The Journey to Sustainable Fashion Consumption Has Begun

March 19, 2012
  • Cody Sisco

    Former Manager, BSR

At the first of our three webinars on the NICE Consumer project last week, about 45 participants from industry and civil society provided their questions and input via several polls and questions to the presenters.

Interestingly, only 18 percent of participants said they feel the fashion industry is ready for sustainable consumption, while 44 percent pointed to consumer preferences as the main barrier. Only 13 percent said they think the fashion industry’s current business model is to blame.

Participants also identified the biggest challenges from an individual consumer’s perspective:

  • Finding sustainable garments: 33 percent
  • Understanding what is sustainable: 21 percent
  • Buying less: 13 percent
  • Wearing garments longer and caring for and mending them: 10 percent
  • Recycling garments responsibly: 3 percent

They proposed two main solutions to achieve sustainable fashion consumption:

Change the business model. The fast fashion phenomenon, and the ever-increasing flows of cheap apparel from factory to store to consumer to landfill is a major challenge to achieving sustainable consumption. Through the poll function, several participants responded that we need “a new business model altogether, away from fast fashion,” with “less consumption,” and “more balance between fashion, cost, and sustainability.” One participant suggested that consumers “revert back to buying fewer products, but of better quality.”

Understand and influence consumers. One poll respondent said we need to gain a “better understanding of the degree to which consumers actually care [about sustainability].”  Many also emphasized the importance of educating the consumer, and one pointed out that consumers need to understand “the real story behind the manufacturing of fast and cheap fashion.” Another suggested that we could engage people “in buying less by identifying and fulfilling their emotional capacity through other things, such as art.”  Another respondent suggested making apparel’s sustainability information clear, in language that is accessible to the consumer.

During the webinar, Ian Morris, head of technical services at Marks and Spencer, described the company’s partnership with Oxfam to increase the take-back of garments in the U.K. in exchange for a discount on new purchases. The presentation inspired an interesting discussion about how sustainable it is to encourage new purchases compared to the impact of diverting clothes from the landfill.

These twin activities are long-term prescriptions, which we will explore in upcoming NICE Consumer webinars and workshops. We will also look at the extent to which the business model for fashion is already changing, and the pioneering designers, retailers, and initiatives that are changing industry practices, as well as the opportunities to influence and empower consumers. The next webinars take place on March 20 and April 3.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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