Unraveling the sustainable fashion paradox
How 'sustainable fashion' became a billion-dollar industry – and what it means for brands.
Buffy Reid, co-founder of the London-based sustainable clothing brand & Daughter, wasn’t sure if it was ‘appropriate’ to launch her new nine-piece dress collection during a global health crisis. She had, in fact, considered pressing pause on the business entirely.
But as an independent brand – with a small distribution network she could maintain with social distancing measures in place – she decided the only option was to go ahead. The collection had been over a year in the making, and the brand couldn’t afford to not try to sell it.
Buffy’s hesitation to launch a new product line is understandable. Global clothing sales dropped by over 50% in March, while 20% of the UK’s spending on clothes and accessories is expected to vanish in 2020 – a loss of £11.1bn – according to a new report by analyst firm Global Data.
Independent brands such as & Daughter face cancelled orders from wholesale accounts wary of their inability to shift stock in coming months owing to closed warehouses and flatlining sales. And those labels are already at a financial loss, having to pay the factories for pieces put into production. Customers, too, are wary of spending.
Prior to the pandemic, sustainability was being talked about more than ever before by both consumers and the fashion industry itself. LVMH, the world’s biggest luxury group, pledged €10m to protect the Amazon; French brand Veja unveiled sneakers crafted from corn waste; while many luxury brands are using vegan leathers derived from pineapple leaves. And it was about time: fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil.
According to Fflur Roberts, head of luxury at retail analyst firm Euromonitor, in 2019 ‘$4 trillion was committed to decarbonise companies’ full portfolios’ (when companies shift to carbon-neutral status). Kering, which owns Gucci and Bottega Veneta, has committed to halving its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. ‘A sustainable revolution was taking place,’ Fflur adds. But as revenues plummet, what now happens to clean consumption and sustainable agendas?
‘I imagine the crisis will continue the deep discounting cycle that retail has been battling with for a long time,’ says Sydney-based Marre Muijs, founder of sustainable footwear label Essen, which offers sleek leather ballet pumps made using renewable energy in Italy. She established the brand in 2016 ‘in response to a fashion cycle that overproduces more than it crafts, and wastes more than it sustains’.
As a small and self-funded label, she recently offered her customers a promotional discount for the first time on made-to-order items. ‘We’re really feeling the [business] slowdown,’ says Marre. ‘We’re likely to see a lot of business failures. But I hope the industry slows down and changes its ways.’
Wishful thinking, perhaps. Fast fashion brands like Topshop, Zara and Boohoo, which produce and sell huge inventory at rock-bottom prices, will be the ones to suffer the biggest losses during the pandemic. In 2019, Boohoo was worth $3.8bn, peddling going-out gear to teenage consumers. Post-pandemic, it’s likely they will look to discount even more to recoup costs.
Still, there are green shoots. The e-commerce platform Farfetch this week unveiled its carbon-reducing delivery initiative, which offsets all of its global emissions for shipping and returns. (With 3,400 independent retailers, it wasn’t simple.) The Portuguese company, helmed by Jose Neves, said it never even considered postponing the sustainable launch. ‘If anything, the pandemic has made our company strategy and the sustainable business part of that even more salient,’ says Thomas Berry, the company’s global director of sustainability. ‘An increased level of social and environmental consciousness is maybe the one potential silver lining to the crisis.’
Marre agrees, noting ‘customer sentiment was already shifting towards anti-consumerism before the pandemic.’ While sustainable packaging initiatives are currently affected – with single-use plastics seeing a return – a Euromonitor Lifestyles survey found ‘a quarter of consumers in 2020 [are] buying from purpose-driven brands, and would boycott those that don’t share their values,’ says Fflur. ‘Covid-19 could be the tipping point.’
Early sales of & Daughter’s shirt-style dresses suggest that may be true. ‘It feels weird to say, but we’ve had a really strong six weeks of trading,’ says Reid. ‘They sold better than we even had hoped pre-Covid.’ She says she’s had a record number of first-time customers – and they’re placing ‘slightly bigger orders than normal’.
‘I think it goes along with customers trying to support independents right now, and caring about what you’re buying, and where you’re buying it from,’ she continues. If the industry is to recover, now is not the time to let-up. ‘Customers are going to want to buy even less, but buy better.’
Illustration: Timothy Durand
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