From food to fashion, sustainability has become a forward
principle in recent years. Bolstered by a shift towards social accountability,
many consumer brands have put a heightened value on doing good with their
products—whether that be reducing their environmental footprint, supporting eco-friendly
causes or using business models as a vehicle for change.
This trend towards environmental stewardship has been
embraced by the fashion world, and, some will say, not only embraced but driven
forward. Certainly, the movement has opened a door of opportunity for brands
that emphasize ecological responsibility.
Whether proactive or reactive, it
makes sense that brands of nearly every caliber have begun to put a priority on
environmental stewardship. Global textile production has more than doubled over
the past 15 years, according to reports by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. A full
85 percent of discarded clothing ends up in landfills in the United States—a cycle
that produces more greenhouse emissions than sea and air shipping combined, Fortune
Yet, while the fashion industry
has made strides towards greater sustainability, progress slowed last year,
according to the latest Pulse of the Fashion
Industry report. The annual study found that adoption of socially and
environmentally conscious practices improved in 2018, but at a slower rate than
in 2017. The industry’s score rose four points to 42 out of 100, which was less
than the six-point gain a year earlier.
“The fashion industry is still
far from sustainable,” a summary of the report states plainly. “Furthermore,
the findings demonstrate that fashion companies are not implementing
sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance the negative environmental
and social impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry.”
The amount of clothing purchased
globally each year is expected to rise 63 percent by 2030 to 102 million tons.
On the current trajectory, the report notes, that growth will cause the gap between
sustainability progress and industry output to widen.
However, many industry leaders
see an opportunity to connect with audiences and bolster their brands through elevated
sustainability initiatives. Their vision—fewer, better products that reflect
consumers’ interest and lifestyles. Less mass production and more
Sustainability “totally fits with
what we believe in,” Anya Hindmarch, founder of the British handbag label told Fortune’s Most
Powerful Women International Summit this week. Customers now expect a
personal story behind the product, rather than “fast fashion,” she added.
“Nowadays [consumers] don’t just
want an object, they want something to talks to them,” said Kristina Blahnik,
speaking at the same event.
The approach of designing
products targeted to consumers’ interests may be a winning strategy, and one
that may help reduce the fashion industry’s footprint. Seventy-three percent of
Millennials, the fastest-growing wealth segment, say they are willing to pay
more for sustainable brands, according to Neilson’s 2015 Global
Corporate Sustainability report. Eighty-one percent say they expect companies
they support to make public declarations of corporate responsibility.
More than prior generations, Millennials
are not content to simply observe, either. They are more likely to actively
engage in the conversation. Nearly three-quarters say they will voice their
opinions about a company’s social policies, according to research by Cone
Communications, and with the advent of social media, they have a bullhorn
to do so.
Certainly, commercial sustainability
has ebbed and flowed over the past several decades. But the cultural shift
among Millennials—a population that exceeds 80 million in the United States
alone and which stands to inherit the largest
wealth transfer in history (an estimated $30 trillion from Baby Boomers and
Gen-Xers over the next 30 years)—suggests environmental awareness is more than
just a passing fad.
How the fashion industry responds
may well determine the future of many leading brands—and open the door to
newcomers. In an era where experience is its own currency, it seems designers
would be wise to follow those leaders who are personalizing their products, and
reducing waste in the process.