Sustainability has been in fashion since the 1960s and 1970s, when hippies and punks led a countercultural movement against mass-production. Despite the rise of fast fashion in the 1980s, the trend continued to grow, with more brands incorporating sustainability as part of their marketing strategy. 

The internet was a major catalyst for the movement, providing consumers with increased access to information about the origins of their clothing – and with it, an increased awareness about social and environmental issues that marked a shift away from fringe culture towards mainstream acceptance. 

Meeting Demand

This increase in awareness of social and environmental issues has since resulted in greater demand from consumers for fairer and more sustainable clothing practices. In response to this, companies such as Grey State Apparel have emerged, offering consumers a more ethical alternative to fast fashion as well as a way to support up-and-coming smaller fashion labels.

While bigger fashion labels have also  taken steps towards sustainability, greenwashing continues to permeate the industry, relying on labels such as “eco-friendly” without the evidence required to back these claims – another factor that consumers are now increasingly aware of.

Has Anything Changed?

Events like the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh and more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic have had a profound effect on the fashion industry, highlighting key environmental and social issues such as the effects of water pollution from textile factories on surrounding communities.

In the late nineties another countercultural movement emerged, protesting against issues that persist to this day, including environmental pollution and human rights violations in sweatshops. Published in 1999, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo highlighted these issues and the power of major corporations to affect the behavior of consumers.

Another Shift

More recently however, it appears that the balance of power has shifted towards the consumer. While a key aspect of marketing is to respond to the needs of its audience, consumers are no longer content to accept sustainability claims without substantial proof about production methods and practices.

Another key facet of marketing and building customer engagement has to do with trust – without which brands may find themselves losing once-loyal customers. A survey by Harvard Business Review in 2023 highlighted a demand for transparency, especially from younger generations who are more likely to avoid brands who engage in greenwashing.

Alternative Routes

In addition to purchasing sustainable, high quality items, various other approaches towards fashion are becoming more popular, such as circular fashion (which aims to reduce waste and increase the life expectancy of textiles).

Even practices which previously regarded by some as unfashionable have come back into vogue, in particular purchasing clothes from thrift shops or wearing the same items of clothing repeatedly (something the mix-and-match ethos of capsule dressing also helped to popularize).

Looking Forward

Despite long standing environmental and social problems within the global fashion industry, there are signs of progress, with consumers acting as a major driving force, placing additional pressure on fashion brands to focus on people and the planet, and not just profit. 

Ultimately, brands who commit to sustainability and transparent communication about their practices are more likely to win and retain customer loyalty. Adapting to these changes will not only help drive sustainability, but in turn will enable these brands to remain relevant to the next generation of consumers.

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