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One-Third of Consumers Have Switched Brands to a More Sustainable One

The fashion industry’s efforts to improve its social and environmental profile aren’t moving fast enough to offset the harmful impacts of its rapid growth, a new report warned on Tuesday.

In fact, progress has slowed by about a third, according to the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which together published the 2019 “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” update ahead of the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark next week.

The industry, as it stands, holds a “pulse” score of 42 out of a possible 100—a four-point uptick from the 38 it garnered last year but short of the six-point improvement it saw between 2017 and 2018.

Unless this current trend improves, the report’s authors note, the fashion industry will remain a net contributor to climate change, potentially undermining the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius for the rest of this century.

The numbers paint the picture of a fashion industry that has made some progress toward healthier social and environmental performance over the past year but at a decreasing rate that is outpaced by the apparel and footwear markets’ 5 percent annual growth.

The report credits improvements over the past year to brands in the “early stages of their sustainability journey” that established foundational measures to set targets, define strategies and improve governance. At the same time, progress by enterprise-level firms has largely stalled, suggesting that their initiatives are reaching the limits of attainable returns and must therefore break through to the “next level” through disruptive technologies that will manifest new ways of conducting business.

“These latest findings emphasize the dire need for the whole industry to join the race and accelerate change now,” Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at GFA, said in a statement. “Scaling existing solutions will depend on leadership from brands. However, some transformational changes will take cooperation among policy makers and stakeholders across the entire value chain.”

The fact that consumers are making sustainability a growing part of their purchasing decisions should also present a “strong signal” to brands and retailers that responsible practices must become the norm, rather than a novelty. Three quarters (75 percent) of consumers in five countries surveyed by BCG in March said they view sustainability as “extremely” or “very” important. More than a third of respondents admitted to switching allegiances from their preferred brand to a more sustainable one, and more than half said they anticipate concerns over sustainability to inform their next purchase.

“It is very encouraging to finally see changing momentum in consumer sentiment,” said Sebastian Boger, a partner at BCG. “Our representative consumer research shows sustainability is shifting from a secondary consideration to a primary decision driver.”

But the fashion industry can’t rely on the consumer to lead this charge, especially because quality and aesthetics still hold prime importance in their decision making.

“To achieve the transformational change required, we must collaborate and make meaningful commitments to end our industry’s damaging practices,” said Amina Razvi, interim executive director at SAC. “We need to scale our efforts to assess impacts through a common framework and increase improvements in sustainability performance globally.”

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