, 93% of global respondents stated that the pandemic has impacted their perception of sustainability and environmental sustainability is now more critical to 51% of respondents than it was a year ago and 77% of respondents shared their willingness to make more sustainable choices at home.

Brands becoming the stewards of change

The way customers choose brands has evolved over the years. If we go back in time, only the name of the brand was enough to instil trust in buyers, then later, emotional benefits emerged as a major attribute, and now, our motivation is focused on the intangible- brands that offer great meaning, and value and fulfil their purpose. Serving this purpose, many brands are now based on philosophies, Eg, Puma’s tagline is ‘Forever Faster’, and the same for Nike’s ‘Just Do It’. While choosing brands is a personal decision for customers, brand choice is one way of confirming and expressing their own identity.

In the growing quest for sustainability, brands play a supreme role in not only influencing attitudes and behaviour but also integrating sustainability within an organisation. For a brand to allure and retain customers, it’s always good to be vocal about the sustainable practices they adopt, like going paperless, reducing waste, saying no to plastic, recycling, etc. Second, share information about sustainability with them and promote their efforts so consumers can resonate and participate. Thirdly, creating awareness about the imperativeness of making small sustainable changes today, for a greener future tomorrow.

It’s important to note that if brands are successful in changing the attitudes and behaviour of the customers even to a small extent, they deserve to be communicated the positive impact of their choices. To stay ahead and succeed in future, brands must stay on top of social trends and evolving consumer concerns to instil inspiration, trust and liking amongst the customers. In times to come, sustainability will be considered a mainstay component of a brand, just like reliability, quality, and safety.

For eg, Stella McCartney, a UK-based sustainable fashion brand in the luxury space has been at the forefront of the sustainable fashion revolution and switched to compostable and biodegradable plastic packaging alternatives. Another renowned luxury brand, Italy-based Prada, launched Re-Nylon, a sustainable line of bags and accessories made of discarded fabrics, and recycled plastic from oceans and fishing nets. Talking about a mass brand, Levi’s is dedicated to sustainable denim wear, that lasts a lifetime. Did you know their most popular item the 501 Jeans was created over 150 years ago for the first time? Also, they aspire to bring down their water usage by 80% and GHG emissions by 25%.  

While going 100% sustainable is difficult, it’s not impossible. For eg., Plant Faced Clothing, a UK-based 100% vegan fashion clothing brand was founded in 2015 and religiously uses only sustainable materials to create products that last a lifetime. The environment-conscious brand is a success story and is going strong in producing and promoting sustainable products.

On that account, brands assuredly play a dominant role in communicating, educating, and leading consumers toward sustainable practices for overall planetary health.

Trust; the ultimate dealmaker

If there’s one fundamental value that is a showstopper, it must be TRUST, which is now quite in a jeopardised state. In 1980, nearly 2/3rd of consumers believed that companies were mostly fair to consumers. By 2000, this ratio decreased to 1/3rd. People tend to believe in individual brands as a category as compared to big businesses or multinational companies.

Talking about business commitment toward sustainability and climatic conditions, one out of two consumers either don’t know what to trust or simply don’t believe in any claims to trust the brands. For those who believe, a transparent, accountable, and socially abiding supply chain is a mandate along with a Corporate Social Responsibility report with their targets stated.

The consumers of today are the trendsetters of the future as they extensively embrace sustainability. They preach environmental protection. They are conscious consumers. Consequently, brand preference can become a challenge as consumer culture and consumer behaviour evolve hastily, and to stay ahead of the growth curve, leading brands tend to match the standard and speed of the changing consumer behaviour. Where government inaction on societal issues creeps in, brand values and brand action have a bigger role to play.

Brands that have high prominence and an upper hand often face a downside and are also often criticised for being used to influence attitudes and behaviour negatively. Several leading brands like Nike, Zara, H&M, and Gap, have been accused of greenwashing and hiding unethical practices behind their benign brand image. Consequently, the most common behaviour that consumers portray is averting and boycotting such brands when they feel misled. However, the allegations don’t imply that these brands are doing nothing for the environment. They are still putting their best foot forward to be a valuable contribution to SDGs. For an instance, H&M has clinched initiatives like reducing emissions in their supply chain, incorporating recycled materials in their production, and enhancing product life through repair services. Customers can also gather their old or not-in-use clothes, fill them in a bag, and submit them at the H&M stores. While the clothes go for recycling, customers also get to enjoy 15% off just with this little effort. 

Efforts that matter for a waste-free tomorrow

Zero-waste culture is a new way and there still exist mainstream brands and new startups that are proactively underscoring sustainability as an integral part of their products and services, business models and strategies. For eg- Doodlage, an Indian brand uses discarded fabrics from large manufacturers instead of letting them go wasted. Also, they switch to eco-friendly materials like banana fabric, and organic cotton for their products and even collaborate with like-minded organisations like NGOs called Goonj. Doodlage shares the remaining fabric from previous collections with Goonj to create reusable sanitary napkins for women in rural India. What a great innovative initiative, isn’t it?

Another enticing epitome of a waste-free culture is ‘For Days’, a US-based zero-waste circular fashion brand. Their innovative recycling program is a global pioneer with their $20 Take Back Bag. All you have to do is fill it up with clothing and linens from any brands, styles and fabrics, ship it back and For Days will take care of the further process. Since its launch, they have sold nearly 35,000 bags and re-routed 170000 garments from landfills.

In the current age, thrift stores like Bombay Closet Cleanse and rental clothing stores like Fly robe are also coming into the mainstream. It’s all about promoting the reuse of preowned or upcycled or thrifted items of clothing and accessories. Such initiatives not only support the environment but are also light on the pocket, helping people save for a rainy day.

Challenges of shopping sustainably

While shopping mindlessly is easy, it’s a tedious task if it’s based on our values checklist. Although the sustainability trend is in its nascent stages, by the time it comes into the mainstream, the industry is expected to be fully equipped and evolved to address the challenges currently faced:

From a customer’s POV-

  • Shopping sustainably is expensive.
  • Sustainable shopping is slow on size diversity.
  • There’s less diversity of styles.
  • Difficult choice between trusting the right companies.
  • The products can be inconvenient and unavailable in times of emergency.

From a brand’s POV-

  • Supply chain challenges
  • Lack of technological support
  • Understanding and fulfilling consumer sentiments

Green marketing and Innovation; not just some buzzwords

Green marketing or sustainable marketing is an effective medium that creates awareness about environmental and social issues by promoting socially responsible products, services, and brand values. It not only improves brand loyalty and worker management when integrated within an organisation but also sets the tone for fulfilling CSR. Have you ever spent a little while contemplating a brand that is organic, locally sourced, or eco-friendly? If yes, then you were certainly in the middle of sustainable marketing.

Do you ever wonder how your brand is perceived in your consumer’s minds? In the current age of highly environment-conscious consumers, fabricating eco-friendly products, sourcing sustainable materials for packaging products, donating profits to sustainable causes, and putting efforts to reduce GHG emissions from manufacturing processes are major pullers to intrigue consumers. If done rightly, it can position a brand in a very powerful way by humanising brand messages and providing reasons as to why they are better than their counterparts. However, don’t take it just as a trending buzzword, they are comprehensive long-term, consistent, and integrated programs dedicated to bringing down the carbon footprint, promoting recyclable materials and maintaining a pool of prospects for future generations for a waste-free future.

As per a consumer satisfaction survey by McKinsey, 67% of total respondents considered the use of sustainable materials a crucial factor for purchases, while 63% of respondents considered a brand’s promotion to be an ultimate driver. An overwhelming 60% of respondents stated that they go all out to purchase products with sustainable packaging.

Packaging is omnipresent in our surroundings. How often do you get enticed toward packaging that you could probably use for personal use? Innovation in packaging is changing the landscape of how people see delivery boxes. While earlier they were often discarded, now they are retained for future use.  It could be a fancy cardboard box that could be reused for storing cosmetics or a cylindrical chocolate box reused for keeping stationery. For eg. Paynter Jacket, a sustainable brand designed in East London and manufacture red in Northern Portugal makes limited batched 3 times a year so they can spend 99% of their time learning to make a better product with a smaller impact. The cherry on the cake is that their clothing tag comes with self-care messages. Now that’s sustainable creativity, right? Plant-based packaging, bio-based packaging, edible packaging, recyclable packaging, and agriculture residue packaging, all are breakthrough innovations in the name of sustainability. For eg- No Nasties, a Goa-based sustainable clothing brand, utilises organic cotton in creating packaging bags with drawstrings., and further ships products in recycled cardboard boxes, thereby eliminating plastic.

Sustainable endeavours built to last

The billion-dollar sleeping giant i.e. the ethical fashion industry is finally on the trajectory toward sustainability. With intensifying concerns for deteriorating climate health, the world is gradually transitioning toward sustainable practices. Companies and brands across diverse verticals are transforming their business models in a bid to forge a sustainable future- that collectively takes care of people, the planet and revenue. But they certainly can’t do it alone. As a market research company, we serve as a medium that studies the complexities of the ever-evolving consumer behaviour and delivers effective solutions to brands to fill the gap between what they are offering and what their customers really want. At the end of the day, what customers are willing to pay, partially defines the distance sustainable business can travel.