Fast fashion is hard to resist. Low-cost retailers have transformed the way that we shop, enabling customers to keep up with runway trends without breaking the bank. But as quickly-changing trends and low prices become the norm, we are consuming and discarding more than ever before. Americans buy five times more clothing than they did in 1980, and are tossing them out just as quickly. It is this rampant consumerism that drives Forever 21 to stock 529 new products each week and H&M to open more than one store a day on average.
What is the impact of this current culture of consumption? Fashion is one of the world’s most polluting industries, following oil. It is also the second largest consumer of water (manufacturing a single pair of denim jeans requires a staggering 1,800 gallons). And then there are the questionable ethical practices; major fashion retailers have become embroiled in scandal after scandal for poor factory conditions and low wages.
As a result, more and more customers are looking beyond price and performance when comparing products. As consumer awareness grows alongside the growth of social media, consumers are expecting more from the brands they buy from. Sustainability and fair labor practices are playing a larger role in their purchasing decisions.
At the forefront of this shift is Gen Z. The tech-savvy generation is more likely than any other age group to buy from brands that align with their values. As a result of their always-on lifestyle and constant influx of information, Gen Zers have come to value transparency. They are demanding clothes that not only look good, but that are also ethical and sustainable. They are demanding accountability.
And now, brands are responding.
This summer, Adidas celebrated World Oceans Day by launching a limited edition sneaker made from recycled ocean plastic. The shoe, created in partnership with environmental initiative Parley for the Oceans, demonstrates how sustainability can pave the way for innovation. Popular Swedish brand Fjällräven is hopping on the trend, too; the company just released a new eco-friendly version of their classic Kånken backpack. The material of each bag–including the lining and straps–is made from 11 recycled plastic bottles, trimming 20% off the carbon footprint of the original.
Other brands have gone beyond single products to build sustainability into the core of what they do. One example is Dutch company Mud Jeans, which engages consumers in a circular economy. Through an innovative ‘lease a jeans’ concept, the brand gives shoppers the option of renting jeans for a monthly fee. When the customer grows out of them or decides they want to trade up for a different style, they can send the jeans back. Returned products are then upcycled, sold as vintage, and named after the former user.
Everlane sets the bar with a radically transparent supply chain and commitment to responsible manufacturing. Its website includes cost breakdowns for each product, information about its manufacturing process, and stories and photographs of its factories. Another brand, Reformation, tracks the environmental impact of each of its garments with its “RefScale,” making the information publicly available online.
Cuyana, a pioneer of the “lean closet” movement, is another brand pushing back against fast fashion with a unique business model that values quality over quantity. While a clothing company that encourages shoppers to buy less might seem counter intuitive, Cuyana’s success shows that understanding your customers isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s a business imperative.
In a digital world, transparency is how brands build trust with their customers. The increasing demand for it creates opportunities for brands – to grow, champion causes that matter to their customers, and foster positive change. Those that do not innovate will be left behind, making way for the development of brands that, as consumers, we feel proud to support.