Tahiya Nuzhat Peata
In the era of fast fashion, sustainability has become a fancy and buzzword, also quite a vague term nowadays. Even though fashion industry is the most important part of our world economy, it has also the reputation of being the 2nd largest contributor in industrial pollution. Thus, shifting to sustainable fashion is evident and already brands and big fashion companies are working on this side to emphasize on the matter. During the post COVID-19 scenario, it is seen that engagement in sustainability has deepened and western consumers wanting fashion players to act responsibly, considering the environmental and social impacts of their businesses. Brands are replying by integrating social and environmental themes into their campaign for products and services, as consumers are now more aware than before. During the pandemic, customers are also serious regarding price and purchasing decision while buying. So how western consumers perceive the sustainability in fashion, this article will try to shade light upon the issues regarding their behavior towards consumption, buying, also responsibilities of the consumers and brand owners to overcome these challenges.
CURRENT SCENARIO: WHY SUSTAINABLE FASHION IS NEEDED?
Sustainable fashion consists of a broad area, which can be viewed as a holistic term that combines eco-conscious and ethical fashion approach. It refers to garments and accessories that are produced or accessed in an ecologically and socially responsible manner. As fast fashion model is built on an endless cycle of overproduction and overconsumption, it is necessary to understand the importance of sustainability. But still brands and companies are facing much challenges to establish this. If we see the big picture, we can see that the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, which is 2nd highest in the world, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (UNEP, 2018). It is assumed that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050, if the fashion sector continues on its current state. By using near to 8000 synthetic chemicals for textile processing, about 17-20% of global water get polluted. 25% of the world’s pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. One kilogram of cotton requires more than 20,000 liters of water equivalent to produce a T-shirt or a pair of jeans. About 85% of textiles are sent to landfills covering 4% of land which produces 21b tons of garbage every year.
The economic pressure is another concern behind sustainability issue. The workload, cheap price etc. are creating pressure on the shoulder of producers, increasing the costing. The parent company of Zara alone (Inditex) produces about 840 million garments per year and H&M produces 3 billion annually. This level of production is quite tough to be sustainable, as it is considered that even if some fast fashion brands start to incorporate a small percentage of recycled or organic materials in their collections. The brands are working on introducing sustainable approach in uses of raw material to the final packaging in apparel manufacturing. But still sustainability term is mostly a promotional strategy, rather than incorporating it in manufacturing.
HOW WESTERN CONSUMERS ARE PERCEIVING SUSTAINABILITY IN FASHION?
The western consumer perception differs according to age, gender, financial status, culture etc. Generally, consumer involvement can be identified through 4 sectors:
- Product involvement
- Purchase decision involvement
- Advertising & Promotional involvement
- Consumption involvement
As the industry is reorganizing for the next normal, it should consider that consumers want fashion players to be serious about their social and environmental responsibilities amid the crisis. Brand loyalty, positive emotion, knowledge regarding environmental and sustainability issues, labor rights (post Rana Plaza incident) etc. are also important criteria for consumer perception. The pandemic is considered to be responsible for a shift in buying behaviors of the western consumers.
The views of Gen Z and millennial consumers are critically important to notice. Together, they represent around $350 billion of spending power in the United States alone (approximately $150 billion spent by Gen Z and around $200 billion by millennials), additionally, Gen Z accounts for approximately 40 percent of global consumers. Recent survey from McKinsey suggests that, 50% of the young Gen Zers and millennials are expected to purchase more second-hand item clothing, following the pandemic. From surveyed consumers, 67% believe the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, and 63% consider a brand’s promotion and advertisement of sustainability in the same way. Two-thirds of the western consumers are nowadays very much driven by social and environmental values that are aligned with brands, otherwise they consider to avoid or boycott those brands. Half of them regards themselves as activists, other half tailor their decision to the situation at hand.
Recent social media movements like #whomademycloth etc. proves that they are concerned regarding the ethical rights of the labor. They are also highly influenced by the fashion of the celebrities, Tiktok videos, social media influencers etc. A recent survey by clean manufacturing firm Genomatica in the U.S. suggests, 86% of consumers believe that sustainability is important, but nearly half (48%) are not aware of how or where they can find sustainable clothing and 42% are even confused about what actually constitutes sustainable clothing. 1 in 3 U.S. consumers are likely to shop at a sustainable clothing store but aren’t sure whether they even exist, usually turning to already known fashion brands for access and information regarding this type of clothing. It is also seen that, 63% of fashion brands mention sustainability on their websites, but only 20% publish information about how sustainable they are. So, this showcases the potential opportunity for fashion and apparel brands to show real leadership and make a positive impact by providing consumers with the clear information they desire on the sourcing and environmental impact of their products.
FUTURE CONCERN AND RESPONSIBILITIES
- Brand owners & manufacturers: It is still to be seen whether the pandemic scenario is going to be the sustainability reset that the industry desperately needs. It is visible that the brands loyalty towards sustainable fashion is quite uneven in the whole supply chain, mostly focusing on the design and promotion rather than the end life cycle, also the associated cash flow issues are of high concern. Brands and manufacturers should focus on greening their supply chain, circular business, recycling and zero wastage, prioritizing repurposed and upcycled materials, eco-friendly chemical and dyeing products etc. This might seem a complicated situation, but it will bring better output and profit, rather than totally dependent on fast fashion that creates huge pressure and workload. Also, they should let the consumer know more about the sustainable issues and knowledge regarding their products in easy, clear and user-friendly way, thus increasing trustworthiness. They should also collaborate with the manufacturers, green and eco-friendly raw material provider, certification process to create a long-term planning for establishing sustainable approach in making fashion industry more environmentally friendly in the upcoming days.
- Consumers: General consumers should be concerned about which brands are providing the better solution for the sustainability issues in their apparel products. They should avoid following blindly the social media and celebrities for dependency on cheap and fast fashion, rather can take indirect approach to select and buy upcycled, slow fashion, eco-friendly products in their lifestyle. The media and celebrities also have huge contribution to their fans and followers, they can also influence public to be more enthusiast towards environmentally favorable products. It is not just the responsibilities of the manufacturers and brand owners, the influence of consumers’ buying behavior, knowledge regarding sustainability, media, promotional strategy etc. cannot be ignored.
Fashion industry should take the opportunity to work on the crisis time to rewire, rebuild and reorganize a more inclusive, environmentally and socially sustainable fashion industry. It is high time that the future impact on our climate should be regarded as a major concern and priority, for that proper forecasting, data driven business decision making, establishing green and proper supply chain, sustainable approach in every step of manufacturing, from raw material to packaging of the apparel products, making consumers aware about the products- are must. Also, the use of social media and other platforms are now very prevalent, so brands should avoid controversial steps and also need to be careful about their brand value and product image. The transparency and responsiveness towards sustainable approach from all layers of the fashion industry is necessary to make this negative reputation of pollution influenced industry to make it more positive, green and environmentally friendly one.