London Fashion Week SS20 (12th – 17th September) was a thoroughly on-topic affair this season.

However, it wasn’t hemlines or textiles, slogan tees or embellishments that were trending but something altogether more urgent. Ironically, the bi-annual fashion carnival closed on an unseasonably warm day, which almost served to underline this alignment with what (other than Brexit) might be the issue of 2019: climate change.

Environmental concerns are dominating the headlines but the fashion industry has always been notoriously deaf on that front. However, this season it appeared that a saturation point had been reached in terms of awareness of the environmental consequences of unsustainable business practices.

Customers have made the connection between fast fashion/consumerism and a lack of sustainability – there is no going back now. And there is a distinct sense of unease surrounding the industry as a result. But do environmental issues really threaten to damage behemoth fashion brands so much that they might actually be forced to change?

The UK fashion industry today at a glance

  • In the UK we buy more clothes per person than any other European country, 26.7kg of fashion items per year, compared with 16.7kg in Germany and 12.6kg in Sweden.
  • Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing in the UK is recycled into new clothing.
  • The fashion industry is worth more than £32bn to the UK economy.
  • Brexit is creating a lot of uncertainty. 90% of UK fashion designers voted Remain and the industry is made up of a workforce that includes at least 10,000 European staff. According to the British Fashion Council Brexit could cost the industry £900 million in tariffs.

Why now?

Can Fashion No Longer Afford to Ignore the Sustainability Issue? Brand Speak Market Research
All pictures by Stefan Jakubowski for The Glass Pineapple

Earlier this year Extinction Rebellion called on the British Fashion Council to cancel fashion week. Although this may sound preposterous to anyone with even a tenuous link to the industry it’s actually not that much of a leap.

The Swedish Fashion Council, for example, cancelled Stockholm fashion week this year – why? Because they are looking to find more sustainable ways of promoting their industry and don’t consider a fashion week to be an environmentally friendly choice.

Although London Fashion Week went ahead as planned it was rife with protests – so dedicated were they that it was impossible for fashionistas to simply sweep past in this season’s Burberry and ignore them. Of course Extinction Rebellion was there – and this time people were listening, creating a general sense that the designer shades had fallen from everyone’s eyes, consumers and labels alike.

There is just too much awareness now of carbon footprints, energy consumption consequences, wasteful practices and pollution for all but the most willfully ignorant to continue things as they were before. This sea change was reflected on catwalks and in events surrounding the three fashion weeks of Europe (London, Paris and Milan).

  • For the first time we heard the phrase ‘deadstock’ – unsold clothes from past seasons – being bandied around backstage by some of the biggest designers.
  • It wasn’t just all about the new for this season – London based Slingshot PR, for example, promoted Portobello Green, which was a curated edit of vintage clothes.
  • Designer Roland Mouret revealed he is on a mission against the wastefulness of single-use clothes hangers – he refers to them as “the plastic straws of the fashion industry.” His collection also featured upcycled baseball caps by the Berlin milliners ReHats.
  • Suddenly it was all about designer rentals, retro looks from the attic and anything preloved.
  • In Milan this season Gucci staged an entirely carbon neutral show and the label promised to become an entirely carbon-neutral company. Its CEO, Marco Bizzarri, said the brand had considered rethinking fashion shows altogether, but felt technology was not yet sufficiently advanced to replace the practice.

The seeds for this may have been sown far earlier – for example, designer Vivienne Westwood staged a climate change rebellion last season and you can see members of Extinction Rebellion in the new Stella McCartney campaign.

Plus, this year the BFC announced the launch of the Institute of Positive Fashion, a sustainability initiative designed to establish industry standards that ‘encourage’ greener business models. But is this switch to sustainability a signpost of genuine change that the entire industry needs to follow or just a passing trend?

Power to the people..

In fashion, it is generally the designers and the labels that set the trends and smaller brands and consumers who slavishly follow. However, the current focus on sustainability and climate change awareness is travelling from the customers at the bottom of the food chain right up through the industry.

  • Research by sustainable clothing brand, Thought, found that a quarter of UK shoppers are intentionally reducing the amount of fast fashion they buy and around a third now proactively avoid garments they might only wear once
  • A report by Fashion Retail Academy earlier this year found that consumers are now 13% more likely to choose more expensive, longer-lasting clothes over cheaper items with a shorter lifespan
  • This is part of a wider move towards a more sustainable lifestyle – for example 56% are using less plastic and 38% walk or cycle instead of using a car.
  • Brands that focus on renting designer pieces or peer-to-peer fashion rental – such as MyWardrobe.com and Hurr Collective are thriving while many high street fashion brands announced losses in recent years.

In May last year a drop of 2.4% on a like-for-like basis year on year in the three months to 28 April was revealed for non-food retail sales in the UK across stores and online. This was the biggest decrease since March 2009.

There were many contributing factors here – and the statistic doesn’t just cover fashion – but the fall in sales was a shock. It may also have served to provide the motivation that some fashion brands required to start looking more closely at what consumers really want.

And, for many, that has meant taking a more environmentally friendly approach. For example, all the evidence suggests that fast-fashion brands like H&M are losing millennial customers and this has triggered a significant refocus at the retailer. Its most recent advert for the 2019 H&M Conscious Collection is out now and promotes ‘Fashion Made From Recycled PET Bottles.’ It’s rather a departure from the tools that the retailer has used to sell fashion in the past and instead focuses on reusing and recycling. It even features the words ‘wear it. And wear it again.’

Customers want brands to help them do more

Customers are increasingly mindful of sustainability and the supply chain of clothes manufacturing, and even the largest ships on the fashion sea are beginning to turn in the same direction in order to remain competitive. Why? Because there is now a very real danger of losing customers and market share if they don’t.

It’s not just about sustainability as a box ticking exercise anymore but a real and genuine way to make a difference. And this really matters to consumers. In fact 88% of consumers want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical in their daily life.

It’s no longer simply enough for a brand to talk about its values and commitment to social responsibility – consumers want to align themselves with brands that will proactively help them to live out their own values.

Can Fashion No Longer Afford to Ignore the Sustainability Issue? Brand Speak Market Research

The numbers make sense too

Of course big names in fashion are unlikely to go in this direction purely out of the goodness of their own heart. Style sustainability is now also beginning to make financial sense too. For example, in the latest Nielsen report “How and Why Sustainability is Gaining Momentum with Customers” Nielsen found that products with sustainability claims generally outperformed the growth rate of total products in their respective categories. In short: consumers prefer sustainable brands.

But where does this leave the UK fashion industry, currently wallowing in its latest London Fashion Week hangover? One of the statistics so often bandied around is that fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil.

So, if sustainability considerations have forced their way to the top of the agenda then there must be a genuine sense that these issues are real and worth acting on. But can the sector really change?

Whether it’s because of the uncertainty being created by Brexit or the recent years of declining sales, suddenly the industry is listening to how much consumers want to align themselves with brands that enable them to live more sustainable lives.

Whether that means we’re about to see the kind of change that will leave cheaper, less sustainable, high volume brands as fashion roadkill, who knows. But those who plan to ignore the issue should be wary. In the words of activist Greta Thunberg:

change is coming whether they like it or not

( Images shot by Stefan Jakubowski for The Glass Pineapple )

Jeremy Braune

View posts by Jeremy Braune
Jeremy specialises in delivering market research and consultancy programmes that enable organisations to maximise the impact of their brands, products and services, communications and customer experience delivery.His company, Brandspeak, has offices in London and Bristol and since 2004 it has been helping companies all over the UK and globally.Jeremy has also been a guest lecturer and speaker on London Business School's acclaimed MBA course, on the subject of Brands and Branding.

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