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Earth Day: Can Fashion Ever Be Sustainable?

Earth Day: Can Fashion Ever Be Sustainable?
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For the whole month of April, the severe environmental challenges our planet faces have been taking center stage. This Friday, marked by millions around the world, marks the 52nd anniversary of the modern environmental movement this whole month has been leading up to - Earth Day. In 2022, as the climate crisis continues to develop at an alarming speed, each Earth Day is becoming more and more meaningful. From air pollution and deforestation, to unsustainable water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the fashion industry is directly contributing to many climate issues. The fact that fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output shows us the magnitude of the challenge we face, for fashion industry professionals as well as fashion consumers.

Today we are diving deeper into consumer insights and attitudes in regards to sustainability in fashion, as well as data on how retailers and brands are addressing this. The question we all want an answer to is, “Can fashion ever really be sustainable?”

Consumer Attitudes on Sustainability
Data shows that the European consumer’s intent to buy sustainable fashion is growing, but barriers such as price seem to stand in the way. A survey conducted on consumers in the UK and Germany by McKinsey reported that 67% consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, yet The European Fashion Report by YouGov reported that price is the most important criteria for European consumers when buying clothes.  Data from US consumers shows similar trends, with 61% reporting that sustainability is important in purchase decisions, and only 42% reporting they’d be willing to pay a premium for it.

Wanting to purchase sustainably, but still being motivated by price, can easily lead to a cognitive dissonance for consumers, and this spells a challenge for established brands to invest in sustainable practices without hiking up the prices past consumers’ thresholds. In order to change consumers’ behavior at scale, they will need help to move from objectives to action, and price plays an important role in this.

Growing Momentum
As consumer appetite for more sustainable products grows, so have retailers’ responses with products that cater to this.  StyleSage research looked at products in retailers in the UK, US, and Germany, to understand the growth of sustainably marketed products.  This includes the plethora of mentions including recycled materials, fair trade, or organic cotton, amongst others.

German retailers led the way, with sustainably marketed products growing at a rate of 238% between Q1 2020 and Q1 2022.  The UK and US also marked notable growth in the same time period, at 178% and 156% growth, respectively.  There was a significant pullback in product counts in both the US and UK between Q4 of 2021 and Q1 2022, likely due to the global supply chain backlog.

Sustainability Areas of Focus: Recycled Materials
There has been a lot of attention aimed at the topic of recycling within the fashion industry as of late. In fact, proposed legislation from the European Union is specifically tackling circularity in materials and “setting mandatory minimums for the inclusion of recycled fibers in textiles.”

So what is the state of recycled fibers in assortments?  StyleSage research shows that recycled polyester is the most common recycled material, accounting for 17% of recycled apparel items in European and American online assortments during Q1 2022. Yet the challenge remains: recycling polyester is an improvement in practice, but it still remains a material created utilizing petrochemicals.  

Sustainability Areas of Focus: Fabrics of the Future
To cater to consumers’ attitudes and perception of the importance of sustainable materials, brands are turning to more eco-friendly textile alternatives. Below we explore three of these such innovations.

Stella McCartney has always been devoted to sustainability and innovation. In 2021, the brand launched the first ever collection made out from vegan, lab-grown Mylo™️ mushroom leather.

“These rare, exclusive Mylo™️ pieces embody our shared commitment with Bolt Threads to innovate a kinder fashion industry – one that sees the birth of beautiful, luxurious materials as opposed to the deaths of our fellow creatures and planet,” says McCartney.

This low-impact option to animal skins is not only eliminating the environmental impact of processing leather, something that requires harsh chemicals toxic to people and planet, but also the one of animal agriculture. To top it off, Mylo is entirely natural and biodegradable.

Another brand devoted to innovative leather alternatives is handbag brand Mashu. In addition to their Cassiopeia bucket bag’s striking appearance, it is also made out of Pinatex - a vegan leather alternative made from pineapple leaves (these leaves are a byproduct of the fruit industry which are traditionally discarded or burned). Just like the mushroom leather, the pineapple version is free from toxic chemicals and cruelty free, but it is important to note that due to its plastic coating it is not 100% biodegradable.

Lastly, Desserto’s Cactus material made from prickly pear deserves to be mentioned. It is organic, all-natural, and cruelty-free. In 2021, Karl Lagerfeld partnered up with sustainability advocate Amber Valletta to release a collection including this more sustainable leather alternative. The result was cactus leather interpretations of Lagerfeld’s most iconic handbags.

Few other industries tout their sustainability credentials more assertively than the fashion industry. With consumers being highly aware of both social and environmental issues, making them not only expect but demand brands and business leaders to shift to more sustainable solutions, it is easy to see how this movement has turned into a marketing strategy.

Greenwashing, sometimes called ‘green sheen’, is when a brand or retailer purports to be more environmentally conscious for marketing purposes than they actually are. Lack of transparency is leaving consumers skeptical and unable to know whether a garment’s sustainable claims are actually justified by environmental practices. Buzz words such as ‘ethical’ and ‘organic’  are easy to sprinkle around, but who is checking that a brand is practicing what they preach?

One way to address this is via certifications and affiliations like OEKO-TEX and 1% For the Planet.  Via their unique platforms, organizations such as these help to build trust in the materials and processes brands use.  But are fashion brands utilizing these certifications or more general marketing language to build sustainability cred?  We took to StyleSage data to find out.

The data shows that the percentage of products using eco certification in product descriptions is a low percentage of total products labeled as sustainable by retailers.  In Germany this gap is the greatest, with only 13% of sustainable products including certification.  In the UK, this share reaches 20%, while it’s 38% in the US.  As more consumers dig deeper for the authenticity of sustainability claims, it's critical that brands do more to substantiate them.

Chloé SS22

Another, and one of the more rigorous, certification for fashion brands, the B Corp certification demonstrates “that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.” In October of last year, Chloé was the first first luxury fashion house to earn a B Corp certification. This stamp verifies and celebrates the brand’s efforts, but does not mean that they’ve met the end goal on their sustainability journey - there is still a lot more work to be done. In fact, the source of sustainability ratings in the fashion industry Good On You is still giving Chloé a ‘Not good enough’ overall rating.

The challenge to the fashion industry is immense, and will require an “all hands on deck” approach that includes governments, certifying organizations, consumer behavior shifts, and responsibility and accountability of fashion brands.  

So our question is this: "What are you - as a consumer, as a brand - doing to build a more sustainable future for the fashion industry?"

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