Are we on the verge of a clothing revolution?

We are at a turning point in the apparel industry – everyone from H&M to haute couture is asking how they can incorporate sustainability into their business models. From our work at SecondMuse we want to share some of our observations about what’s happening in the apparel and footwear industry.

Consumers are seeking sustainable alternatives that are fashionable and are cost competitive. Price and style are no longer the only factors that consumers care about. Even at the lower priced brands your are starting to see a rise in the conscientious consumer asking questions about where their clothes are being made. But aesthetics are still the main driver of fast fashion. So to meet the consumer demand, fabulous fashion has to meet ethical products. Here are some of our favorite platforms that are bringing together the best designs from sustainable brands at semi-affordable prices: www.fashioningchange.com, www.kaightshop.com, www.shopethica.com, www.zady.com

The recent creation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and its rapid growth, currently poised to be one of the largest industry groups focused on sustainability across all industry groups, shows us that the industry is taking sustainability seriously. As part of our work with the SAC, we had the opportunity to attend and lead a workshop at their semi-annual meeting in San Francisco in June of 2013. It was truly an inspiring three days that we spent with industry leaders in footwear and apparel all working closely together to help solve the greatest sustainability challenges that their industry is facing. At this meeting, people were less concerned about representing their own respective brands but instead focused on working together to be able to solve these tough challenges – it was a true collaborative experience.

We are also seeing a renewed wave towards looking at sustainable materials in clothing,- alternatives to the petroleum consuming family of polyester fabrics and water guzzling cottons. People are starting to ask, what chemicals are in my products and how were they made? In our work with LAUNCH we have discovered incredible innovations in the fabrics space. These are snapshots of 3 innovators that we are working with over the 6 months:

Qmilk fibers from waste milk: silky soft fibers with little to no waste

CSIRO artificial honeybee silks: imagine smart bandages that sense and respond to the state of the wound!

Barktex bark textiles: a Ugandan World Heritage technique with beautiful applications

Another trend we are seeing in the industry is that towards greater transparency. It’s really exciting to see commitment to transparency at the senior executive level such as that at Nike. In it’s most recent sustainability report, the CEO, Mark Parker, stated that “transparency is a strategic advantage”. This commitment to transparency is not something new at Nike, in fact they led the way in supply chain transparency being the first company to release its entire supplier list which can now be viewed as an interactive map.

Other apparel companies are also showing their commitment to transparency from greater visibility into their products to open communication with stakeholders. Patagonia for example created the Footprint Chronicles, which showcases the environmental and social footprint of 90% of their products. Leading the way in financial transparency is Puma who created an Environmental Profit and Loss statement that considers their impact at the environmental, social, and economic levels. Zappos has gone as far as making transparency part of its routine operations taking an active role to speak openly and publicly about how they run their business. Tony Hsieh, the CEO, often tweets and publicizes internal memos that he writes to employees for everyone to see.  For an industry that has kept its doors closed for some many years, these are all significant strides towards paving the way to a more sustainable apparel industry.

Recent disasters in Bangladesh were a true eye-opener for the government and retail brands but also for us, the consumer. The government agreed to support the victims and family members and have given over 28,000 USD to one third of the victims. From brands and retailers, financial support for victims has only come from Primark so far. More than a hundred companies have signed on to the Bangladesh safety accord. At the same time, they have been slow to move forward on discussions around increased compensation.

And now for us, as consumers, are we ready to make more conscious decisions, change our behaviors, and align our values with what we buy? We can no longer escape information about the toxins in our clothes, terrible working conditions for factory workers, and the impact that fast fashion has on the environment. The sustainable fashion industry is still young, on the verge of a clothing revolution, let’s together reverse the fast fashion trend and create a new trend that is intentional, good for the planet, and upholds human rights.

For more information on studies on consumer trends see here, here, here, and here.

Natalia Arjomand

About Natalia Arjomand

Natalia joined SecondMuse as a consultant with experience in sustainability, shared value, strategy and finance. At SecondMuse she has worked closely in systems transformation focusing on the power of social innovation to change the world. She is passionate about the transformative power of business for social, economic and environmental good. Prior to SecondMuse, Natalia was a strategy consultant at Deloitte in the Energy Management and Sustainability group. Natalia began her career working at Lehman Brothers and Barclays Capital after receiving her B.S. in Finance.

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