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What Consumer Concerns About Sustainability Mean for Fast Fashion’s Future

As the fashion industry enters a new decade, sustainability has already cemented itself as the issue that will define an era.

Young Gen Z and millennial shoppers are becoming increasingly conscious about the impact of the products they’re buying. And with each off-the-rack or online purchase, they are voting with their wallets for advancements in supply chains and materials—and better working conditions for the laborers who make their garments.

This newfound, value-driven approach to consumerism appears to be a direct reaction against the retail culture that largely dominated the early 2000s and most of the 2010s.

An avenue for cost-conscious shoppers to enjoy the latest trends, disposable garments were once an undisputed norm. But with cheap, mass produced apparel piling up in landfills at an alarming rate, are consumers turning away from the fleeting fads that once oiled the fast-fashion machine?

Growing up Gen Z

According to Nora Kleinewillinghoefer, a principal consultant for Kearney (formerly A. T. Kearney) who focuses on retail and lifestyle brands, the answer is yes.

The firm’s consumer research shows that over the past 10 years, product purchases increased by 80 percent. But as shoppers from new a generation begin to realize their spending power, the tides could be changing.

“There’s been a significant increase that’s taken place in terms of the number of items that people are buying each year, but Gen Z is not following that trend,” Kleinewillinghoefer said.

This young generation of consumers, who range in age from about 7 to 22 years old, have already had to contend with a sense of “global instability” that their millennial predecessors largely skirted during their formative years.

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“They’ve seen things like high data and security risk to their information, they’ve seen the collapse of a lot of global organizations that historically have created and maintained order, and they’ve seen much more war in their lifetime,” she added.

“Their need for security, safety and emotional stability,” Kleinewillinghoefer said, “are much less fulfilled.”

While Gen Z shoppers have years to go before they reach their peak spending potential, their eyes have been opened to these issues—along with the climate crisis—at a much earlier juncture in their development.

That makes them less likely to accept the fads and follies that have consistently driven consumers who are just a decade older.

“There’s much more of a shift away from consumerism,” Kleinewillinghoefer said, adding that Gen Zers feel that they’re “bearing the burden of the decisions have been made” about the environment.

As the eldest millennials approach age 40, the Gen Z cohort may feel it’s been left holding the bag. Engaging in the activism and political pressure that will drive organizations to act has become their cross to bear.

“For millennials, buying things was a social activity, and it created a sense of fulfillment,” Kleinewillinghoefer said. There was a lack of understanding and visibility into the impacts of those behaviors, she added.

Retail has capitalized on that blissful ignorance for years.

“For fast-fashion companies, a lot of what makes them successful is their ability to make people consume in large volumes. They inspire people to make very regular, very frequent purchases,” she said.

Fueling the consumer addiction requires constant infusions of new product. H&M and Zara both offer 24 seasons a year, Kleinewillinghoefer said. On average, shoppers get about six to eight wears out of each garment before it’s discarded.

In addition to making changes to supply chains, investing in fully circular solutions, and changing the culture of consumerism overall, brands must address the issue of output.

“There are big initiatives from fast-fashion brands about reducing overproduction. They’re realized the sheer waste that comes with it, and its impact on their margins when they have to discount product,” she said.

With increased reliance on data and machine learning in planning and product development, Kleinewillinghoefer is hopeful that brands will better target resonant trends and determine how much product to produce.

“Brands have been grasping in the dark, and data could be the key to changing things,” she said.

The fast-fashion perspective

In the years since the Swedish company launched its first U.S. store in 2000, H&M has come to epitomize the fast-fashion movement.

Now, the brand that once sought to “democratize fashion” by making trend-forward design accessible through its impossibly low prices is striving for a more sustainable future.

While the company has been slammed over its penchant for overproducing and landfilling unsold product, it’s attempting to turn over a new leaf.

Data is indeed driving much of that effort, according to the H&M spokespersons.

“With the help of advanced analytics and AI, we can, for example, be much sharper in aligning supply and demand,” they said.

New AI functions support various processes across the entire value chain, from design to customer experience. “By reinforcing the decision making of our designers and buyers, we can ensure that we are designing the right products,” the spokespersons said, adding that tech tools also help forecast trends and ensure products are optimally allocated to stores.

H&M Group’s circularity-focused projects encourage the reuse and recycling of old products.

“We run renewal and remake projects, turning old clothes into new fashion favorites through reprinting, repurposing and remaking,” the spokespersons told Sourcing Journal. “A big part of our ambition to become circular is to offer our customers garment collecting options, so that we can give a second life to old garments that would otherwise end up in landfill.”

The fashion firm’s multiple brands tackle different objectives in search of a sustainable approach that sticks.

Premium minimalist brand COS launched a collection of thoughtfully revived used garments, while contemporary fashion label & Other Stories sells pre-worn clothing through Sellpy (a secondhand sales platform co-owned by H&M Group).

Denim and streetwear brand Weekday upcycles worn goods into redesigned styles and also offers on-demand printing for T-shirts, mitigating product overruns.

In November, the H&M brand piloted a rental program out of a store in Stockholm, allowing shoppers to rent garments from its Conscious Exclusive collection made from eco-friendly materials.

On the whole, H&M Group is also looking to use more recycled fibers, like cotton from collected garments, across its brands.

As the company works to refurbish its waste-making image, it’s still holding fast to the principle that popularized its namesake brand: affordability.

“For H&M Group it is important that everybody—regardless of income—shall be able to have clothes that, for example, are made using more sustainable materials,” the spokespersons said. Those options shouldn’t be reserved only for the wealthy, they added.

Industry sustainability experts have long speculated that reversing fast fashion’s toxic impact is actually a job for the category’s key players.

While innovative newcomers and an influx of direct-to-consumers upstarts have promised to disrupt the retail space, it will take time for them to develop the scale and reach of an H&M Group—even collectively.

For that reason, the company has chosen to evolve, rather than allow itself to be pushed into obscurity.

“We believe that our long-term investments in sustainability will provide us with long-term business opportunities that will keep H&M group relevant and successful in our rapidly changing world,” the spokespersons said.

Economy versus ecology

The retail landscape is indeed shifting quickly, spurred equally by brand innovation and new consumer attitudes, according to Mark Shayler, founder of Ape, a U.K. retail sustainability consultancy.

“We are seeing a massive shift in the consumer, and in 30 years I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

The modern shopper is shirking the status quo, and seems to have an understanding that “they can’t carry on as they’ve been doing” when it comes to buying blindly and discarding regularly, Shayler told Sourcing Journal.

“The consumer is beginning to see through the Band-Aid of fast fashion” as a mechanism for staying abreast of the latest trends, he said.

Leaders in the space are working on shaping a future where a successful economy coexists with a thriving ecology, he added.

“Both words share the prefix, ‘eco,’ which comes from the Greek word, ‘oikos,’ which means home,” Shayler said.

“One refers keeping your ‘house’ or environment in order from a resources point of view, and the other is about keeping your home afloat financially,” he said. “Now, as a society, we’re no longer seeing economy as an enemy to the ecology.”

“We’re beginning to understand that looking and feeling great are the same thing—and no one is going to feel great knowing that harm has been done to the person who made their clothes, or to the environment,” he added.

Most fashion brands are quickly righting their attitudes, Shayler said, because they realize their survival depends on it.

“Some of them will disappear, and we’re beginning to see it already,” he said, referencing the rash of bankruptcy filings and restructuring strategies that plagued fast fashion in 2019.

“The ones that stay ahead are the ones that are making sure that they’re not caught out,” he said, adding that successful brands will be “the ones that make the most noise and headway about recovering, reprocessing, and making specialized products that last a long time.”

They’ll also begin to think of themselves as service providers rather than purveyors of products, he said.

Leasing and buy-back programs (like the ones that H&M Group is currently testing) could provide the mechanisms for circularity that the industry has been lacking.

“That kind of business model innovation is where we’re going to see these companies die or survive,” Shayler said.

While fast fashion has undoubtedly exacerbated retail’s waste problem over the past two decades, Shayler also believes they also have the greatest opportunity to right the wrongs of the entire industry.

“If anyone is going to solve the trickiest problems, it will be them,” he opined. “They have invested the time and the money into solving this problem. They bear the responsibility of making this right, and they know it.”