The planet is in crisis. Is fashion getting greener? Well, yes. And no.
While brands and retailers pumped the brakes on new arrivals as Covid-19 cases ticked up last spring, a speedy uptake of vaccines in the West—not to mention the celebratory promise of “Hot Vax Summer”—has placed novelty on an upward swing as regular production cadences make a return, said Kayla Marci, an analyst at retail intelligence platform Edited.
The number of fresh styles dropped by fast-fashion retailers is up 19 percent from 2020 and down only 2 percent from 2019, she wrote in Edited’s latest sustainability report, which was published Tuesday. And though summer proved lukewarm due to the delta variant surge, clothing purveyors continued to deliver beyond pre-pandemic levels, with new items up 38 percent from 2020 and 7 percent from 2019 between May and August alone.
Fashion, as a whole, is getting faster. At five of the major high-street brands, 57 percent of products online are less than three months old, Edited found, indicating that even mid-tier brands are scrambling to catch up with the “ultra-rapid Sheins and Fashion Novas of the world.” Luxury is borrowing some cues, too. More than one-quarter (26 percent) of products at these rarified retailers’ online storefronts have been there for less than three months, while the majority are at most six months old.
Blame a pent-up populace, flush from unspent cash and stimulus funds, dressing to kill their boredom by “revenge spending,” a term that was used to describe China’s sales rebound after it brought its first coronavirus outbreak to heel. Retail sales in the United States, especially, have made steady gains despite rising prices, fewer markdowns and a shortage of goods, signaling that people are determined to swap their sweats for anything else.
“While the pandemic reduced the sheer volume of newness flooding the market at hyper-speed last year, big drops are back in a big way,” Marci said. “Retailers are producing more than ever to capitalize on the revenge dressing phenomenon as people are buying for events to make up for lost time over lockdown.”
At the same time, the number of products described as sustainable also rose, reflecting a conscious zeitgeist that was already gaining traction in the United States and the United Kingdom in the Before Times. In those markets, the keyword “recycled” makes up the majority of sustainable products across a raft of categories, though this can mean only a portion of the item is recycled. Even so, Edited expects the use of recycled materials to “expand significantly” within the next decade as more mass-market retailers, such as Asos and Primark, work toward their sustainability targets.
The impact of various sustainability commitments is already being felt, however. Since 2019, the amount of sustainable underwear stocked has increased by 111 percent. Sustainable puffer jackets, such as those made with recycled polyester or vegan down, experienced a similar trajectory, skyrocketing 284 percent since 2019.
Major pure-play denim players, aware of the material’s polluting and resource-draining reputation, are also accelerating efforts, with greener jeans increasing 176 percent since 2019 and 52 percent year over year. Edited found that denim made in partnership with the Better Cotton Initiative, which promotes more responsible farming practices, soared 182 percent year over year and 359 percent since 2019. Also on the agenda for jean makers is the use of less or no water, with such styles up 24 percent year over year and 76 percent since 2019. The adoption of bio-based materials, too, is perking up, with Tencel options climbing 47 percent year over year and 106 percent since 2019.
Brands and retailers are casting a green eye beyond apparel as well, Edited said. This year, footwear made up 10 percent of new sustainable product arrivals for women’s wear and 14 percent of men’s wear, up from 3 percent and 7 percent in 2020. Outdoor footwear styles such as hiking boots and trail sneakers, in particular, have seen sustainable styles jump 76 percent since 2019.
Edited noted a “stigma” that sustainable products are too expensive, with textile alternatives and eco-friendlier packaging inching up price points. This is largely true:
On average, sustainable women’s wear and men’s wear are a respective 3 percent and 12 percent more expensive in the United States.
Across the pond, eco women’s wear and men’s wear are 9 percent and 21 percent pricier.
Still, the trend could see a shift as more fast-fashion brands and mass-market retailers create conscious collections at more accessible prices. H&M and Zara, for instance, offer jeans with sustainable elements that cost less than core styles, while Primark’s 10-year sustainability strategy plan promises to pivot to more sustainable production without raising prices.
As for whether consumers will pony up more for sustainable designs, the outlook is mixed. Studies have found that American Gen Zers are more inclined to pay for eco-friendly fashion, yet their earning capacity currently falls short of profitable for most businesses. Drapers also found that while 50 percent of U.K. consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable fashion, a heftier 76 percent would take the plunge if there was less sticker shock.
“Navigating sustainable pricing is one of the most challenging tasks for retailers to achieve as it is shrouded in negative perceptions on both ends of the scale,” Marci said. “If sustainable goods are marketed as too affordable then customers suspect greenwashing as they’re unable to fathom how workers could be paid a fair, living wage in decent conditions to produce such a cheap garment. If sustainable prices are too expensive, retailers can risk alienating lower-income consumers’ opportunity to buy into conscious products, reaffirming the image that sustainable fashion is for elitists.”
Managing the vagaries of consumer demand and supply-chain pressures isn’t easy, Edited said, but the events of the past year and a half have made it evident that the fashion industry cannot return to its “environmentally damaging pre-pandemic processes and unsustainable levels of mass production.” Looking ahead to 2022, brands and retailers must “ecofy” their logistics by pivoting to less carbon-intensive fabric sourcing, shipping and electricity use. Companies should also continue to consider replacing traditional materials with lower-impact ones made from fruit and plant waste, like Pangaia, or low-carbon composites, like Crocs. New technologies aside, brands and retailers can look at circular business models such as repair, resale and rental.
Even the metaverse has lessons to share. According to Dress X, the production of its digital garments generates 97 percent less carbon dioxide and saves 3,300 liters of water compared with a physical garment. Storing data boasts its own environmental footprint, of course, but digital samples and immersive showrooms are still an “area well worth exploring,” Edited said, particularly given the high environmental burden of runway season. Companies might also leverage non-fungible-token or NFT technology for authentication and transparency purposes, allowing them to better track their impact on the environment and garment workers.
With headwinds aplenty and an uncertain future ahead, adaptability remains the name of the game.
“Retailers have enough on their plates dealing with supply chain challenges and labor shortages, so trying to keep up with the ever-changing trends in customer preferences and sustainability can be overwhelming,” Marci said. “That’s why it’s critical for retailers to keep their finger on the pulse as we head into the holiday season. Right now, sustainability is top-of-mind for consumers, but tomorrow the focus could shift, so retailers need to be agile and protect their bottom line.”