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Consumer attitudes to sustainability: fad or future?

Sensemaking / Consumer attitudes to sustainability: fad or future?

Insights from our sustainability briefing at The Communications Store 2018 Autumn/Winter Press Day

By George Harding-Rolls / 22 May 2018

How big is the market for purpose led brands?

The figures speak for themselves; the UK ethical consumption market is now worth £81.3 billion and growing five times faster than other sectors. Looking at the statistics it’s clear this is about demographics. So called ‘aspirationals’, defined by their love of shopping, desire for responsible consumption, and their trust in brands, are reaching their prime consuming years and currently make up about 40% of the global buying public. That’s an awful lot of potential customers whose eyes are firmly on your brand’s sustainability credentials. And by the looks of things, they’re putting their money where their values lie.


So what are the factors driving this shift in consumers ethical expectations?

Awareness of the myriad ethical issues around fast fashion has been rising for sometime, further spurred by disasters like the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 and the pervasive plastic pollution pandemic. Movements like #whomademyclothes, Fashion Revolution and Fashion for Good are also guiding consumers to think more responsibly about their choices and the provenance of what they buy.

With increased transparency and coverage, consumers are learning to hold brands to account for their ethics. A 2017 Edelman report found that 57% of consumers would boycott a brand that doesn’t share their values, and, as that list of values increasingly includes sustainability, brands are facing unprecedented scrutiny. Instead, aspirationals are shifting their support to companies and brands that have a purpose of making a positive difference in society through their products, services, and operations.

We’re also seeing a rise of new business models, offering consumers a new ways to get their products, such as product-as-a-service, subscription and sharing models. Traditional models of consumption are linear: take, make, throw away. One of the most exciting areas of development, particularly in fashion, is the shift to the circular and sharing economy. These innovative models ask the question ‘how can we redesign today’s wasteful, linear systems so that they keep resources in use for as long as possible and maximise their value, while maintaining current levels of convenience, or even improving on them?’

We’re seeing intriguing innovations here, such as Rent the Runway (which hopes to put H&M out of business) and Singapore’s Style Theory, both of which use the sharing economy to give consumers new options and a less wasteful experience.


What else is shaking up sustainable fashion?

Consumer attitudes are just one part of the system. In our Future of Sustainability report, we looked at how several trends are converging at once to create the conditions for system-wide shift in apparel. So while consumers are demanding more on transparency, human rights and sustainable materials, there’s also a whole slew of other trends bubbling up; from automation, livelihoods and diminishing resources, to microplastics, blockchain for transparency and social action. Crucially, these trends aren’t acting in isolation - they’re combining to put pressure on the system from all sides. There is a huge amount of innovative activity across the system, but this has yet to link up to create significant change.

And how should brands be responding?

First, get your own house in order. Making sure the product that’s going to market is as ethical as it can be, thinking systemically about the product and its impact: from livelihoods and supply chain inequality to microfibre pollution, sustainable materials and end-of-life. 

Secondly, even with the proliferation of new business models, brands still hold huge cultural capital and influence. While the SDGs can act as a North Star for purpose-led brands, and an opportunity to make a particular global challenge your own, it’s important that brands leverage change in more than just their immediate environment and employ their social influence for good.

Think Patagonia going beyond the circular economy and even beyond ocean plastics to champion the movement encouraging people to turn out to vote. Could we imagine a world where Versace tackles FGM, where Ted Baker champions community energy?

There’s a streak of very human elements that fashion can foreground for people - like self-esteem, creativity, belonging and authenticity. Brands should use their immense cultural power to hold up a mirror to consumers show that there’s a different set of values to which we can subscribe, not just in fashion but across our lives.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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