Fashion for the planet

How a focus on sustainability will help fashion retailers stay relevant

12 Feb 2020

Across almost every industry consumers are pushing brands to take their environmental impact more into consideration – and those brands who respond will be well positioned to take the lead. 

According to Forbes, “For retailers and brands, focusing on sustainable practices is not only crucial to protect the environment, but also a key way to attract younger generations of consumers and drive long-term brand loyalty.”

A recent study found that around half of Millennials and Gen Xers feel it’s important that their values align with the brands they like. When you consider that sustainability is a mainstream concern for 87% of New Zealanders, and many actively research a brand’s sustainability before buying, it’s safe to assume that care for the environment is one of those values. A similar survey out of the UK backs this up, with over half of the survey respondents agreeing they wanted the fashion industry to become more sustainable.

How brands are catering to climate considerations 

In a study from Neilson found that 83% of Millennials, 66% of Gen Xers and 62% of Boomers said it was extremely important to them that companies implement programmes to improve the environment. Neilson even dubbed 2018 the year of the influential sustainable consumer. 

And it’s no wonder. While there’s very little reliable data, some sources estimate that manufacturing clothes accounts for 10% of man-made carbon emissions world-wide. We also know that growing and processing cotton is particularly hard on the environment, that textiles nearly always end up at the dump, and that man-made fabrics send thousands of microplastics out into the sea

Many mainstream brands are already taking the lead, moving into a space that was once occupied only by fringe ‘enviro’ retailers. But what ‘sustainable’ means can vary wildly. For some brands, it’s simply incorporating recycled materials into their manufacturing, while others have implemented recycling programmes. A few have gone a step further, improving the ethics and transparency of their production. 

Good on You, a mobile app that helps consumers judge the sustainability of different brands, had over 200,000 users in mid-2019 – a sign, says co-founder Sandra Capponi, of the importance of sustainability to today’s consumers.

The fashion industry is rife with perceived greenwashing and covert operations – for example, high-end fashion retailer Burberry was outed on social media mid-2018 for burning unsold stock. 

"The good thing is that sustainability and ethics are now seen as desirable, marketable qualities for a brand," Capponi says. "The downside is that some brands may overstate their efforts in order to catch the trend."
The opportunity for retailers lies in this perceived lack of action from the industry. Those retailers that take genuine action to reduce their environmental impact and are successful in demonstrating that authenticity to their consumers will get a first-mover advantage.

Case study: Max takes climate action  

Fashion retailer Max  was acquired in 2018 by Barkers and put sustainability at the core of its rebrand. Rather than just a new logo and e-commerce, Max has expanded its range to include lifestyle and skincare products, and behind the scene, they’re undergoing what they’ve called a ‘radical reinvention’.

The goal is to ‘raise the bar’, while ‘slowing down’, in an industry that is getting faster and faster. 
In a letter released to its customers, Max said.

“We believe style isn’t just about what we wear; it’s about how we live. You’ve told us you want this to change – and what matters to you, matters to us! Top of the list is our relationship with our communities, and with our planet. We’re on a journey – to create products that are kinder to the earth, and to connect with our creative community, uplifting the women and small businesses that inspire us!” 

It’s a top-down shake-up of every part of their sourcing, manufacturing and distribution chain. 

General Manager Rochelle MacDonald has focused the team on enduring design and better-quality garments, with a particular emphasis on natural fibres. Before the rebrand, 30% of Max’s range was in man-made fibre. Since then, that’s been reduced to just 5%. There’s also a priority on choosing biodegradable natural fabrics, now seen in textiles like cotton and linen, with the rest made from reconstituted natural fibres which can be recycled. 

“We basically broke all the rules of the old business,” Rochelle told Fashion Quarterly. “We re-sourced everything from a product perspective. Because most of our fabrication changed, the way we handled it changed, and the fits changed.”

Max is also expanding its range with lifestyle products that share their new vision. 
“We wanted to work with people that had a similar ethos to us, that were local, that were small businesses, and generally women-led,” says Rochelle.

Managing director Jamie Whiting says the ultimate goal is to ‘close the loop’ and has established a group called Nature Needs Heroes to implement new initiatives across both Max and Barkers. 

Fashion can be sustainable – and successful

Instead of trailing other retailers in climate-change action, and adding to the earth’s waste problem, the fashion industry is beginning to get the message from their consumers – the climate matters. Offering biodegradable, earth-friendly fashion isn’t a niche market any longer, but rather the way to steal a march on competitors.

It’s not enough to merely nod at the problem – in the digital world, fashion retailers’ unsustainable practices can’t be hidden for long. Not only are social media on the case, but there are also useful apps like Good On You helping consumers find truly sustainable fashion. Concerned people of all ages are driving environmental change, and if fashion retailers want to stay in business, they need to take note.

We at Solutionists on our own sustainability journey too – we’ve just joined the Sustainable Business Network. Talk to us about how we can help ensure your eCommerce solution supports your journey, too.


Jessica de Heij

date published:

12 Feb 2020