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Consumers Are in a ‘Circular’ State of Mind—And Fashion Needs to Step Up Now

Consumers are in an increasingly “circular” state of mind, and this shift in thinking and spending could pose a “real threat” to apparel brands hesitant to act on how shoppers want to access fashion.

Sustainability awareness reached a “boiling point” last year, Isabel Fernandez, global head, wholesale banking and management board member for ING, wrote in the bank’s report on circularity and consumers published Tuesday. Gen Z flooded the streets to stage climate strikes, wildfires ravaged Australia and California and Time magazine bestowed its Person of the Year accolade on none other than teenage eco activist (and President Trump’s frequent Twitter target) Greta Thunberg.

It’s against this backdrop that consumers are considering their place in the circular economy, a “multi-trillion-dollar business opportunity” across sectors, according to the “Learning from consumers: How shifting demands are shaping companies’ circular economy transition” report.

As fashion prepares to pivot toward woke consumers, here’s a look at what they’re facing. The vast majority (83 percent) agree they have a role to play in creating environmental change, according to the 15,001 adults surveyed across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Not only that, but nearly half (49 percent) would also readily exchange more of their hard-earned coin for products “made in an environmentally friendly way,” while another 59 percent admit that eco concerns now influence which consumer products they purchases.

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The times, as they say, are changing. But not every consumer is created equal.

ING’s report carved out three distinct groups of consumers divided by their posture toward circularity and willingness to act on environmental anxieties rather than simply standing in solidarity.

Non-engagers, as ING calls them, account for the survey’s largest pool at 42 percent. Across the board, these largely rural and suburban dwellers (63 percent versus 56 percent of the survey’s total sample) fail to put a premium on issues of sustainability and circularity.

Case in point? A scant 5 percent describe a product’s eco impact as “very important” while just 14 percent claim they’ll shell out for goods made with people and planet in mind. Meanwhile, this cohort is home to a consumer of more modest means, as 39 percent report incomes below the average baseline; if providing for basic necessities is a stretch, it stands to reason that arguments of sustainability would plummet in importance relative to other purchase drivers.

And non-engagers’ attitudes, according to the report, suggest deep skepticism about the virtues of individual responsibility, as just 10 percent believe the things they do will make much of a difference in reversing climate chaos and ecosystem disruption.

In the middle of the road, “circular sympathizers” skew younger (64 percent under 44 years old), slightly wealthier and more urban than their aforementioned counterparts. Forming 30 percent of the survey group, they’re more heavily present in countries including India, China and Singapore, the report said.

And while most in this demographic (62 percent) tout the importance of buying from companies with circular practices and nearly three-quarters are okay with paying more for products that come with “environmental guarantees,” they’re not prepared to “inconvenience themselves.” The majority (72 percent) cited the effort involved with recycling end-of-life items or mending their wares as the reason why they haven’t partaken in these circular activities.

The smallest group at 28 percent, circular champions compose a vocal minority for whom “sustainability is critical” and responsibly made goods matter more than their cost (75 percent versus 66 percent). Found in places like France, Italy and the U.K, these more mature and more typically female consumers almost all (87 percent) go the extra mile to restore well-worn items rather than binning them just to purchase new.

Fast fashion continues to hold sway with consumers, no matter how earnest their intentions may be. Regardless of where they fall on the circular spectrum, 54 percent of survey takers purchase “multiple” items from quick-turn clothing chains season in and season out, though the figure rises to 64 percent for non-engagers. “The tide may nevertheless be turning away from fast-fashion,” the report said, “albeit very gradually.”

A new ING report finds that consumers are increasingly aware of circularity in fashion and new access models like apparel rental and resale.
Copenhagen Fashion Week street style from January 2019. Patagonia’s Phil Graves says fast fashion is becoming a thing of the past as resale, rentals and other “sensible models” take over. Shutterstock

Burberry, Patagonia and the sharing economy

There’s reason for hope, however. One-third (33 percent) of the survey pool claims sustainable considerations influence the clothing they buy, rising four percentage points among millennials. And consumers who recycle (47 percent) and repair (41 percent) their garments do so for the sake of the planet.

Plus, interest in sharing-economy clothing models is on the rise, ING found. Despite relatively few women dipping their toes into the apparel rental waters, the report says 22 percent of consumers expressed a desire to borrow outfits from brands, lending credence to subscription fashion unicorn Rent the Runway’s growth trajectory and far-reaching ambitions to become every woman’s closet in the cloud.

Not surprising, rental enthusiasm was highest among the largely city-dwelling sympathizers. Their interest in renting clothing for special occasions (55 percent), work (39 percent) and casual daily use (41 percent) far outpaced their counterparts.

Circular champions and sympathizers agreed that having the option to rent makes sense for garments they plan to wear once, like gala gowns. However, 37 percent of the younger cohort expressed a preference for first-rate apparel and described the concept of clothing rental as “inconvenient”—factors access economy startups will have to overcome.

And though resale remains one of retail’s hottest topic, ING finds most consumers have yet to engage with secondhand commerce, which has gained the greatest traction among the younger sympathizer cohort, who is likely purchasing used fashion through online platforms.

“Despite recycling and repairing less, U.S. consumers are more likely than those in Europe to buy pre-owned clothes,” according to the report, which found stateside shoppers (31 percent) leading their Asian (18 percent) and European peers (20 percent) in acquiring thrifted duds.

About one-quarter of younger circular sympathizers buy and sell pre-owned apparel on a regular basis. When asked why they choose to refurbish damaged clothing, all three demographics were motivated to extend the life of treasured items. But the sympathizer group showed what could indicate a preference for progressive brands, as 54 percent claimed the labels they shop offer some sort of repair service versus the champions and non-engagers (13 percent and 15 percent, respectively) who said the same.

Repair and reuse are growing areas of interest for brands that know their DNA better than anyone else. “Building the best, most durable products is incredibly important to Patagonia and something we have been doing since our company was founded,” Phil Graves, managing partner at Tin Shed Ventures and director of corporate development for Patagonia, said in the report. The outdoor label has worked for years with recommerce technology startup Yerdle to refurbish and resell garments through its Worn Wear program, which grew 40 percent last year and has attracted a decade-younger consumer to the brand, Graves noted.

“I think the broader industry is drifting that way, as they see the market for pre-owned expanding, and recognize fast-fashion is becoming a thing of the past,” he said, adding that Patagonia is also looking at rentals, leasing and “other models providing sensible alternatives to buying new.”

“They’re making strides to increase durability and quality and to have that timeless design aspect,” said Graves, who through his role at venture arm Tin Shed helps to “scout the best technologies to recycle at the end of the life of a garment and keep the raw materials, like the polyester and cotton, in play.”

Burberry vice president corporate responsibility Pam Batty offered a similar perspective. “Our customers make an investment when they buy Burberry products, so they tend to want to love them for longer,” she said, noting the luxury label’s efforts to help customers customize pre-owned garments “as a creative way to encourage longevity.”

“That’s a message we’re trying to promote more when it comes to repairing clothes,” she added.