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Is 2020 the Year of Conscious Fashion?

Sustainable fashion arguably had its best year yet in 2019. The UN Sustainable Fashion Industry Charter for Climate launched with signatories Stella McCartney, H&M, Inditex, Levi’s and more pledging to reduce greenhouse emissions. Cottonized hemp emerged as a viable alternative to virgin cotton and Ellen MacArthur’s Jeans Redesign guidelines set a new standard for circular design.

The events of this year, however, such as the global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the U.S. presidential election, are evolving the term “sustainable.” Rather, 2020 may be the year that “conscious” fashion gained a foothold.

A new report by retail market intelligence platform Edited called “The Sustainability Edit 2020” dives into the macro themes that helped shape sustainability this year and the categories that are showing the greatest potential for growth.

“Sustainability is a complex, ongoing issue with many factors at play and multiple problems that need to be addressed from both retailers and consumers,” Edited stated.

When China shut down its factories at the start of the year due to the Covid-19 outbreak and emissions dropped nearly 25 percent, sustainable fashion advocates called out the staggering impact fast fashion has on the planet. And when the Black Lives Matter movement leapt back into the spotlight this summer following the multiple killings of Black men and women at the hands of U.S. police officers, Gen Z consumers were “propelled” to become more “conscious and more educated on social, political and environmental issues,” Edited reported.

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Fashion’s kerosene—trends—took a back seat to these sweeping cultural and societal movements in 2020. Many hoped that this shift would snap consumers out of the vicious cycle of buying and replacing fast fashion. Others envisioned somewhat of an awakening across the entire fashion industry. Designers spent quarantine concocting manifestos that ditched the regular fashion week calendar and proposed new plans like end-of-season discounting and pivoting to digital presentations and meetings to offset the cost and environmental impact of travel.

While the verdict is still out on the pandemic’s long-term impact on consumer consumption, Edited’s report confirms the mainstreaming of sustainable fashion and the slowdown in the quick-turn, quality-light clothing sector.

In the U.S. and U.K. combined, Edited reported new fast-fashion product arrivals for Q3 2020 are 11 percent lower than in 2019. “While fast fashion arrivals slow down, products described with sustainable keywords are becoming more commonplace as retailers evolve their assortments in line with shifting priorities and consumer demand,” Edited stated.

The most commonly used keyword to describe new sustainable products between January and September was “conscious.” Instances of the buzzword in product descriptions are up 22 percent from 2019, but up 444 percent versus 2018.

Other buzzwords to watch include: “sustainable,” “eco,” “100% recycled” and “vegan.”

There’s still a ways to go, however. Edited said products with these keywords made up just 3.6 percent of products in the U.S. and 3.4 percent of products in the U.K. arriving between January and September.

Categories to watch

Though the current demand for loungewear may have retailers erring on the side of caution when it comes to stocking their shelves with jeans, the category is making inroads in sustainable fashion. In fact, the narrative in denim—besides blue—is sustainability.

Sustainable jeans are core to retailers’ assortments, Edited noted, “due to the high amount of pollution the production of this material causes the environment.”

Products that tout alternatives such as recycled fibers or repurposed fabrics, which reduce the chemicals, water and energy used for creating new products, are among the most accessible versions of sustainable jeans. Denim arrivals described as recycled have increased by 417 percent from January to September compared to 2018, and they were up 108 percent year-over-year, Edited reported.

Recycling will continue to be part of sustainable denim’s future—mills and fiber companies continue to innovate in this arena—but the next big thing may require a smaller lift. “The durability of [jeans] makes these products ideal for the growing second-hand market,” Edited stated.

With brands like Nudie Jeans successfully integrating resale into their in-store and e-commerce offerings, and denim giant Levi’s recently putting efforts behind denim resale with a new buy-back program in the U.S., expect to see more brands concentrate on this growing channel.

Denim’s rivals, activewear and loungewear, are on the receiving end of a sustainable overhaul as well.

Activewear made with recycled materials accounted for 20 percent of new category arrivals from January to September versus 10 percent in 2019, and the number of new garments made with recycled polyester and nylon has nearly doubled year-over-year. Natural fabrics, however, remain important, Edited noted. Investment in organic cotton activewear has increased 18 percent year-over-year.

New arrivals of sustainable loungewear items have grown by 93 percent since 2018. The clear winner here is the organic cotton T-shirt, making up more than half of sustainable loungewear assortments. Loungewear’s comfort factor, however, is leading to more interest in “conscious” cashmere, linen and bamboo, which boasts antibacterial properties, Edited reported.

Though the women’s category is home to more sustainable denim, the men’s segment is seeing activity in arrivals of activewear and loungewear. Men’s activewear is outpacing women’s, 65 percent to 45 percent. And new eco-friendly loungewear items selling out for men are up 174 percent versus the year prior, while women’s wear sell outs have grown 135 percent.

Close cousins to activewear—swimwear and outdoor apparel—are rising up the ranks in sustainable fashion thanks in part to innovations in recycled synthetics. The number of sustainable jackets in the U.S. and U.K. increased 49 percent compared to 2019, while sustainable swimwear arrivals grew 44 percent.

Edited noted that sustainable swimwear should be a “prime area of investment when normal travel resumes.”

Price points

Sustainable fashion and the alternative ingredients to make it are more readily available than ever, but it still comes with a bigger price tag. Advertised price points across key categories at mass market retailers in the U.S. show sustainable products are on average priced above core lines with the exception of outerwear for women’s wear and swimwear for men, Edited reported.

The products, however, have selling power. Data shows that the number of new sustainable products arriving and selling out between January and September has increased by 43 percent in the U.S. and 54 percent in the U.K.

There are outliers in the price divide. For example, Edited noted that in the U.S., men’s core jeans are priced on average 9 percent higher than sustainable styles and women’s are 11 percent higher. But mass retailers like Zara sell their eco jeans for a lower price point than their regular offering. Likewise, in the U.K., H&M sells its “partly recyclable” selvedge jeans for the same price as non-recyclable styles.