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Attitudes About Sustainable Fashion Fall Along Generation Lines

Brands and retailers who want an easy win should make a play for sustainability, exhorts Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm.

“A third of people tell us social responsibility plays an important role, so if I wanted to just grow my business by a little bit, all I have to do is play this card…and reach people from a whole other connection point,” Cohen said at a panel at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City last week.

While that may not seem like much, the number represents a significant sea change in attitudes. “Seven years ago, this number wasn’t even 18 percent,” he said. “It’s now literally double. So that’s how important this is now becoming of an issue.”

That’s not to say sustainability doesn’t have somewhat of a messaging (or social influencing) problem. While nearly a quarter of U.S. adult consumers told NPD they’ve purchased a piece of clothing that could be considered “sustainable” in the past, 28 percent said they were unsure if this was true.  

To be fair, sustainability, as a category, isn’t an easy one to peg. The term has variously been used to describe organic materials, fair wages, the eschewal of toxic dyes or the absence of animal cruelty. It can mean a product employed recycled rather than virgin resources or that it was manufactured domestically rather than at some far-flung locale. “It’s a general term across a wide array of different things,” Cohen said.

Specific areas of interest are generally divided along generation lines, he noted. Nearly 70 percent of consumers aged 55 and above check clothing labels for the country of origin. Meanwhile, only 45 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds said they check tags—the lowest percentage for this response among all ages NPD queried.

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The “younger crowd,” Cohen said, appears to care less about where their garments are sourced than about a brand’s social position. Their No. 1 concern, he added, is human rights and labor laws “by far,” particularly for women, a third of whom listed this as their top consideration.

Younger consumers are also the ones who are most inclined to spend more on sustainable apparel, with four out of 10 amenable to the idea. Gender plays a slight role here, too: One-third of women said they would pay more for sustainability versus 28 percent of men. Yet roughly two-thirds of consumers, in general, will not. Cohen expects that number to change as mindsets evolve, however.

One question he gets asked a lot? How much more are people willing to pay for a more sustainable item? The “normal acceptance rate,” he said, is between 10 and 15 percent, a number that is driven, again, by consumers ages 18 to 34.

“Here you get to see that the willingness comes from the younger side of the equation,” Cohen said. “So, again, a little more younger-centric, and [brands] that play to the younger crowd absolutely have an opportunity to capture that.”

Businesses would be savvy to keep an eye on Gen Z-ers, who are even more socially conscious than even their millennial forebears, said Valérie Martin, vice president of global communications and culture at the Aldo Group, which recently became the first footwear company to be certified climate neutral.

“Gen Z is the first generation to put purpose before money, so we need to pay attention to Gen Z,” she said.