When it comes to pulling the trigger on new clothing purchases, sustainability is rarely the foremost consideration.
Indeed a new study conducted by two University of Cambridge MBA students in collaboration with Mamoq, a sustainable fashion e-tailer, found that sustainability came in a distant fourth to fit, price and style as the top criteria shoppers use.
In a survey of 123 respondents, an overwhelming 84 percent listed fit as their biggest priority. In contrast, only 57 percent of those surveyed deemed an item’s sustainability as important. Perhaps more damningly, only 33 percent of consumers were willing to sacrifice any other characteristics to buy a sustainable product.
That’s not to say that sustainability doesn’t matter. As the social and environmental consequences of the $3 trillion fashion industry becomes more apparent, millennial and Gen Z consumers are increasingly demanding better, more ethical ways of consuming fashion.
A 2015 Nielsen global corporate sustainability report found, for instance, that 66 percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands, up from 55 percent in 2014. Likewise, a 2017 global environment survey by Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated noted that the proportion of sustainability-minded people has grown in countries such as China (60 percent), Mexico (69 percent), India (81 percent) and Italy (62 percent) over the past year alone.
At the same time, sustainability is a frustratingly nebulous term that can encompass one or more of several things, whether they’re animal rights, economic empowerment or recycled materials. For consumers, that can get confusing.
The report takes a crack at pinning down sustainable fashion by defining it as the “design, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of apparel with respect and consideration for the health and longevity of our natural environment, and the welfare of the animals and humans involved.”
It’s a mouthful, to be sure, but perhaps the best way of providing clarity about the issue is to make sustainability in fashion the status quo, the study suggested.
Brands and retailers that want to “upgrade their operating models” can employ recycling and circular economy principles, build businesses that give back (à la TOMS’ buy-one-give-one program) or produce apparel that lasts longer.
They can invest in worker empowerment, disrupt the existing supply chain with leasing programs or made-to-order services, or blaze new trails with innovations such as 3-D printing and artificial intelligence (AI).
Most of all, brands and retailers need to lean into transparency, which technologies like blockchain and AI can assist with.
“Transparency will become key to a company’s success in the industry and currently stands as the biggest technical challenge to overcome,” the authors wrote. “Collaboration between actors, open-sourcing and certification will also be key to the successful adoption of sustainable fashion principles.”