Sustainability in the fashion industry: a challenge for 2019

The fashion industry is changing quickly, and the last few years have shown just how challenging it is for apparel brands to adapt to these changes. According to the BoF-McKinsey State of Fashion Survey, one of the most pressing concerns and challenges for the year ahead for executives in the fashion industry is the "need to achieve greater sustainability and transparency".

Following plastic straw bans and bad press for Burberry in 2018, it will be no shock to see "slow fashion" pick up steam in 2019. Retailers of all sizes are being held accountable to produce quality garments that are environmentally and socially responsible. And it's not governments or industry leaders that are making this demand - it's the consumers.

Sustainability and transparency in manufacturing and processing of textiles and clothing has evolved from a small social movement to a transformative feature in business that has launched companies to success and gained the appraisal of consumers. It calls on the values of the eco-conscious, those concerned with social justice, and a rising generation of individualists.

Environmental concerns take center stage

While not every brand can match big companies' level of commitment to environmental causes (such as Patagonia, whose CEO announced they were donating an additional $10 million last year), brands that work to minimize the environmental impact of their products can gain the respect of eco-friendly consumers.

Last year leaders in the industry took a stand with the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, that centers around the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Companies often criticized for their low-cost fast fashion that contribute to the 10.5 million tons of textiles in landfills such as H&M and Target were among the charter leaders as well as brands such as Levi Strauss & Co. that have been concerned with their environmental impact for years.

Social responsibility demanded from field to factory to storefront

The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killing more than 1,100 people was devastating and eye-opening to fashion consumers. The catastrophe sparked the Fashion Revolution campaign and fashion sustainability rating sites such as Good on You that concern themselves with making fashion a safe, clean, and fair industry.

Socially-conscious consumers are looking for brands that don't hide where their products come from or who made them. Retailers such as Everlane have built their brand around social transparency, and Adidas and H&M have been praised for making names and addresses of their manufacturers, subcontractors, and fabric/yarn suppliers public.

A generation of individualists takes control of the youth market

Generation Z is undeniably a different group of young people than Millennials. They want brands to do more than advertise. They want to find value in a brand and have that brand add value to their individual identity.

"Whether it's their hobby, hairstyle or gender, Zs are cultivating increasingly niche identities and interests...In fact, according to our survey, 63% of Gen Zs say they prefer to 'be weird and stand out' rather than 'be popular and fit in,'" Archrival, a youth marketing agency, reported in their latest publication on Gen Z.

For many Gen Zs, standing out will mean wearing clothes that none of their friends own: whether it's an exclusive brand they discovered online or a one-of-a-kind thrift store find. Regardless of their style, a Gen Z is more likely to gravitate towards the trends of sustainable clothing and apparel than the mass-produced - "everyone has one" - fast fashion.

While the biggest fashion moments in 2019 are still to come, one thing is for sure: the prizes for those fashion brands who develop more transparent and environmentally-friendly processes might be greater than ever.

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