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The Planet is Melting—What Does That Mean for Fashion?

The planet is in crisis, as a klaxon-sounding report from the United Nations’ panel on climate change made evident earlier this month. What can the fashion industry do about it?

Certainly clothing ranks pretty low on Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, according to Katie Smith, director of analysis and insights at the retail-technology firm Edited. More often than not, it’s a want, not a need.

“Unlike food, which we shop for when we’re hungry, and property, which we buy when we need shelter, most consumers don’t shop for clothing to address fundamental needs, like warmth or safety,” Smith wrote on LinkedIn this week. “Instead, our wardrobes are wrapped up in a much more complicated bundle of emotions—our clothes form part of our identity.”

That’s not to say fashion is irrelevant, even on a melting planet. A provider of escapism and individual expression aside, it’s also one of the world’s largest employers. Curbing frivolous consumption might be one reasonable response, but that horse has already left the gate, Smith said. “Instead, it’s down to us in the industry to make some changes that shift consumer’s relationship with product,” she added.

Obviously, Smith said, brands and retailers need to create clothing in a more ethical way, which means curtailing the prodigious waste the industry produces, either as a byproduct of the manufacturing process or as deadstock.

“Every retailer needs to take greater responsibility for what happens throughout the supply chain—needs to ask questions, demand transparency and find solutions to mucky practices,” she said.

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Disposable “fast fashion” may not be going away anytime soon, but businesses can still promote longevity over novelty by creating products that foster an emotional connection with the consumer. “Build lasting things by thinking in lifestyles and not seeking out fads,” Smith suggested. “Apparel needs to tap into a consumer’s tribe so that it has value beyond the fashion or calendar season.”

This, brands and retailers can do, by imbuing clothing with “heightened meaning,” say with political slogans, which have never been more popular in today’s divisive clime, or through personalization, which a Business of Fashion-McKinsey Global Fashion survey identified as the No. 1 trend of 2018.

“Keeping these products ‘cool’ will put an emphasis on meaningful purchase and away from herd-like trend adoption, and yet it’s an opportunity that will still drive business for retailers,” Smith said. “Take the vacation theme, a major story on the Spring 2019 runways. It’s clothing which reminds its wearer of their relaxed escape, or the hot new city they explored. That works, so long as it’s authentic.”

Most of all, she insisted, fashion companies need to stop “tacking on unnecessary spend, just for the hell of it” by saying things like “no look is complete without X.”

“Make the experience of buying new products about feeling positive rather than hinged on insecurity,” Smith said. “Don’t be afraid to celebrate what the consumer has rather than highlight what they don’t (yet) have.”

The circular economy can provide valuable lessons as well. Companies need to take responsibility for the afterlife of their products instead of leaving it up to the customer to figure out. Smith proposes establishing channels for recycling or including on the garment tags the names of organizations that could use castoff clothing. 

“Taking charge of that learning process will turn your consumers into better shoppers with you, before you lose them altogether,” she said.

Finally, if brands and retailers are spooked by the rising popularity of clothing subscription services like Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee, they shouldn’t be. (Indeed, Ann Taylor, Express and New York & Co. have taken the “if you can’t beat ‘em” approach with their own “wardrobes in the cloud.”)

“They aren’t robbing you of customers; in fact they’re multiplying the number of consumers who will meaningfully interact with your brand,” Smith said. “Rent the Runway even shares data with the brands it holds—things like which items get rented out most, which receive poor fit reviews and which items wear and wash well. This kind of mass feedback will help hone your offering and avoid costly mistakes.”

All this is a lot to ask, Smith admitted, but the world is getting warmer and we’re running out of time to keep the worst effects of rising temperatures in check: think famine, drought, disease and ever more devastating storms.

“The price for not rolling up our [sleeves] and getting stuck is far too great,” she said.