Changing Consumer Demands are Redefining the Future of the Fashion Industry

Changing Demands

Transparent and socially responsible

In recent years, fashion consumers began to pay more attention to the true costs of the fashion industry: they are concerned about the low wages paid to the workers in the factories; the unsafe working environments in the countries where fashions are made; the pollution that garment manufacturing process creates; and the amount of fashion waste dumped into landfill. At the same time, consumers also want more personalised products to show their individuality and express their values, and demand products and shopping experiences that make them feel special. These changing consumer demands are driving the development of fashion and redefining the future of the industry.

Historically, the fashion industry had two distinct seasons: spring/summer lines debut on runways in early September, and autumn/winter lines were introduced in February. The staggered timeline was designed to give brands enough time to gauge the interest of retail buyers and customers. In the time between when fashions are introduced and when they arrive on store shelves, brands assess demand so that they can manufacture the right number of garments for the season.  The rise of fast fashion changes it all. The fashion industry now expedites the process to get more clothing in the hands of consumers faster. It results in close to 52 “micro fashion seasons” per year, with new items coming in all the time.

Fast fashion labels can achieve this because they take advantage of cheap labour in developing countries, manufacturing their garments in sweatshops with little or no regard for the working conditions of the workers and the negative impacts chemicals and other elements have on those workers and the environment.  The term sweatshop was first used in the nineteenth century to describe sewing factories where the conditions were hot, crowded and airless, and the workers paid a minimum wage for 16-hour working days. In 1913 a fire in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 workers; exactly a century later, the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1100 workers and raised new calls for reform. 

Consumer lobbying groups are also raising awareness and influencing consumer demand for drastic industry change. This has led to both Millennials and Gen Z pushing for a new level of transparency around the ecological footprint and entire life cycle of fashion products. They demand fashion brands to take more social responsibility and provide consumers with transparent information on the origins, composition and carbon footprint of what they purchase and wear, as well as the wages and working conditions of the workers who made their garments. Studies have shown that 65-70 percent of consumers under 35 around the world report that they will choose brands or retailers based on their ethical practices. They increasingly back their beliefs with their shopping habits, favouring brands that are aligned with their values and avoiding those that aren’t. These young buyers are demanding more transparency and forcing fashion brands to pay more attention to sourcing factors.

Over the last two decades ethical fashion – developing, producing and distributing apparel, accessories, and footwear in a way that preserves the planet and its inhabitants – has become not only an integral part of the industry, but also a key strategic initiative of many big and small players. As the commercial advantage of brands investing in ethical fashion becomes increasingly evident, companies from H&M to Gucci and from Levi’s to Gap have evolved their missions to align with shifting consumer demands. Instead of fast fashion, demands for ethical, slow, sustainable and fair-trade fashion are on the rise.

Ethics and Fashion

Fair Trade Fashion

Focuses specifically on the working conditions of the workers.

Sustainable Fashion

Focuses more on the environmental impact of clothing. It focuses on how different fibres and production methods negatively impact the environment, and seeks to create a circular system that lessens the human impact on the environment through the consumption of clothing.

Ethical Fashion

focuses on both the social and environmental impact of fashion, seeking to improve the working conditions of workers, along with the environmental impact of the clothing production process.

Slow Fashion

Is the direct opposite of fast fashion, focusing on creating garments with quality and longevity in mind. Though slow fashion is not always sustainable, ethical or supports fair trade, many slow fashion brands are created with these principles in mind. Creating garments with quality and longevity in mind reduces the strain on workers, as they aren’t pressured to meet the insane deadlines and demands perpetuated by the fast fashion industry, and reduces the strain on the environment, as the higher quality items last longer, which means they don’t need to be replaced as frequently as items of lower quality.

Examples of Ethical Fashion

The demand for greater social responsibility and transparency through the fashion supply chain offers opportunities to fashion businesses which rigorously audit their business practices to identify potential areas that may erode consumer trust and highlight their best practices to create a competitive edge. Some use new technologies such as blockchain to boost transparency in the supply chain, and share information with their consumers.

Brunello Cucinelli

Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli pays his employees a premium above the going rate and takes a lower mark-up than most of his luxury brand competitors, makes sure his company’s practices preserve the environment, and ensures that the cashmere and other raw materials he sources from Mongolia, India and elsewhere are obtained in a sustainable and fair-trade manner.

Patagonia

Patagonia is a designer of outdoor clothing and gear for climbing, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding, fly fishing and trail running. Like most clothing companies, they do not make their own products, nor do they own any of the factories that do. They design, test, market and sell Patagonia gear and pay other companies with the technical expertise and equipment, to produce the fabrics and do the actual cutting and sewing. 

Patagonia’s brand mission statement is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” It is fair-trade certified for all its sewing products, and publicly discloses its first-tier suppliers. The company prides itself on its long-lasting products and founder Yvon Chouinard encourages consumers not to buy unnecessary amounts of clothes. He has been wearing some of the same Patagonia pieces for a decade.

From its beginning in 1973, it tried to work with factories that share its values of quality and integrity. It was one of the first fashion brands that reviewed factories both for product quality and working conditions. When considering new factories, or evaluating current ones, it takes a fourfold vetting approach, one that includes social and environmental practices equally with quality standards and business requirements like financial stability, adequate capacity, and fair pricing. 

This practice is rare in the apparel business and keeps the brand out of factories that don’t share the same social and environmental values. They have also trained their sourcing and supply planning teams in responsible purchasing practices to minimise the negative impact on the factory workers and the environment. The nearly two thousand people who work directly in Patagonia’s offices, stores, and distribution centres are paid fairly and enjoy good benefits, including generous health care, subsidised child care (in Ventura and Reno), flexible work schedules and paid time off for environmental internships. 

Target Australia

Taking their social responsibility seriously and ensuring goods are produced ethically, Target Australia established a process to conduct regular and frequent factory audits. The first step is soft-auditing where Target buyers meet the factory owners face-to-face to “have the feel”; this is followed by formal, technical audits where the factories’ production capacity, capability, and ethical practice are examined. Target has a policy of zero tolerance for child labour, unsafe working environments, lack of breaks for workers or bribery. There are more than 600 factories overseas manufacturing goods for Target. On average it terminates one factory each week for non-compliance. A-grade factories will be reviewed every 6 months formally, with 300 Target team members in Asia doing regular factory visits, not just checking product quality but also working as inspectors for any unethical practice.

Everlane

One of the first next-generation apparel brands Everlane provides detailed information about the factories, costs and raw materials sources for its clothing. It was launched in 2011 as a direct-to-consumer clothing brand committed to “radical transparency,” Everlane has used its website and social media to offer customers a glimpse into its factories around the world, giving voice to the workers making its garments and sharing a price breakdown of each product it sells. 

Today, Everlane is dropping an average of six new items into its line-up each month. It uses new approaches to retailing, making use of steady product launches, waiting lists and limited inventory to both predict and drive demand, creating a sense of urgency and exclusivity around its products Everlane uses its waiting lists, along with real-time data and customer feedback, to make inventory decisions. When in doubt, it stocks less. And when items sell out, Everlane can restock quickly due to its close relationships with its more than two dozen factories worldwide. All of this generates the spectre of scarcity. Customers sign up for early access to new clothes and to be notified when popular ones are back. 

To avoid the appearance of discounting, Everlane developed a Choose What You Pay model for overstocked items, where customers can pick up a garment for one of three different prices. The website explains that the lowest one lets Everlane recoup its costs while paying more allows it to invest in future product development. Twelve percent of shoppers opt to pay more.

For instance, the Slim Trouser (originally $98) is available for $47, $56, or $89. The lowest price comes at a cost: shame. The discounted $47 option, according to the company’s website, does not grant Everlane a profit. Given the company’s principle of transparency, Everlane does not shy away from letting their customers know where their money goes.

$47 Option

Here is what happens when the customer selects the $47 option. The invisible cost is not just the personal shame, it is the human cost that comes with cheaper fashion. 

$56 Option

Here is what appears when the customer selects the $56 option.  

$89 Option

If the customer selects the $89 option, he will miss out on the bulk of the sale but avoid the shame-shopping and help the company and its employees. The customer even gets an appreciative “Thanks!” from the copy team.

Everlane has become known for its cost transparency. On its website, the company openly breaks down how much it costs to make its clothing (labor, materials, transporting the apparel and duties). It compares its prices with those of traditional retailers. One dress, for instance, is $98 at Everlane, and Everlane claims traditional retailers would sell the dress for $190. Everlane also keeps costs down by operating strictly as an e-commerce business, aside from occasional pop-up shops. (https://www.everlane.com/choose-what-you-pay)

H&M and Zara

Even Fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara are trying to diminish the black and white nature of cheaper versus environmentally-friendly purchases. In early 2017, both pulled out of the annual Dhaka Apparel Summit, sending a message that they will join efforts to pressure Bangladesh into ending poor working conditions and human rights violations in their garment industry. Zara parent Inditex reportedly has a team of 150 sustainability professionals.