Can Rethinking Consumption Ever Really Be Fashionable?

The conversations began years ago. About fashion’s environmental impact and what’s to be done about it. About the need for sustainability and what’s to be done about it. About the notion of curbing consumption and what’s to be done about it.

While no one can seem to put a finger on a consistent and accurate number to reflect global clothing consumption, it’s a lot. And the simple fix might seem to those outside the industry to be: make less, buy less and the impact shrinks.

But for a sector driven, funded and fueled by its ability to create desire, endeavoring to pull back on constantly pushing newness seems a counterintuitive ask, despite what it may mean for the environment. And for consumers who have shown signs of life in holiday purchasing as disposable income remains diverted from experiential luxuries in favor of personal item splurges and gifting, it could also appear that curbing consumption won’t be a trend backed by many.

It turns out, however, that if 2020 has taught fashion anything, it’s that it can’t rely on constant consumption for nonessentials. Nor can consumers rely on the constant ability to consume them.

Stripping fashion’s consumption conundrum down to bare bones: if clothing buying habits don’t return to pre-pandemic levels for the next two to five years, brands are going to have to swiftly (and accurately) align inventory levels with potentially reduced demand post-December. They’ll have to revisit their supply chain operations to match the lower demand (read: greater agility and data-driven demand planning). And they’ll have to find new ways to generate capital in tandem.

The answer lies in greater sustainability, whether both sides of the consumption aisle have grappled with that or not.

“In terms of the buying less, I don’t think you’re going to see that in this holiday season and certainly not on the basis of sustainability,” Sarah Willersdorf, managing director and partner and global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group, told WWD. “Right now we’re in the midst of COVID-19, but we’re also in the midst of an economic contraction that’s different in different parts of the world. And certainly what we’ve seen during past recessions is that, actually, often the very top end of the market continues to spend and is pretty protected and you’ll see the bottom end of the market either buying more really value products and occasionally saving to stretch up to true luxury. What you tend to see is that middle price points and brands that sit in the middle get a little bit more squeezed.”

Beyond holiday, however, consumers will continue to rethink their closets.

“I think there is a desire of consumers to buy less; whether that comes through in reality is going to be tricky. But what I would say is we certainly think the closet of the future is going to look different than the closet or wardrobe today,” Willersdorf said. “There will absolutely be full-price new inventory, but there will also be more resold or secondhand inventory. And for some parts of the market there will be a component of the wardrobe that is fulfilled through rental.”

The Three “Rs”

Rental, resale and repair may be the three “Rs” that finally start to shift fashion consumption. But if brands embrace these Rs with innovation at the fore rather than fear, it might prove a manifold win that doesn’t compromise bottom lines.

“If we want to curb the impact of the fashion industry, one of the best strategies to adopt is to increase the use of the products that are being made. And, actually, that doesn’t necessarily mean doing less or having less — it just means different ways of accessing or using garments,” said Francois Souchet, who leads Make Fashion Circular at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We see that there’s a growth in models like rental, resale or even more organic, like swapping, sharing, reselling or restyling. And I think those strategies, if pushed to scale, really have the potential to contribute to curbing the environmental impact and resource consumption in the fashion industry without necessarily taking away the excitement and pleasure that comes from changing styles or expressing yourself for customers.”

It means doing more with less, which could easily be counted among 2020’s mantras.

“In a way it’s about developing models so clothing is used more so you need less stuff rather than just incentivizing a rapid decrease in purchasing,” Souchet said. “Fundamentally, what you want is to shift the system from one where a lot of the value is created by purely consumption and billions of dollars in marketing every year to make sure that people always want more stuff, into providing people with the opportunity to use that stuff to share or circulate it so that we create more value from what’s already in the economy without relying on ever producing more, which is what creates so much of the impact on the industry.”

Companies like The RealReal, Vestiaire Collective, ThredUp and Depop have created successful marketplaces built entirely around giving existing fashion a new life and facilitating the kind of treasure-hunt shopping experience (part of what companies like T.J. Maxx have thrived on) that keeps consumers coming back at a time when many brands are still grasping for relevance and trying to drum it up at all costs.

“This is a very strong business opportunity for the fashion industry to adopt and I feel seeing more and more fashion companies venturing into resale or into rental really shows that leading organizations are getting that understanding and really willing to try different models,” Souchet said.

What’s more, if additional resale and rental models mean less need for virgin apparel, it would also mean reduced costs for an industry constantly in pursuit of saving a dime. “If we manage to collect more clothing and recycle more clothing that can also help decrease the reliance on virgin resources, especially finite ones like oil, while continuing to provide opportunities for the industry,” he added. “The decision aspect of which clothing is being manufactured is also to minimize cost, and that [production] comes at a massive cost for the workers and also for the environment. So, if we change the model toward producing less clothing but better and in better conditions, I think that will also have positive outcomes for people across the supply chain and workers across the supply chain.”

From a materials perspective, using less of course has its own upsides for the environment.

“Reduced consumption would impact the environment differently for different materials,” said Karla Magruder, founder of Accelerating Circularity, a collaborative effort to accelerate the textile industry’s move from linear to circular. “Polyester, cotton and viscose are the main apparel fibers. Reduced use of virgin polyester would have impacts on fossil fuel consumption, cotton on agriculture and viscose on forests.”

At present, Souchet said rental and resale models account for just 2 to 3 percent of the fashion industry’s revenues, so investments in scaling the concepts could provide considerable opportunity — both economically and environmentally.

“One of the things that we saw when we did our report in 2017 is that if the lifespan of garments were to be doubled, the impact of the industry could be nearly halved,” he said. “So there’s a massive opportunity.”

Quality Over Mass

Fashion’s other opportunity in shifting consumption patterns lies in a much greater focus on quality over mass. But this can’t only be realized through higher price points.

“If the consumers decide to shop less there are other ways for companies to make money,” Magruder said. “Brands and retailers are already looking at new business models that will allow companies to derive value by resale, rental and repair. We also have to take into consideration the ability of consumers to ‘buy better.’ For many this means selling higher-priced items that deliver greater longevity. Realistically, some consumers are just not going to have the money to buy better. The responsibility for better is in the hands of the brands and retailers. It is possible to create garments with longevity that are not more expensive; however, it takes engineering and planning.”

That means designing garments thoughtfully and with quality in mind from the start, and beyond engineering and planning, Souchet said the answer could lie in denim.

“Today a lot of product creation has shifted so that the products will look best when they’re on the shelves and from then on they will mostly degrade in terms of quality. But if you design products so that they get better with time or they become more unique, more interesting visually with time, then you also shift the balance and can really increase the use of product,” he said. “You can take raw denim as an example; like, old secondhand Levi’s trade for nearly the same price — if not more — than new Levi’s because they are unique, they have that kind of desirability to it…and I think just exploring that opportunity deeper provides critical changes for the industry.”

However it’s managed, sustainability, particularly curbing production and consumption, can’t be a back-burner project that slips down the list of priorities when other issues present themselves as more pressing. And progress can’t afford to wane.

“For the last several years we have developed a Pulse report which tracks the industry’s progress on sustainability, and whilst it is improving each year, we saw back in 2019 that whilst there was improvement it was at a slower growth rate than prior years,” Willersdorf said. “Brands will be at an economic cost disadvantage if they do nothing.”

Expounding on that point, she added, “If we think about resource scarcity and rising commodity prices globally, more sustainable sourcing and manufacturing — whilst there’s often up-front investment needed — will be more economic over the long run. And then…we do expect to see much more regulation — for example, tariffs and taxes — to try and accelerate sustainability. So there also could be an added true cost to business by not doing things in a sustainable or responsible way.”

Sustainability will be what helps fashion regenerate both excitement (a story consumers will increasingly buy into) and capital (which will be critically key for survival and to sustain a less risky future) as it works to emerge from a pandemic-inflamed slump.

And for Magruder, the bottom line is simply that fashion production and consumption can’t go on unchecked.

“The change in our consumption habits is a case in point — we purchase far more clothing now than 10 or 15 years ago,” she said. “In our Research & Mapping report, we found that in 2017 consumers discarded 11.3 million tons of textile waste into landfill and incineration. This is obviously not sustainable so it’s a habit that has got to change.”

Rethinking consumption, it turns out, could actually be fashionable for fashion because, according to Willersdorf, “It’s not telling consumers not to spend at all, but it is about being more thoughtful and in luxury it’s about buying fewer, higher-quality items. It’s about thinking about end of life of these items and that could mean everything from the ability to resell or purchase items through secondhand commerce, it could be about buying from brands who are starting to truly think about the circularity of their ecosystem, so I don’t think [fashion and sustainable consumption] are at odds with one another.”

Gabriela Hearst’s recent appointment as creative director of Chloé, she added, could be counted among fashion’s most recent evidence of a shift afoot.

“Since her brand was founded in 2015, over the last five years she built a beautiful luxury brand focused on the principles of sustainability and responsibility, but not trading off craftsmanship, timelessness and beautiful products,” Willersdorf said. “I think it’s a real testament to the importance of all of that that she is now being appointed creative director of a larger brand. I think it’s actually a great example of breaking the tradeoff between quality, design, craftsmanship and sustainability.”

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