There’s no denying that conscious consumerism is in fashion. While the onus is often placed on the consumer to shop more consciously, there are also ways that fashion brands can encourage more responsible consumption habits through their actions.
Driven by a commitment to making a positive social, environmental, and economic impact through purchasing decisions, conscious consumers place a lot of importance on a brand’s values and actions. When it comes to buying fashion, conscious consumers consider a host of factors, from working conditions of the people who made their clothes to the environmental footprint, treatment of animals, plus material type and quality.
But how can fashion brands make a meaningful contribution to the conscious conversation? Read on to discover Green Story’s tips to help fashion customers buy better through four simple brand-led strategies.
Although the term ‘Conscious Consumerism’ has seen an increase in usage over recent years, it is not a new phenomenon. According to author and American history professor Lawrence Glickman, conscious consumerism can be traced back to the 1790s. Fast forward to modern times, and we find ourselves living in an era where conversations about climate change and social justice are more relevant than ever.
As a driver of trends and social norms, fashion has an undeniably important role to play in supporting better shopping habits. Here’s why: People are now consuming at a rate much higher than at any other time in history — when it comes to clothing, an estimated 80 to 150 billion garments are produced every year. Even on the low end of the scale, that’s around 400% more than what was produced 20 years ago.
Fashion brands have been slow to adopt conscious practices that aim to reduce production and consumption — this has been largely driven by consumers adjusting their behaviour. But the fact is: corporations that own a large part of the market-share need to take some accountability for promoting a culture of ‘disposability’ in the first place. After all, they are the ones that decide how and where to manufacture a product, and how to pack, market, and sell it. Therefore, to slow down global consumption patterns, industry-leading brands need to become champions of conscious consumerism.
Promoting conscious consumerism also offers a competitive edge. Consumers no longer want to associate with companies that are unsympathetic towards causes like environmentalism and human rights. This is evident in the case of Boohoo’s labor supply scandal in 2020, which wiped out more than £1 billion from its market value one a week.
Brands that make it easy for consumers to shop better succeed in the long run. Here are four ways that fashion brands can support conscious consumption of their products.
Markdowns are a great marketing strategy used by brands to encourage more sales in a short time. For consumers, it presents a great opportunity to not only purchase items they have wanted to buy for a while but also to indulge in a good dose of impulsive shopping. While this may seem like a win-win situation from the point of view of both the brands and the consumers, it does not take into account the environmental damage caused by such rampant mindless consumption.
Additionally, brands that make markdowns a regular part of their marketing strategy may end up decreasing the value attached to their products in the long run. If customers are aware that a brand offers markdowns regularly, they will simply wait till then to make a purchase rather than buy it at full price.
Luxury brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Dries Van Noten and Tiffany & Co are famous for never going on sale, a decision which preserves brand prestige. Increasingly, this attitude is being adopted by contemporary and high street brands too. While still relatively uncommon for these categories to reject markdowns altogether, brands like Patagonia, Allbirds, Everlane, Ganni, and Veja are among those that boycott sales days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In fact, Allbirds actually raises its prices by $1 and donates the profits to environmental charities on these days.
By limiting markdowns, companies can promote better shopping habits, training their customers to shop full price (or not at all), while also keeping their brand value intact.
Online shopping often comes with the risk of purchased products being different from what is portrayed on the website. To mitigate this, the process of returns and refunds needs to be as quick and simple as possible. For fashion customers, easy returns enhance the online shopping experience by giving them the option of ordering multiple items (sometimes the same outfit in different sizes — a practice called bracketing) to try in the comfort of their homes – and sending back what they don’t want. But is the consumer experience worth the environmental cost?
According to a survey by National Retail Federation, retail returns increased to $761 Billion in 2021, which accounts for an average of 16.6 percent of total U.S. retail sales. Similarly, a RARC report found that every year, five billion pounds of returned products and packaging ends up in landfills.
In order to reduce returns, brands can do the following:
- Represent products accurately through high-quality pictures and videos, and relevant product descriptions
- Ship correct orders the first time by investing in inventory management systems
- Provide accurate sizing guides and implement fitting tools
- Offer real-time support
- Encourage reviews and feedback
Similarly, brands can choose not to offer free returns to disincentivise consumers from bracketing and buying more than they actually want or need when shopping online. In May 2022, Inditex-owned Zara announced the end of free returns, citing the environmental impact of returns. This could signal the end for no questions asked returns culture in fashion.
Encouraging Repair and Resale
The two Rs of a conscious consumer’s vocabulary are here to stay and companies should use them as inspiration for their brand strategy.
Some luxury brands (Hermès, Chanel, Mulberry) have started offering repair services but that is not accessible or affordable for the average consumer. To combat the huge number of barely-damaged items that end up in landfills, repair services need to be more widely available. High-street brands can either build their own repair shops or collaborate with companies such as Sojo, Clothes Doctor, The Seam, etc.
Resale is already seeing a steady rise in the industry, so jumping on the bandwagon is a pretty sound business decision. According to the Resale Report by ThreadUP, the U.S. secondhand market is expected to more than double by 2026, reaching $82 Billion.
Educate and Communicate Transparently
Consumers want to make better shopping decisions, and they are increasingly looking toward brands to fill the gaps in their knowledge. This can be done in two ways:
Firstly, by educating consumers about certifications, sustainability jargon, and accurate in-depth information about materials and processes. For example, consumers who engage in regular retail returns might believe that the products they are returning will go back on the racks to be sold off. By educating the customers about the actual process of returns, including the statistics about most returns ending up in landfills, they can change consumer behaviour.
Secondly, by being more transparent about the company values, supply chain, production costs, environmental footprint, and employee experiences. Greenwashing is no longer a viable marketing strategy. In order to build trust, brands now need to focus on building communities where consumers can feel free to communicate their needs and challenges, while also providing the company with honest feedback.
PANGAIA is a good example of integrating transparency and consumer education into its brand ethos. Through their collaboration with Green Story, they not only measure their company’s environmental impact but also communicate it to their customers along the way.
To sum it up, the looming climate crisis and increasing social inequality is forcing people to rethink their consumption habits. In fashion, it will take the commitment of both consumers and brands to turn the tide on rampant consumption. Building a better future requires greater transparency, education, innovation, leadership, as well as collaboration between all stakeholders. Only brands that are willing to acknowledge their part in the system, and work towards building a better one, will end up on the right side of history.
About Shahmeen Lalani
Shahmeen Lalani is a fashion designer with 6+ years of industry experience in designing, styling and art direction. These days she spends her time learning about, and advocating for, sustainability in the fashion community.