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 reports.
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 personalization.
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.