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How Apparel Leaders Rethink ‘Throwaway Fashion Culture’

Once upon a time, fast fashion was retail’s prized cash cow. Millennial shoppers routinely ducked into their favorite mall haunts to grab trendy new garb, fully aware that the shelf life of these styles was startlingly brief.

Within the span of a few short years, though, attitudes have shifted more dramatically than tectonic plates during a high-magnitude earthquake.

Consumers have come to see the error in prizing affordability over sustainability, and they’re holding brands accountable for the staggering amount of apparel waste that is clogging the world’s landfills.

At the Decoded Future conference in New York on Friday, apparel startups and fast-fashion leaders came together to illuminate a path forward.

Emily Scarlett, communications and sustainability manager for H&M, delicately acknowledged the brand’s undeniable footprint while assuring the crowd of its serious efforts to revamp its supply chain.

H&M is one of the world’s largest retailers, with a presence in 72 global markets and nearly 5,000 total stores, Scarlett said. In recent years, the company has taken a hard look at its impact, setting ambitious goals to become better environmental stewards.

The company has already enacted some major changes, Scarlett said. More than half (56 percent) of the company’s total production is made from more sustainable materials like cotton and recycled yarns. The brand aims to become fully climate positive across its supply chain by 2040.

H&M also has a clothing collection program with recycling facilitator I:CO, wherein consumers can bring in bags of unwanted garments in exchange for 15 percent off their next purchase. The clothes are taken to one of I:CO’s locations, where they’re sorted for recycling, upcycling or resale on the secondhand market.

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The H&M Foundation also sponsors an annual Global Change Award, which prizes early stage innovations in textile research. The company doesn’t take ownership of any of the winning concepts, she said, because they’re meant to be shared freely throughout the industry.

“Once they get the seed money and mentorship they’re able to work with other brands,” she said, and hopefully scale their businesses for maximum impact.

When asked about the costs of implementing new sustainable processes, Scarlett admitted that the efforts can be costly. But H&M is committed to maintaining “fashion equality,” she said, explaining that the brand wants to continue to deliver quality garments at a modest price point.

Some believe that low-priced fashion contributes to the damaging attitude that cycling through a high volume of garments is acceptable, though.

Aday, a startup that offers “consciously designed, season-less clothing” aims to offer consumers the antithesis of fast fashion.

The brand’s marketing director, Kelsey Paustis, told Decoded Future attendees that the brand’s goal is actually to get people to own fewer clothes altogether by creating long-lasting wardrobe staples.

That effort begins at a garment’s conception, she said. Customer insights drive the design process, and through an extensive questionnaire, the brand’s product team is able to identify voids in consumers’ closets.

The constant community interaction helps designers “be more thoughtful about creating a versatile wardrobe,” Paustis said.

Unlike H&M’s mass market wares, items in Aday’s sparse and thoughtful collection don’t come cheap. The brand’s standard t-shirt retails for $75, though Paustis believes that the prices parallel the clothing’s quality and longevity.

The nature of the Aday brand also encourages more thoughtful purchasing patterns, Paustis said. The Aday consumer tends to have a long-standing relationship with the brand, and shares the same values. That loyalty offers the company a chance to educate consumers about sustainability.

Recently, Aday refabricated one of its bestselling pieces with a more sustainable fabric in a smaller batch, to see how the new material would perform with consumers. Though the product was offered at a higher price point than the original version, it sold out almost immediately.

Paustis said the offering underscored consumers’ hunger for more sustainable options, and that Aday is pressing forward with new material innovations.

Along with spending more thoughtfully on quality items, consumers are turning to resale as a means of perpetuating a circular economy.

“Throwaway fashion culture needs to be addressed more broadly, but there are solutions on the rise,” Sam Blumenthal, senior manager of marketing and communications at ThredUp, said.

New modes of shopping like resale and rental mean that consumers no longer have to choose between sustainability and an “endless wardrobe refresh,” she added.

Over the past decade, ThredUp has established itself as one of resale’s leading marketplaces. The company receives 100,000 items every day, Blumenthal said, which are sorted in four massive distribution centers across the country.

This year, ThredUp will upcycle its 100-millionth garment.

The company’s advanced retail technology has allowed it to scale to support its current volume and reach, and the larger the company becomes, the more garments it can save from a landfill fate. And, according to Blumenthal, buying a used item offsets its carbon footprint by 82 percent.

Most products available through the ThredUp platform are priced at up to 90 percent off their original retail price. “Democratizing sustainability is important,” Blumenthal said. No matter what price consumers are able to pay for their clothing, they should be able to buy sustainably, she argued.

“There is an overproduction problem. Consumers are really pushing for change and retailers are finally responding to that,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to push retailers to produce less.”

While ThredUp’s goal isn’t to pump the brakes on fashion, Blumenthal insisted that brands need to produce more mindfully. She pointed to brands like Aday, AllBirds and Reformation as examples of companies spurring change, but not asking consumers to choose between on-trend garments and sustainability.