Susanne LeBlanc, Analyst, Advisory Services, BSR

In the sustainable fashion dialogue, we often hear that the fashion industry and its consumers are simply not ready to address environmental issues. Designers resent having their creativity hemmed in by a restrictive choice of materials, and consumers are only willing to pay marginally more (at most, 15-20 percent) for sustainable fashion products. The “fast fashion” trend puts constant pressure on manufacturers to lower their prices and production times by externalizing environmental costs. And brands have few incentives for sustainability beyond reputational gain, which, in fashion, is not an easy win: Fashion brands may not want to be associated with the tree-hugging stereotype of sustainability.

It is generally accepted in the industry that consumers will never buy fashion because it is sustainably made; they will purchase a garment because it is stylish (which depends on the creative freedom of designers) and affordable (which depends on cheap manufacturing). The environmental credentials are an afterthought. Yet, in reading a recent report published by WRAP U.K. on sustainable fashion consumption, I was pleasantly surprised: It pointed to an emerging trend of consumers who are eager to change certain consumption habits for the better and are asking for guidance and support in doing so.

The report is based on a new survey of 7,950 British adults and seeks to identify new opportunities for reducing impacts in the clothing life cycle. In response to numerous questions, a significant proportion of surveyed consumers were in favor of more sustainable behaviors but were at a loss of where to begin. A majority of surveyed consumers were interested in buying better quality, more durable clothing, for example, but many did not know how to recognize good quality, which is sometimes not so evident to the untrained eye. More than half of women and nearly a quarter of men were eager to learn more about extending the life of their clothing by repair or alteration. Four in ten consumers thought that there is too little environmental information available for fashion products.

Clearly, there is an opportunity here for governments and civil society to promote awareness among consumers, but also, as the report points out, significant business potential.  Fashion brands could gain a competitive advantage and drive sales by communicating environmental information about their products, including a durability index or quality guarantee. Brands could also create new business by offering repair and alteration services or by tapping into the significant market for pre-owned clothing via retailer buy-back schemes for in-store resale. Patagonia's warranty, repair, recycling, and resale programs are examples of one company’s efforts to address these issues. Two thirds of respondents to the WRAP survey had purchased pre-owned clothing in the past year and would be interested in buy-back schemes.

As the NICE Consumer Project moves forward, BSR will contemplate opportunities to educate fashion industry stakeholders about sustainability and create sustainable value for fashion brands. Fashion may have been a little late to the sustainability party, but it is also an industry known for its innovation and the potential to push the envelope on behalf of other sectors. So stick around, because this party’s just getting started!