The state of sustainability in the fashion industry (and what it means for brands)

Marketing Director at Launch Indicatorsa leading Brand Performance Cloud in fashion, luxury and beauty.

The fashion industry is known for its ability to implement trends that have the power to shape society and affect the buying habits of consumers in general. But what is sometimes overlooked is the impact everyday consumers have on the industry. The truth is that the industry is largely driven by consumer demand, and right now the demand for sustainable practices seems to be high. In a survey conducted by McKinsey at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, “67% [of respondents] consider the use of sustainable materials an important purchase factor, and 63% consider a brand’s promotion of sustainability the same. Thus, consumers could push the fashion industry to take into account its impact on our environment.

Not only is the demand for sustainability high, but so is the conversation around the topic. Data provided by Launchmetrics’ proprietary algorithm that measures media impact value reveals that MIV for sustainability increased 54% in the first half of 2022 compared to the first half of 2021, representing $2 billion respectively and $1.3 billion. (The MIV is a monetary representation that my company uses for brand performance.) This data looked at the amount of conversation generated by “sustainability” in the media, as well as the number of placements generated by the term across all sectors. When we compared the growth of VIM to the placements generated by the industry, it became clear that consumers are starting to make changes. This shift means brands need to reevaluate their operations to project the right brand image. And to achieve this, fashion brands should now look to take more concrete steps to embrace sustainability, a process that goes beyond branding and campaigns.

Before looking at how the industry is embracing sustainability, we must first understand what exactly sustainability means in the fashion industry. In this context, sustainability refers to creating and consuming clothing in a “sustainable” way that protects the environment and those who produce the clothing. Furthermore, true sustainability should ensure that the creative process is environmentally and socially friendly, from materials and manufacturing to worker conditions and fair compensation. Needless to say, this is a big change for an industry that for years has struggled with wasteful operations and negative environmental consequences. According to the United Nations Environment Program (via Bloomberg). So, naturally, adopting sustainable practices is a challenge for the industry. However, that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t open to change; rather the opposite.

Over the past few years, the fashion industry has become more aware of its problems and has begun to address them. In fact, fashion accounted for $618 million in sustainability MIV in the first half of 2022, according to Launchmetrics’ sustainability report, “Making Sense of Sustainability,” which was produced in partnership with Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana. (The report analyzed data from multiple platforms between January 2021 and October 2022.) The fashion industry accounted for a third of global conversations about sustainability. To me, that indicates how open he is to change.

By taking a closer look at the conversation and consumer demand around sustainability, we can see that there are several areas of interest in these conversations. These areas include awareness, materials and processes. According to respondents to a survey of U.S. consumer attitudes toward sustainable shopping conducted by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (via the World Economic Forum), consumers of all generations are willing to spend more on sustainable products now than two years ago. And just over a third of respondents said they choose brands that demonstrate environmentally friendly practices or values. Additionally, 28% said they have stopped buying from brands with poor ethical or sustainability values.

To meet this new demand, brands across the industry have done their best to incorporate sustainable practices into their operations. It’s a great example of what a global awareness really is as a driving force when it comes to sustainability in the fashion industry. Brands that focus on true sustainability are likely to see positive results in their communities. One brand that has been particularly successful on this front is Levi’s, notably with its “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign. The global campaign raised awareness and encouraged consumers to be more intentional in their clothing choices while reaffirming Levi’s longstanding commitment to making quality clothing that can last for generations. Earlier this year, Levi’s also took part in another impactful campaign in collaboration with Ganni. The campaign showed Emma Chamberlain with her friends and showcased clothes made with natural dyes, water-saving techniques and other sustainability measures. By having a YouTube star at the center of the campaign, I think the company has appealed to the younger generation when it comes to sustainability. Another benefit of using an influencer as the centerpiece of a campaign is the impact their voice can have in the media. Forty-nine percent of consumers in a 2016 Twitter and Annalect survey said they relied on influencers to seek out product recommendations.

Another example, like Forbes contributor Blake Morgan explains, is Patagonia. The company not only uses sustainable materials in its clothes, but also helps customers repair their clothes instead of buying new items. It could encourage customers to wear the clothes for life.

What we might have considered a fleeting trend just a few years ago turns out to be anything but the sustainability movement that continues to drive change in the fashion industry. With this continued development, brands should learn that surface-level actions to appear sustainable are unlikely to work, and to remain profitable they must initiate real change. The good news is that the fashion industry seems to be open to change, and for that to continue the industry needs to take responsibility and there needs to be full transparency from samples to the sales rack. This could benefit both the consumer and the industry in the long run. As the industry continues to grow, it could provide new sustainability solutions that will fuel that growth.

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