Following recent worldwide climate strikes, more and more consumers are paying greater attention to their own carbon footprints, which has spurred many environmentally conscious shoppers to rethink their affinity for fast fashion. With Forever 21’s bankruptcy, talk of darker days for fast fashion has only grown louder.
But the fast fashion industry benefits from one strong selling point: price competitiveness. Shopping more sustainably is typically more expensive.
Without creative solutions that harmonize consumers’ eco-consciousness and their budget-consciousness, it will be hard for many shoppers to pass up the low prices fast fashion offers. To keep shoppers from feeling torn between their wallets and the planet, retailers should take steps like supporting clothing donations, offering green shipping incentives and making greater use of recycled material, as well as financing and payment options that lower customers’ upfront cost burden.
Here’s why fast fashion took the world by storm, and how retailers can turn the tide.
Low Prices, High Cost
For years, consumers have flocked to fast fashion outlets to get the latest runway styles at relatively low prices, but those low prices have come at a high cost. Fossil fuel-derived synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and acrylic now account for 60% of the fabrics in our clothes. The World Resources Institute notes that manufacturing a single T-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, while making one pair of jeans results in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a car 80 miles.
Cheaply produced and designed with the latest trends in mind, fast fashion items aren’t built to last, which helps explain why consumers keep clothes for only about half as long as they did at the turn of the century, and why the average consumer purchased 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000. Keeping up with consumer demand has meant more production and more adverse environmental consequences, with 2014 marking the first year that more than 100 billion garments were manufactured worldwide.
But the backlash has arrived. According to Walker Sands’ most recent “Future of Retail” report, 66% of consumers — including 72% of 18- to 35-year-olds — report buying less than they used to out of a desire to maintain a “clean, organized lifestyle.” Some 55% of consumers — and 65% of 18- to 35-year-olds — also say they’re more likely to buy from brands committed to sustainability, suggesting a trend toward more conscientious consumption. This has coincided with a trend toward “capsule wardrobes,” which contain a lower number of basic items that can be mixed and matched in new ways to diversify your wardrobe without buying more.
Encouraging Smarter Choices
Retailers are already offering a number of ways to incentivize people to shop sustainably without breaking the bank, and more should follow suit.
H&M, for example, has partnered with I:CO to collect donations from stores around the world, offering customers a voucher toward their next purchase for donating old clothes.
Among online shoppers, there’s been a shift to green shipping methods such as ecofriendly packaging and reducing the number of individual packages. Target offers discounts for customers who consolidate their online orders into fewer packages.
Fast fashion items are not designed to last forever, which makes them notoriously wasteful. But waste can be reduced by providing guidance to customers on how to take the best possible care of their clothes with minimal environmental impact — for example, by washing clothing less often and at lower temperatures.
It’s one thing for retailers to incentivize sustainable fashion choices, but what should retailers do for customers who worry about affording higher-priced items?
Store credit cards offer one pathway to making purchases more feasible for customers, and the discounts and perks they deliver can also be a powerful tool for building up brand loyalty. Store cards can have moderately higher interest rates compared to regular cards, but for the customer trying to be more conscious of their consumption — perhaps by assembling a capsule wardrobe — smart use of a store card can make it easier to pay for higher-quality items.
Flexible payment options can also help consumers make the switch by better managing cash flow and making the cost of higher-quality items more manageable.
When it comes to the fashion industry, alternative payment solutions can mean the difference between helping customers buy less while paying a bit more for individual items, or continuing down a path that means more frequent purchases of cheaper, environmentally damaging items that a shopper may wear only five times.
Consumers are increasingly speaking with one voice as to which path they prefer. By doing their part to make sustainable fashion more attainable, retailers can do their customers, and the planet, a world of good.