Is sustainability making its mark in the fashion industry?
How is the fashion industry addressing sustainability? Conscious consumerism, circular economy and collaboration.
Sustainability is woven into the fabric of contemporary culture and a vital component in any business, particularly in the business of fashion—it is one of the most resource and labour intensive industries. Yet, it seems that as a whole the fashion industry has just dipped its toe in the pool of social, ethical and environmental challenges that threaten not only the planet but its own future.
We live in the age of conscious consumerism and fast fashion, a paradox that consumers are challenged to mediate. On one hand they are encouraged to be “mindful shoppers” while on the other, they are encouraged to buy into increasingly swift seasonal trends and “flip” or “rotate” their closets perpetually on online re-selling sites such as Grailed. Conscious consumerism has nudged companies to show a higher level of transparency in the entire supply chain from sourcing, manufacturing and production through to the end piece displayed on shop floors.
But despite the perception that consumers, particularly younger generations vow that they prefer more ethical and environmentally sustainable fashion, the rise of direct-to-consumer fast fashion e-tailers (online retailers) such as Bohoo and ASOS prove otherwise. Perhaps price and convenience outshine ethical considerations for some, or shoppers feel as though they’re being guilt tripped into pretending to care about sustainability.
The fashion industry has been dabbling in the much needed embrace of a circular economy, in which a closed loop minimises waste and destructive impact as opposed to the conventional linear system in which products are consumed then thrown away. Consumers who value price, design, and convenience over sustainability can’t be held responsible for their personal choices—retailers and big brands must take it into their own hands to create meaningful change.
It’s up to brands and the media to inform and educate consumers about the impacts of sustainability, as some don’t fully understand what it means or the fact that it has real effects on individuals and areas. One misconception is that sustainability is a luxury afforded to only the wealthy. While there are a plethora of ethically produced goods from eco cleaning supplies to the latest health food on offer for premium prices, sustainability extends further than consumerism. Some say that it is the middle classes who are really embracing sustainability by taking a practical approach to waste reduction and recycling in their day-to-day.
Leasing is one way to encourage a circular model and change the role that consumers play in the fashion system, start-ups in the past five years have reinvented the way in which shoppers interact with brands. Established four years ago, Le Tote is a subscription based service that attempts to make fast fashion more sustainable. Users pay a monthly subscription fee to receive a small selection of garments and accessories, and as soon as they send them back they receive a new package. Although Le Tote advocates a system in which consumers are rewarded when they “close the loop”, the brand still relies on fast fashion labels whose price and designs are clearly hard to beat in the eyes of many consumers.
Collaboration is essential for a deep rooted kind of change
Collaboration is therefore essential for a deep rooted kind of change, a sole player can’t affect the entire current system. In March this year, the British Retail Consortium received backing from 25 British companies on their Better Retail Better World initiative, addressing challenges such as inequality and climate change. Others have joined Global Fashion Agenda’s first guide on sustainability initiative for CEOs, outlining 7 priorities that every fashion CEO should address.
As the fashion industry begins to see an increased number of collaborative sustainability schemes, retailers and brands can take a break from competition and unite even if only temporarily, to form communities that share the same goals and demands for ethical practices which encourage change within supply chains. As such, change across entire sectors become possible as opposed to unnecessary focus on individual players.
Sustainability is a challenge that’s being addressed not only in the fashion industry, although it was slower to embrace it. A plethora of apps have sprung up, aimed at helping users live more sustainable lifestyles by making more ethical decisions with relative ease.
Giki is an app launched in May, helping users make more mindful grocery shopping choices without the stress. Users scan a product’s barcode, and the app assesses its sustainability by awarding it up to 12 points or “badges” which include categories such as “responsibly sourced” or “animal welfare”. Alternatives are even suggested when a product scores poorly.
But can Giki and similar apps in the fashion sector actually address complex issues that involve interconnected systems? One thing is certain—brands in every industry are facing increasing pressures to be more transparent and take the reigns in creating meaningful change for sustainability.
Sustainability is a vital piece of the puzzle in every fashion business today, and to neglect it would be compromising one’s future and the future of coming generations. Bringing together brands in the industry both big and small is a start, but there’s still a long way to go yet.