The winds of change

Project: Thought leadership piece created for a waste management company

Environmentally speaking, it’s no secret that we’ve not been treating the Earth nearly as well as we should be. In the fashion industry, recent statistics tell a very sorry tale indeed.

  • In 2014, customers bought 60% more clothes than they did in 2000. But those clothes only got used for half as long.
  • Companies have been introducing as many as 25 lines of new clothes a year. If that’s not a shocking statistic, here’s another one.
  • 80 billion items of clothing are consumed per year collectively around the world.
  • A full rubbish trucks’ worth of clothes is dumped into landfill every second of every day.
  • The apparel industry accounts for 10% of the world’s gas emissions.

Yes, overproduction was definitely reaching unsustainable levels, and the world has suffered thanks to our demands for the latest and cheapest in fashion. A change of pace was long overdue.

In that regard, many would say that 2020 couldn’t have come soon enough.

Lockdown brought an abrupt 180-degree change in customer behaviour. With a combination of economic downturn and lack of parties, consumers didn’t see the need to buy a new outfit every other week. And with very little business to speak of, production ground to a halt.

The natural consequence? waste was decreased, and, consequently, so was the colossal carbon footprint at the world’s landfills. Global emissions plummeted. Forests were left alone, undisturbed for the time being, for its wildlife to flourish peacefully. One could walk around a lake near a factory and see clear water, with fish returning again in large numbers. People living in mountainous regions could enjoy an obstructed view of the mountain peaks, clear of pollution.

In short, Planet Earth’s natural resources finally got the reprieve they needed so badly.

But does a return to business mean the end of this break? Many in the industry hope not. “I feel very strongly that when we come out at the other end, people’s values are really going to have shifted,” Vogue editor Dame Anna Wintour said last week.

 

“I think it’s an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and to look at our lives, and to rethink our values, and to really think about the waste, and the amount of money, and consumption, and excess that we have all indulged in and how we really need to rethink what this industry stands for.”

But whilst environment may have benefitted, the fashion industry hasn’t. Across the field, sales plummeted by 34% in March. With the high street shops struggling even before COVID-19, some chain stores were forced to shut their brick and mortar shops for good. Recently, the Fashion Council predicted that 240,000 jobs in the fashion industry were at risk. That’s around 27% of the industry’s workforce. It wasn’t an easy time for the fashion industry. Not by any stretch of imagination.

So, whilst we can rejoice about the positive impact the lack of commerce has had on the environment, British Fashion brands have a different concern: becoming profitable again after several months in limbo.

But this Coronavirus wasn’t the beginning of a conversation in this area. That had in fact started the year before, with a revolution led by Generation Z. With young Swedish student Greta Thurnberg as their figurehead, these young activists demanded transparency and ethics.

And, remarkably, the world took notice, from the EU downwards. 2019 was dubbed by many as the year of sustainability, with its protests around the world. In December of that year, Earth Day was marked with a charter spearheaded by Stella McCartney. It was a rallying call that many brands payed close attention to. In December of that year, brands such as Burberry, GAP, Kering, H&M, Lerings and Fashion Revolution signed that commitment to cut greenhouse emissions by 30% before 2030, among other measures. Adidas resolved to phase out the use of polyester by 2024.

So, by the end of 2019, the fashion industry was already in the midst of a revolution.

When Covid came around, people had a chance to rethink their spending habits further. People began to consider whether the need to buy more clothes was in sync with their values. They began to consider whether the requirement to have a new outfit for their next date took priority over the wellbeing of the world around them.

In the UK, studies from the Fashion Retail Academy showed that 51.4 per cent of Brits chose long-lasting clothes over cheaper fashionable items, up 33.8 per cent on a year before.

Meanwhile, the proportion of shoppers who consciously choose fast fashion, being a cheaper option, has dropped by 46.2 per cent in the same period.

In addition, Brits are more likely to keep their old clothes. 71.3 percent of consumers chose to recycle. That number stood at 59.7 percent last year.

“The focus on sustainability has finally been embraced by consumers in a big way and we’ve witnessed a big shift in shopping habits over the past year,” Fashion Retail Academy principal Lee Lucas said.

 

“Shoppers are moving away from fast fashion and there are new waves of consumers who are willing to invest in higher quality items, acknowledging that more expensive price tags might mean more mileage from certain items of clothing.”

 

Interestingly, one part of the industry that has developed nicely is the resale websites. Sites like Depop have been seeing record traffic- up to 150% more than previously. One such website, ThredUp, have projected the second-hand market to grow from 24 billion dollars 51 billion dollars, over the next five years. It expects this sector to be 1.5 times the size of the current fast fashion sector, making up 13 per cent of peoples wardrobes.

And which demographics are responsible for this growth? Credit for that goes to the Millennial and Gen Z generations, with 18 to 37-year-olds buying pre-owned apparel, footwear or accessories 2.5 times faster than other age groups. Once again, the significance of this trend isn’t lost on the giants of the fashion world. Since the release of the report, brands like GAP and Macy’s in New York have partnered with ThredUp to incorporate used clothes into their business models,

It’s no surprise that this trend is being driven by the demographic that forced the world to think more ethically. Generation Z is creating an awareness of the importance of keeping waste down to a minimum.

As Lucas puts it, “This shift towards quality over quantity, recycling and buying second-hand is not just about saving money, it is a reflection of how customers are increasingly mindful of fashion waste and the supply chain,”

Sarah Willersdorf, partner and global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group, sees this as a turning point. “Consumers are going to spend less for the foreseeable future,” Willersdorf warns.

“And they are going to be far more selective with a mindset toward quality, value and sustainability. They will be concerned about where fashion comes from, that it is ethically manufactured, and that it is as good as it can be for the environment.”

While Coronavirus has helped awaken industry giants and customers to Earth’s plight, the initial short-term effects aren’t showing signs of drastic change just yet. Don’t Waste UK has been working with shopping centres since they were permitted to reopen this past July. “We’ve seen a 140 percent increase in waste” says Mr, the company’s CEO, “If there has been positive change in consumer habits, we certainly haven’t seen it yet”.

It may not be felt in the short term, as customers flock back to the shops they love. But the winds of change certainly blow in the right direction these days.