Skip to main content

Shoppers Say They’ll Pay for Sustainability—But Fast Fashion Is Slow to Go Eco

A global pandemic has undoubtedly changed consumers’ shopping habits, but their commitment to sustainability is still holding strong.

That’s according to global enterprise software and service firm CGS, which released its 2020 Retail and Sustainability Survey on Tuesday. CGS surveyed more than 2,000 individuals over the age of 18 from the U.S. and U.K., posing questions about how sustainable products and business practices are driving their fashion purchases.

The data reveals that both countries are home to sustainably minded shoppers, with 56 percent of U.K. consumers saying they view sustainability as at least somewhat important, compared with 47 percent of shoppers in the U.S.

Both groups of shoppers said brands should aim to reduce waste and adopt ethical production practices as a means of becoming more sustainable.

Though a greater number of U.K. shoppers rank sustainability as important, both groups are willing to pay a premium for eco-friendly options. Fifty-six percent of U.S. shoppers said they would be willing to fork over more for products made sustainably, while 59 percent of U.K. shoppers said the same.

Gender also plays a role in the breakdown, with 26 percent of women saying they would be willing to pay 25 percent more for sustainable products, compared with 21 percent of men. According to CGS, brands must demonstrate a commitment to environmentally beneficial practices in order to reinforce consumer loyalty—which would give them the clout to raise prices.

While stateside shoppers and those across the pond agree that brands must offer more transparency into their practices, they’re split on the issue of government oversight.

Related Stories

More than half of all shoppers—51 percent in the U.S. and 53 percent in the U.K.—believe fashion brands need to offer more visibility into their efforts to implement sustainable practices into their supply chains. But while U.K. consumers are supportive of the government taking on a greater role in regulation, U.S. consumers felt that brands needed to take the lead themselves.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues across the globe, many retail-hungry consumers have turned to e-commerce to fill the void. That behavior is likely to continue, the survey showed, with nearly 40 percent of consumers in the U.S. and U.K. saying they plan to exclusively shop online even as stores reopen. Just 14 percent said they would consider shopping at stores that offered curbside pickup as an option.

With online shopping to remain on the rise, brands need to consider their shipping and packaging practices, analysts said. Data reveals that 46 percent of U.S. respondents and 52 percent of U.K. shoppers consider whether a retailer’s packaging is eco-friendly when making a purchase.

“The research confirms that the shift in retail we were already beginning to see before the COVID-19 pandemic is only accelerating,” said Paul Magel, president of the business applications division at CGS.

“As more consumers opt for e-commerce, retailers have transformed at record rates during the height of the crisis and consumers will continue to expect the same level of service and experience going forward,” he added. “Retailers and brands will need to make sure sustainability efforts don’t get left behind during the shift. Consumers will continue to prioritize this, especially as they shop online more frequently.”

But while many brands and retailers have implemented sustainability plans—in part due to consumer demand—the fast-fashion sector is lagging.

A study by Lectra and Retviews revealed that sustainable collections represent a very small minority of the sector’s offerings, though leading retailers like H&M and Zara have taken highly publicized actions such as signing the Fashion Pact during the G7 Summit, and publishing pledges to “step up, not step back” with their circular-economy commitments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zara’s Join Life collection represents just 14 percent of its range, while H&M’s Conscious Collection—which tops the Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index—accounts for less than 10 percent of its total output. Uniqlo and Mango’s sustainable collections make up just 2 percent of their offerings.

“The COVID-19 crisis has given many people the desire to live more meaningfully and to act more responsibly,” the companies said. “The crisis period could be seen as the catalyst that forces the fashion industry to change the way it designs, produces and distributes its products.”

For consumers, buying is a way of signaling commitments and values, they added, and brands should take on a more transparent and authentic approach to keep up with changing attitudes.

“While these factors were apparent before the pandemic, they have now become the key to interacting with consumers wanting a more responsible offer,” the companies wrote. “The era of the consumer activist, long heralded without actually becoming a reality, is now here, and brands must adapt in response.”

According to the study, H&M, Inditex-owned Zara and Belgium-based C&A are among the top four users of organic cotton in sustainable collections. But, Lectra and Retviews wrote, “There is little difference between the fabrics most commonly used in the mass and premium markets,” nor is there a large difference between the cotton used in eco-friendly versus standard collections.

The most commonly used fast-fashion fabrics are regular cotton and synthetic fabrics such as polyester, elastane and viscose—all of which are made with non-renewable polymers.

A fabric’s sustainability profile doesn’t necessarily make it more expensive, as most people tend to believe, according to the study, which showed that the average price for a dress from H&M’s Conscious Collection, for example, is the same as a dress from the brand’s standard line.