It’s no secret that manufacturing fashion is extremely wasteful. Fashion contributes to 10% of global CO2 emissions and over 100 billion garments are produced a year. That’s a lot of production considering a good bit of those items will never find their way onto a warm body. And yet, during the heyday of Abercrombie & Fitch’s popularity, the former CEO, Mike Jefferies, was even attributed to lamenting that he’d rather “burn clothes than give them to poor people.” Jeffries and other profit-myopic industry leaders didn’t want to risk losing brand value by seeing their clothes on discount ranks.
But now profit means something different for many smarter fashion leaders. Fashion is being forced to answer to growing customer demands around resource conservation. Sustainability is one of the top concerns of Millennials and Gen-Z consumers with 73% of Millennials saying they would pay more for sustainable products. Nothing closes the modern shopper’s wallet faster than hearing their purchase is going toward destroying the planet. As a result, many companies, even those in fashion, have become more vocal about the efforts they are making toward being more sustainable.
Most people recognize the giant damper in their wallet that buying a new outfit for a wedding, gala, or other high profile event causes. Those events, particularly for women, are one-time use occasions meaning you’re buying an outfit that will likely only be worn once or twice before it finds itself either in the donation pile or banished to the back of the closet where it will never see the light of day ever again. Rent the Runway solves for this problem by allowing the would-be-glamorous (and the already-glamorous) to rent high fashion ensembles for a small fee. You get the look for the night and then the outfit goes back into rotation for another person to use. It’s perfect for the person that doesn’t like to repeat an outfit but doesn’t have a Rihanna bank account.
Madewell has implemented a program to give jeans a little more life. The three denim saving options include: customers can bring in their ripped (the unintentional kind) Madewell jeans to any store and have them repaired, they can sell their old Madewell jeans and/or buy used ones, or they can donate any pair of jeans (doesn’t have to be Madewell brand) to be repurposed as housing insulation. To date, Madewell customers have donated over 800,000 jeans.
H&M has come a long way from its burning excess merchandise days. In their defense, the merchandise that was burned was used to power the Swedish city of Vasteras. The retailer now tops Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, which ranks the biggest global fashion brands by how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies. Part of their efforts to top the list includes becoming the first retailer to sell clothing made from Circulose, which is a completely recycled and sustainably sourced cotton, and launching a new in-store recycling system called Looop, where customers can watch their old clothing transformed into something new.
In spite of these efforts, there are critics calling some of these attempts “greenwashing”– a marketing bandaid fix in which companies spend more effort on revamping their eco-consciousness image than actually being eco-conscious. They argue the goals set by the fashion houses are unrealistic and exist more to pacify people’s minds so they feel better about buying that $60 top than to actually make an impact. In a way, presenting as one thing while really being something else is very on-brand for fashion. No, there isn’t a quick panacea strategy that can make fashion completely sustainable, but it’s also a lot to ask of an industry that lives on a long catwalk.
It’s a slow strut to the finish but as more buyers vote with their dollars and turn toward brands that are not only fashionable but aligned with their personal sustainability beliefs, the pressure will be on for other brands to follow suit. Fashion may set the trends but at the end of the day, they have to sell products that their potential customers want and feel good about buying. As the general public demands more sustainability, fashion may be forced to compete against itself to see who can be the most sustainable and win customers. It may even be that while those goals do flirt with being greenwash efforts, they are actually achieved in the process. People have access to more information than ever before and thanks to social media any brand not making good on their promise could be held publicly accountable. For fashion marketers and communicators, this means it’s time to start talking to your supply chain people and pushing for new, real stories about what’s working.