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Fashion’s Sustainability Shortfalls Fail Eco-Aware Young Consumers

Doom or gloom?

Unless the industry moves beyond business as usual, a global swath of experts say, the future of fashion will resemble either or both of those two scenarios.

Despite much-heralded commitments by industry giants, the general consensus among experts is neither people nor planet is receiving “a good deal,” according to a report published Monday by consultancy firms Future Impact and 4CF with the support of C&A Foundation, the philanthropic arm of European retailer C&A.

Of the two dozen people interviewed using a structured communication technique known as the Delphi method, 75 percent said achieving a net-positive impact on the natural environment would be “impossible” if current trends continue, while 62 percent agreed that poverty and poor working conditions would persist.

To be sure, the past few decades have seen significant progress “in terms what can be called a paradigm shift toward sustainability,” wrote the authors of “The Future of Sustainability in the Fashion Industry.”

But has it been enough to avert the climate crisis or prevent worker exploitation? The experts said it would not.

That’s not to say all efforts are for naught. A sustainable fashion industry is possible, the experts said, and it could be achieved in as little as 16 years. The report outlines 14 sustainability strategies—including fiber and processing innovations, worker-driven initiatives, the circular economy, resale and secondhand models, local production, extended producer responsibility and tax regulations.

All 14 points, the report noted, are attainable by 2035, while two-thirds could reach the mainstream within a decade—that is, if “radical action” is taken to leverage collaboration, policy change and a “multi-tactic approach” to address production and consumption’s intertwined issues.

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“Succeeding in one area—for example, fibers and processing innovation—will not be enough; we need to see coordinated action across every field of activity,” Cornelia Daheim, founder and director of Future Impacts, said in a statement. “And where we see positive signs of change today, we need to make sure those strategies are far more widely distributed and implemented.”

The study, its authors wrote, is part wakeup call and part call to action to go beyond existing promises.

“The industry widely acknowledges that things need to change; now we can see just how far that change needs to go,” Lee Alexander Risby, head of effective philanthropy at C&A Foundation, said. “Brands and industry stakeholders have a clear set of actions to get to net-positive impact, [and] it will require huge effort and cooperation from brands, government and policy makers, even consumers.”

Beyond a feel-good narrative for brands and retailers, sustainability is also increasingly becoming a business imperative. A survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers in the aftermath of global climate strikes in September, for instance, uncovered a pronounced uptick in the “importance and perception” of sustainability among consumers.

Conducted by Toluna, a consumer-intelligence platform provider, the research found that more than one-third (37 percent) of consumers are both seeking out and willing to pay up to 5 percent more for environmentally friendly products and are “actively changing” their shopping behavior to do so.

With consumer awareness of the impacts of climate change higher than ever, more than half of respondents of all ages described themselves as “very” or “extremely” environmentally conscious. They’re also looking to brands for solutions, Toluna said. In terms of changing consumer behavior, 51 percent ranked the influence of big brands and companies above government or local regulations.

And the younger consumers are, the greater the likelihood they’ll see sustainability as table stakes. Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents aged between 18 and 34, for example, considered it “extremely” important to purchase goods produced in an environmentally friendly way, versus only 14 percent of respondents aged 55 and above.

“Consumers have come to expect to see their changing values reflected in the products they use, especially when it comes to the environment,” Jay Rampuria, executive vice president, global business and corporate development at Toluna, said in a statement.

“To remain competitive, consumer-packaged-goods companies must ensure that they not only focus on environmentally friendly products as well as larger corporate operations but also communicate those efforts to younger, more socially responsible consumers as their purchasing power increases.”