Sustainability in the fashion sector is decades old now. It started when apparel companies began to introduce environmental practices into their businesses in the late 1980s. It's part of the movements creating more awareness on numerous environmental problems since the 1960s. The movement started gaining momentum as disastrous events in the textile and apparel industry impacted the world, consumers and businesses alike, and contributed to the rise of sustainable fashion over the last 30 years. The catastrophic event in Dhaka’s Rana Plaza in 2013 was perhaps the watershed moment after which sustainability in fashion was no longer just on paper and in seminars. The world watched in horror as 1,134 workers lost their lives and another 2,500 sustained damaging injuries. Consumers in developed countries were riddled with guilt as they now came to know the details of the provenance of their garments.
Sustainability and ethics-driven consumers
The evolved consumer of the 2020s is perhaps the most heightened in their consciousness of what climate change means, how the wasteful consumption culture is degrading the planet continuously with business models like fast fashion – easy come, easy go, and enormously wasteful and damaging. The indulgent ‘selfi-moments’ social influencers are no longer icons of style and trend as they are being edged out by social influencers who understand what environmental consciousness is and have changed the narrative to ‘less is more’.
From pre-loved fashion items going on sale to increasing the longevity of clothing and accessories, ethical consumption is gaining grounds. It is just not about wasteful consumption but also the use of material that does not deplete the Earth’s natural resources and working and living conditions of people who produce textiles and garments. What may have been seen as socialistic and utopian philosophy in the past is now a living reality that the fashion industry worldwide has picked up on and working to change their working models and narratives.
Europe’s Institute of Entrepreneurship Development cites that 85 per cent of consumers today are conscious of the effect their behavior has on the planet and 34 per cent are willing to spend more to support sustainable and ethical consumerism with their product choices. The Horizon programme run by the EU is about supporting young European entrepreneurs to build in sustainability and ethical sourcing as one of their businesses’ key pillars.
Consumers in a dilemma
In February 2023, Deloitte Netherlands published a report titled ‘Conscious Consumerism’. The report analysed the ground reality by interviewing over 2000 Dutch adults 18 years and above. The most important finding was the dilemma between being an ethical consumer and surviving Europe’s worst recession in decades wherein substantial lifestyle sacrifices were being made as food, utility and other items kept escalating in prices. This situation in Netherlands is reflective of what’s going on in most parts of Western societies who had typically been the flag bearer of conscious consumerism. Chinese fast-fashion app has recorded phenomenal success in the last few years and is a contradiction to what the conscious consumer stands for.
Fashion has to find a middle ground
As the recession continues worldwide, particularly in the larger Western economies, it doesn’t look like fast fashion will cease anytime soon. However, as Gen Z is spearheading the conscious consumer movement and are willing to purchase pre-loved clothing as well as repair old ones and most importantly read labels to understand the provenance of fashion items, the sector is already making massive changes through innovation, technology and the digital world. Being seen as a fashion brand that mirrors the consumers’ consciousness is going to make brands continue doing business rather than short term goals of making profits.