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Sustainable Fashion: Where We Are Today

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In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Elizabeth Shobert shares her findings on some recent research Stylesage has conducted around sustainability in e-commerce. Elizabeth is a regular writer on WhichPLM, and is VP of Marketing at Stylesage.

When it comes to making environmentally and socially responsible fashion choices, both the consumer and fashion industry at large have a long way to go. Yet, despite the distance we still need to travel, to bridge the gap between intent and meaningful action, progress has been made. Further complicating the issue, much of the industry has struggled to find reliable and meaningful data points to benchmark their efforts around sustainability. So today, let’s dig into some of the data highlighting where we’ve come from in terms of sustainable fashion, and where we still need to make strides. 

The growth of sustainably marketed products is remarkable

To understand the shift in consumer awareness around sustainability that has taken place, look no further than data showing the growth behind apparel products sold online that make mention of keywords like “eco”, “recycled”, “sustainable”, and others. From January 2019 to present, we’ve seen a 500 percent increase in products with sustainable language in their descriptions in the US, and nearly 600 percent in the UK.

What does this increase represent? At a surface level, it indicates that fashion brands have cottoned on to the fact that consumers like to see sustainable language when shopping online, and some may even be more likely to buy when they do see it. But other than making us feel a bit better about our choices, does the usage of sustainable language actually amount to tangible action on behalf of the retailers? That question is the perfect segue to our next data point.

Marketing of sustainability is prevalent, but substantiation is less frequent

As we just mentioned, sustainable marketing language abounds, but StyleSage research has shown that a much smaller percentage of these products use credible industry organizations and certifications like “Better Cotton Initiative”, “OEKO-TEX”, or “1% For The Planet” to back up their sustainability claims. We took a look specifically at a set of US retailers and saw that while ten percent of retailers’ online products used some type of sustainable marketing language, only one percent of all products actually supported their sustainability claims with reliable industry certifications.

While there could be many reasons for omitting those credentials in product descriptions, from perceived lack of consumer interest to non-participation in said organizations, that gap is an important one to recognize as it’s one reason why many retailers get accused of “greenwashing”. As consumer awareness of the “greenwashing” phenomenon rises, as does a more sophisticated understanding of reliable eco certifications, backing up and measuring your sustainability claims will be an even more important public-facing measure that fashion brands will need to undertake.

There are common themes in the sustainable choices consumers have

Have you ever thought about which types of recycled apparel and materials end up online for us to shop? It’s a question that researchers from the University of Delaware recently addressed. They dug into the data behind which types of recycled products are most likely to feature in US retailers’ assortments, and their findings were eye-opening, to say the least. Utilizing StyleSage data, they saw that recycled clothing sold in the US market heavily relies on certain fiber content “due to raw material supply constraints and current recycling technology.” They found that, specifically, polyester comprises more than half of the recycled fibers in clothing, distantly followed by nylon and cotton.

And when it comes to 100% recycled products, they discovered that certain categories of products tend to over-index compared to their share of the full assortment. Specifically, you’re more likely to find 100% recycled outerwear, tops, and shorts, but less likely find dresses and intimates.

Taken altogether, we get a sense of the choices out there for shoppers, as well as the very real opportunities in both materials and product assortments that are there for forward-thinking retailers to capture.

The future of sustainable fashion is bright, yet the need for better choices and more clearly defined practices has never been more urgent.   There’s no time like the present, right?

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.