Can consumer insights drive industry change?

The current state of sustainability in the fashion industry can be described as a global environmental and social emergency. The industry has destructive effects on the planet and people: it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, drains vast amounts of water and energy, and is responsible for human rights violations when it comes to labor rights.

 

On the one hand, consumer insights show a growing awareness of the industry’s impact and the need for change. On the other, many brands still prioritize profit over sustainability, and the production and disposal of fast fashion continue to harm the environment and exploit workers. Luckily, there is a growing movement of consumers who are demanding more sustainable options, and brands are beginning to respond.

The Future of Fashion: consumer insights and industry trends

Consumers today are more environmentally and socially conscious than ever before, and this is reflected in their values and beliefs toward sustainability. According to a Fashion Revolution survey interviewing over 5,000 people in the five largest European markets, around 75% of respondents think it is important that fashion brands have ethical and sustainability certifications. Consumers are also increasingly interested in the impact that their purchases have on the environment and society. In 2021, Accenture surveyed in partnership with Fordham University’s Responsible Business Coalition, Textile Exchange, and Vogue U.S. The research results show that over 70% of consumers care about the social, health, environmental, and safety impacts of the products they shop for. 

Consumer perception of sustainability in the fashion industry is complex and varies greatly depending on factors such as age, income, and education level. Some consumers see sustainability as a top priority, while others view it as a secondary concern. Demonstrating progress in sustainability is particularly important in gaining the trust of younger fashion consumers, as some 43% of Gen-Zers say they actively seek out companies with a solid sustainability reputation. Younger European consumers also have more interest in purchasing secondhand, with 50% of Gen Z and millennials expecting to purchase more items secondhand. This trend is mainly due to younger generations being better informed about the state of the fashion industry and sustainability being increasingly implemented in the education agenda.

Social media has also grown to play a significant role in shaping consumer behavior in the fashion industry. The use of hashtags such as #sustainablefashion and #ethicalfashion has made it easier for consumers to discover sustainable brands and products, learn about sustainability issues, and share information with others. The use of social media to discover and shop for fashion particularly gained traction throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The McKinsey State of Fashion report shows that 74% of the people surveyed say that they are now more influenced to shop via social media than they were before the pandemic, while 70% cite clothing as one of the product categories they shop for most on social media.

Industry change in Action

As consumers have become more aware of the environmental impact of the fashion industry, many fashion brands have started to prioritize sustainability in their operations. Consumer insights have played a key role in this shift, as brands have used data on consumer preferences and behaviors to inform their sustainability strategies.

Levi Strauss & Co. has used consumer insights to identify which sustainable materials and production methods are most appealing to its customers and to guide its sustainability strategy more broadly. Already in 2011, Levi Strauss & Co. launched its Water<Less® program in response to consumer concerns about the amount of water used in the production of denim, particularly in water-scarce regions. More recently, Levi’s has used data on consumer demand for sustainable products to guide its product development, launching Recycled 501. The new denim line is a sustainable version of Levi’s most iconic product, the 501 Original, and speaks to both the enduring nature of the 501 and the brand’s commitment to moving towards more circular products and practices.

Luxury brand Eileen Fisher has been a leader in sustainable fashion for many years and has been vocal about the importance of using data to drive change in the industry. Making use of data on consumer demand for sustainable materials and production methods, the clothing brand has launched several sustainable initiatives based on consumer insights. Eileen Fisher’s “Renew” program allows customers to bring in used Eileen Fisher clothing and accessories to be resold or upcycled. By advancing a circular business model grounded in both community involvement and human rights empowerment, the brand successfully certified as a B Corporation in 2020.

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Consumer insights vs Consumer behavior

Although consumers are said to be increasingly concerned about unethical conduct in the industry, this attitude does not always translate to a change in consumer behavior. Money.co.uk revealed in a recent report that Shein is 2022’s most popular fashion brand. The ultra-fast fashion company that admitted breaches of China’s labor laws is also revealed to be Google’s most-searched brand in 113 countries, overtaking other retail giants in the industry. Meanwhile, the Zalando Attitude-Behavior Gap Report highlights that, while nearly three in five fashion consumers recognize that they carry individual responsibility for their fashion choices, one in two consumers is not even certain what sustainability means to fashion. Indeed, just 38% of respondents said they bought fashion based on the sustainability of production processes, and only 23% said they did so because of the brand’s labor policy.

There appears to be a significant gap between consumer beliefs and their actions when it comes to fast fashion. This may be due to conditioning from being born into a system where fast fashion businesses thrive, leading individuals to believe that clothes should be cheap and encouraging fast-paced purchasing. Adjusting perceptions about the value of clothes, finding shopping alternatives, and changing consumption habits can take time. Moreover, in more developed countries, the harmful impact of fast fashion may not be an everyday reality. Consequently, considerations of the environmental and labor impact of clothing may not be readily apparent when shopping or clearing out wardrobes. 

By understanding consumer behaviors, values, and beliefs, brands can cater to customer needs creating more sustainable products that appeal to a growing audience of sustainability-conscious consumers, but be careful not to fall into the greenwashing trap!

Researches also show that there is a common desire among consumers for more guidance on sustainability issues. According to Zalando’s It Takes Two, around 52% of consumers believe it is important to have someone to show them how to be more sustainable. By guiding through sustainability issues, brands can help their customers make more informed and sustainable choices, while also building trust and loyalty with their customer base.

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