Ensemble piece: who will wear the cost of fashion’s sustainability drive?

Repairing the harms of fast fashion is expensive, but the industry will struggle to pass much of that cost on to cash-strapped shoppers, who’ve been seduced by years of rock-bottom prices

The results of a recent global survey of 10,000 consumers by Kantar suggest that the cost-of-living crisis is shaping public attitudes to sustainable consumption, particularly when it comes to clothing. 

Its research report, Sustainability and Consumers’ Behaviour, reveals that “sustainability is the most important topic that shoppers want fashion brands to show commitment towards”. But almost two-thirds (66%) of respondents say that, while they want to buy more environmentally friendly products, it’s the brands’ responsibility to ensure that the greenest options remain affordable, even as their operating costs spiral. 

In an era in which the fast fashion sector has become notorious for giving us ultra-cheap, disposable apparel at an immense ecological and social cost, can consumers have it both ways? Ethically made garments are inevitably more costly to manufacture, so it would seem unrealistic to expect producers of eco-friendly apparel to keep their prices down. 

The severity of the sector’s impact on the planet was formally recognised in December 2018 when “43 major brands and suppliers” signed up to the fashion industry charter for climate action under the auspices of the UNs’ sustainable development goals. This was their commitment to take concerted action to reduce their collective carbon footprint. At the time, the fast fashion segment alone was responsible for 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The overall objective of the charter is for the industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Dr Helen Crowley is a sustainability expert and partner at Pollination, a consultancy that’s helping organisations in several sectors, including fashion, on their way to net zero. Over the past five years, she has observed “a real shift in understanding that sustainability isn’t just a thing that you have on the sidelines”. 

Crowley believes that companies “do have a responsibility and accountability to society” in this respect, but she stresses that shoppers must also play a significant role in the sustainability drive. Even though their money isn’t going so far these days, they still have the combined purchasing power to change the industry’s behaviour. 

People need to find out more about what they’re wearing… Where are the clothes you buy coming from?

If they truly want to make more ethical buying choices, they can work out for themselves which companies are walking the sustainable talk and which are greenwashing, as they have more information at their fingertips than ever before, she argues.

“Consumers have to be aware that they are not victims per se,” Crowley says. “They must empower themselves to self-educate and self-advocate. People need to find out more about what they’re wearing, just like when you understand what cosmetics you’re putting on your skin or what food you’re putting in your mouth. Where are the clothes you buy coming from?” 

Indeed, many shoppers are acutely aware of both the power they wield and the responsibility they have. Representing 29% of consumers, they are classified by the Kantar research as “actives”. They are particularly conscious of the sustainability aspects of each purchasing decision they make. Actives are often willing to pay more for sustainably manufactured clothing. By contrast, the other 71% are most unlikely to pay more, either because they can’t afford it or because they don’t feel strongly enough about sustainability issues. 

One industry insider who’s been working tirelessly to “make the story of sustainability and fashion more accessible to people from different backgrounds and tax brackets” is Amelia Twine, the founder-director of the UK’s inaugural Sustainable Fashion Week (SFW) in 2021.

She and her team have just overseen their second event, SFW 2022, which was based in Bristol but featured sessions at several other locations around the country and also in Australia, Cyprus and Nigeria. The programme, featuring talks and panel discussions involving 16 speakers from the industry, was designed to disseminate knowledge, encourage collaboration and build a sense of community. 

Twine hopes that the event took the audience’s focus away from “buying something new that’s produced differently”, because that is not always going to be affordable for everyone. In some sessions, for instance, attendees learnt about relatively low-cost measures that consumers can take to be more sustainable, such as repairing garments, upcycling and participating in clothing exchanges. Such practices, if adopted on a large enough scale, should reduce the demand for fast fashion and so stimulate the industry to make positive changes.

“It was heartwarming to have such an overwhelmingly positive response,” Twine says of SFW 2022. “Everyone we spoke to at the event seemed to have an appetite for change and a desire for the resources to make it happen.” 

People have less money to spend, but they still want to buy lovely clothing

Another enterprise that’s offering both consumers and fashion brands a sustainable solution without compromise is Secret Sales, an online marketplace that sees itself as a “critical link between full price and second hand”. It helps high-end brands to offload old stock more sustainably while still turning a profit. Consumers can find top-quality garments, which might otherwise be destined for landfill, at bargain-bin prices. 

The firm’s CEO, Chris Griffin, says: “We sit in the middle and give this perfect segue to the brand and the consumer.”

After he and fellow entrepreneur Matt Purt acquired the business in March 2020 and changed it from a flash sales outlet into a premium market, the company enjoyed exponential revenue growth, helping it to attract €10m (£8.8m) in series-A funding last year.

“We’re seeing more new customers as a ratio of business than we’ve ever seen,” Griffin reports. “People have less money to spend, but they still want to buy lovely clothing.”

It’s clear, then, that there are options open to style- and eco-conscious shoppers even when millions of consumers in the UK are having to tighten their belts. Arguably, they are more informed and empowered than ever before. Governments have a key role to play here in enforcing stronger policies to hold fashion brands accountable for their sustainability claims

Realistically, the cost of making fashion more sustainable will be shared between the industry and the consumer, although only time will tell what proportion each party will bear. Both will play their part in achieving the changes required, although much is likely to depend on Kantar’s cohort of able and willing actives. 

In the UK at least, every taxpayer will be soon making a small contribution – knowingly or not – to fashion’s sustainability drive. In June, Westminster gave the industry a rare fiscal boost when Boris Johnson pledged £80m of public funding to the cause in one of his last meaningful acts as PM. Led by the British Fashion Council in partnership with a range of industry bodies and government agencies, the fashion industry sustainable change programme is a 10-year plan to create a “world-leading circular fashion and textiles ecosystem”.

The initiative has been widely welcomed, even if many in the field believe that more could and should be done at this level – and faster, given the urgent need to address the climate crisis. 

“There are some really nice indications that we can be hopeful,” Crowley says. “But I do think we need to ramp things up.”