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With London Fashion Week in full swing, industry experts consider how brands can promote more sustainable shopping habits
Ahead of London Fashion Week, second hand seller, Gumtree, staged a protest outside Somerset House to highlight the impact that the event has on the environment. Protestors wore signs declaring: ‘I’d rather be nude than buy new’. A protest designed to spotlight the issue of overconsumption and encourage more sustainable shopping habits.
While Fashion Week brings with it new designs, new collections, and new must-haves, the climate crisis continues to place this consumption cycle in the spotlight. Fashion faces serious challenges when it comes to overconsumption, resulting in millions of pounds worth of clothing ending up in landfill.
In response to this challenge a growing number of consumers are buying second-hand. Re-sale apps like Vinted, eBay, Vestiaire, and Depop, have gained popularity for their low-cost clothing and accessories. Research commissioned by the IPA found that two-thirds of adults would be happy to receive a second-hand gift this Christmas, proving that consumers are growing more open to the circular economy.
As consumer attitudes and habits change, the onus for sustainable fashion falls heavily on brands. Gumtree found that over half of adults (54%), feel that brands and designers are responsible for making the fashion industry better. While three-quarters of adults (73%) want brands to be clearer about what they are doing to be more sustainable.
London Fashion Week has seen a growing number of brands put sustainability into action. Environmentally conscious, “pro-planet” designer, L Saha, showed apparel made with sustainable practices. Mulberry used the festivities to promote their second-hand bag initiative with a pop-up shop. But there is still more to do. With this in mind, we asked industry leaders what fashion brands can be doing to encourage sustainable shopping.
I think most consumers are making sustainable shopping choices, or at least they’d very much prefer to if they can afford to. And this is where brands can come in: As we discovered last year in our whitepaper “Fixing the (other) Climate Gender Gap: The Role of Brands,” 42% of Brits feel discouraged from buying eco-friendly products due to the cost of living crisis and they want brands to step up to the plate – almost two thirds of respondents said that after offering value for money, the next most important thing a brand can do is help the environment. In that sense, it’s less about brands encouraging, and more about them enabling consumers to make the sustainable choices they’d already prefer to be able to make.
We’ve already seen the effect consumers choosing sustainability has had in fashion, both in terms of trends and for brands. The resurgence of 2000s style has been attributed to the fact that it’s so readily available in charity shops, without the markup that more retro styles like 70s or 80s have for their vintage conditions – we can’t forget that these generations are in the midst of a cost of living crisis, too. With the 2000s style being cheaper, it’s an easier go-to than vintage and archival pieces. Imagine - the consumer desire for affordable, sustainable pieces has managed to develop an era-defining aesthetic for the 2020s: now that’s sustainability in action.
One brand already making this work is Coachtopia, the luxury brand Coach’s sub-label made from recycled fabric and deadstock, purposely placed at a more affordable price range. While independent brands with more trend-focused styles, like Gen Z darlings LisaSaysGah! and Djerf Avenue, have sections of their online stores specifically for consumers wanting to sell preloved versions of the same clothes.
In all, consumers already want to shop sustainably, just for reasonable prices. Fashion brands have every opportunity to transition to becoming the gateway to sustainable fashion, rather than the gatekeepers.
Most large fashion brands are still on an ongoing journey toward sustainability – they have well-established production lines and business models that take time to change. However, that doesn’t mean it’s too early to talk openly about how small changes can make a positive impact. Moving the emphasis away from an extreme binary (either unsustainable or sustainable) will help create a better dialogue with customers and make the task of fixing the industry more manageable.
Fashion brands can encourage fewer but durable purchases, to elevate their incentives by suggesting charity donations, and recycling programs for used clothing. The fashion rental market is also an interesting area of growth. Led by pioneers such as Hurr and By Rotation, they help us stay away from one-off event purchases, and it’s great to see other brands launch their own schemes – such as John Lewis Fashion Rental and French Connection Rental. By taking part in this model, brands can stimulate sustainable wardrobe habits while funding their bigger infrastructural moves towards sustainability.
Nowadays, vintage, and second-hand shopping is more common than ever, and it will be interesting to see if new brands create direct relationships with third-party marketplaces such as Depop and Vinted, so they are seen as an integral part of the sustainability journey, rather than competition.
Brands are already woefully behind the consumer when it comes to climate action. Rather than spending energy trying to encourage consumers to make sustainable shopping choices, brands should be working to make sustainable shopping the easier choice. The heavy lifting needs to come from businesses and they’ll be rewarded for it. Because if the easiest, best choice is also the most sustainable one, there’s a good chance that consumers choose it. There’s a gap to close in getting ‘better for the environment’ fashion to the masses. That gap will only close with a focus on innovation, distribution and policy, not shifting public behaviour.
They not only should, they must.
Let's be frank – sustainability and fashion is a paradox and consumers aren’t fooled by it. Brands like H&M and Boohoo have tried and tested sustainable collections, and both faced brutal consumer backlash for greenwashing. But despite scrutiny of brands’ green credentials and ‘sustainability’ dangerously becoming a buzzword, fashion brands just can’t dodge responsibility for helping consumers make better choices.
A pre-cost of living crisis study shows a rapid growth in sustainability considerations, with three-quarters of Gen Z expressing a preference for sustainable purchases over brand names. This highlights the need for big name brands, that have traditionally viewed sustainability as a hygiene factor rather than a driving force, to innovate and influence consumer choices. The silver lining is that brands pioneering affordable, cleaner fashion will reap the rewards. Consider Sézane, the Parisian brand dedicated to creating high-quality pieces that last a lifetime, or Veja sneakers, whose signature 'V' shoes have become a must-have for eco-conscious consumers.
Now, brands must reinvent themselves to engage savvy consumers who are increasingly inclined to collect high quality pieces (Levi’s Buy Better) but also rent, resell, and recycle their clothes. A recent example is Primark's partnership with Wornwell second-hand clothing chain, proving that fashion giants, when they are willing to, can authentically lead the industry and fashion lovers down a better path.
Improving sustainability should be high on the agenda for all industries, especially fashion. Fashion brands have a huge responsibility to their audiences; they should be leading the way by pushing the boundaries of how we consume trends and actively shaping the living relationship between brands and consumers. With the cost of living crisis forcing people to cut back, people are predicted to spend less on clothes and fashion. This could mean more consumers turning to fast fashion for a low-cost solution rather than making fewer but better-planned investments. Brands can help shape what this looks like in reality and play a role in bringing sustainability to the front of mind for consumers.
Powerful partnerships that tap into cultural moments can help consumers to make this change. eBay’s ongoing collaboration with Love Island is a prime example of how a brand collaboration is enabling a cultural shift towards more sustainable fashion, inserting green messaging into new conversations, and building up the association of pre-loved as something trendy. Before eBay’s sponsorship, the show was synonymous with fast fashion, with many contestants going on to launch their own lines with various fast fashion retailers. The eBay partnership changed this. During the show, islanders were kitted out in fashionable second-hand clothes, and runner-up Tasha Ghouri became the first contestant to become a Pre-loved Ambassador, opting to partner with eBay over fast fashion outlets on her departure from the villa. Campaigns like this highlight how partnerships give brands an opening into new conversations, helping drive change and make sustainability a trend worth following.
Of course! The fashion industry contributes to 10% of global CO2 emissions. Making fashion more sustainable is fundamental in solving the climate crisis. We’re already seeing many brands making strides, which is promising. From Barbour and Patagonia, encouraging repair over replacement to the likes of COS and LuluLemon who host resale programs. Then there are the game changers, like Mother of Pearl, driving sustainable brand practices through their entire brand.
But responsibility doesn't just sit with fashion brands. In fact, I would argue, the biggest impact will come from consumers. As a collective, we can not just buy better and make more sustainable decisions but make the ultimate power move: buy less.
To do this on a mass scale, what is considered fashionable needs to be disrupted and reframed to foster more sustainable consumption mindsets and habits. Here’s where advertising can help.
Buying new needs to be reframed as passé. The Love Island x eBay partnership proved that this is possible. Consumers should be encouraged to find their own enduring personal style over following trends and wear clothes to wear out. Jigsaw has done the former brilliantly. Finally, the more is more mentality needs to be fashioned into a less is more one, encouraging owning less clothes and wearing the same clothes more often. If Levi’s could make owning 1 pair of jeans sexy in their 1985 Laundrette ad, surely this is also possible. It’s radical, but if anything can do radical change, it’s fashion!
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