The Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update report indicates that, as a whole, the fashion industry is slowing down on sustainability efforts.
The report, created by Global Fashion Agenda and Sustainable Apparel Coalition in partnership with Boston Consulting Group, uses a scoring system called the Pulse Index to evaluate fashion companies’ sustainability goals and implementation efforts. It showed that while the fashion industry improved its overall score to six points in 2017, in 2018 that score decreased to only four points.
The slowdown in eco-friendly efforts is disappointing, considering data that illuminates the fashion industry’s reputation for high waste-producing activities. As of 2016, the EPA estimated rubber, leather, and textiles make up more than 9 percent of all solid waste within the US.
“The question is no longer whether it is necessary to improve sustainable business practices, but rather how long it will take before consumers stop buying from brands that do not act responsibly,” the report stated. “The industry cannot wait for the consumer to lead this movement—it is up to fashion leaders to take bolder moves today to transition to a sustainable industry.”
Today’s consumers are taking note of fashion brands’ sustainability focus as well. The Pulse report showed shoppers are increasingly interested in fashion brands’ eco-friendly efforts, with 75% of consumers indicating they view sustainability as either extremely or very important to them.
Those same buyers are demonstrating their concern by making more purchases from fashion brands that have a focus on sustainability. Over 33% of consumers indicated in the same report they have switched brands to support those that take a public stance on environmental change. What’s more: 50% of of shoppers plan to switch brands in the future to support fashion brands that are environmentally-friendly.
There’s an issue here, though. E-commerce expert Tracey Wallacepointed out that oftentimes sustainable fashion brands price their products beyond the average consumer’s budget, which makes it harder especially for younger generations (like those in Gen Z) to afford and adopt sustainable fashion practices.
“Right now sustainable fashion just isn’t happening at the scale it needs to. Buying sustainable is often presented as something lifestyle influencers and celebrities do,” Wallace said. “It feels like something unattainable. I understand there are supply chain issues, but that must be fixed.”
While brands like Athleta and Everlane continue to surge ahead with ongoing sustainability efforts, the transition to more sustainable practices does present a hurdle for most fashion retailers who want to make changes—and not just on the supply chain side of things, either.
However, even with the slowing growth of sustainability practices in the fashion industry right now, there are still brands are taking steps in the right direction to increase their eco-friendly efforts—despite the hurdles.
Activewear brand Vyayama explained that for them, the reality of adopting more sustainable practices means accepting a slower product development and launch schedule, as the process often takes longer.
“We’ve found there is definitely more time involved in developing, sourcing and marketing when you are committed to sustainability,” said Vyayama founder Rachel Bauer. “We spent over a year just developing custom sustainable fabrics that met our standards.”
For others, the key has been finding a marketing angle that complements sustainability efforts before diving in and implementing changes. Body Glove, a surfwear brand, capitalized on the synergy of a partnership with a well-known surfer to push ahead with their eco-friendly efforts.
“Making Body Glove more eco-friendly and sustainable has been something we have talked about for years,” said Nick Meistrell, Body Glove’s Marketing Director. “Having Future Olympic surfer Tatiana Weston-Webb join us as part of the team gave us the right launching pad to start shifting the brand in that direction.”
Still, for other retailers, sustainability is an all-in effort. For Outerknown, a fashion brand offering both mens and womens clothing, eco-friendly efforts are an important brand pillar. Not only do they publicly share their extensive sustainability framework, but they also have made a commitment to working with partners who have Fair Labor Association accreditation.
“There’s a reality that making things sustainably takes longer. It’s more challenging and costs more than making apparel the conventional way,” said Mark Walker, Outerknown’s CEO.
“People buy items they’re excited about…they don’t buy ‘sustainability.’ The secret is making an amazing item that people are excited to purchase and having it consciously designed and created,” he said.
Walker went on to explain that with growing consumer awareness around eco-consciousness, there’s also a broader shift in customer behavior happening right now, wherein shoppers are moving away from fast fashion. With greater mindfulness about fashion purchases, consumers are looking for quality goods that last longer and are more versatile.
The question is: Will other fashion retailers take note and increase their sustainable practices to accommodate this shift in consumer preferences? We can most certainly hope so.