We talk the talk, but do we walk the walk when it comes to buying sustainable clothes?

There’s a lot of talk about sustainable fashion – but is that all it is? Are people actually wearing their values and not just talking about them? Does the support for sustainable fashion actually manifest itself in sales? Are sustainable fashion brands making money and thriving?

I share some answers to some of the questions I was asked in an interview for the Guardian last year.

Do you think interest in sustainable fashion has grown over the years, if yes, how would you describe this growth?

I’ve seen first hand the interest in sustainable fashion steadily growing, with numbers very niche in 2015, then increasing significantly in 2017 and a big jump in 2018.  By 2019 I can only describe it as an explosion of independent fashion brands entering the UK, Europe, and US market. In my role as a sustainable stylist and founder of the Ethical Brand Directory, I have to work harder to ‘curate’ the brands now, whereas my challenge before was simply finding them. In previous years (2017-2018) we had around 100 – 200 brands to review, this year (2019) I have over 450+ brands on our database that I need to work through. 

Why do you think consumers support sustainable fashion more now than they did several years ago? What has changed?

I think campaigns like Fashion Revolution have been pivotal in educating the consumer about the fashion industry and the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh in 2013 was really the start of things changing.  Of course, documentaries like the True Cost have been instrumental in bringing both ethical and sustainability issues into consumer awareness. When you know how much water it takes to make a single T-shirt (around 2,700 litres) it’s pretty shocking. 

With the information which was previously hidden within the supply-chain being readily available to the general public, we’ve woken up to the fact that the apparel industry is a massive drain on our planet’s resources. Television programmes like Fashion’s Dirty Secrets have also helped raise awareness of our consumer buying habits and the problem with fast fashion clothing production. And now with the fears over climate change, sustainability has become a trending topic.  The spotlight on the fashion industry has provided the opportunity for independent sustainable brands to enter the market and provide conscious consumers with garments that are aligned with their values. 

Over the years have you noticed a correlation between interest in sustainable fashion and sales figures or any other key trends?

The interest in sustainable fashion, pre-2015 attracted a more mature market, favouring the stereotyped styles associated with ethical fashion ‘practical but not fashionable’.  This has changed now that the options available are being designed for a millennial market. In 2018 a report by Nelison stated that 85% of millennials want to support brands that care.  Social media, especially Instagram, is a huge influencer for this age range. It’s easier to predict trends and consumer desire by what they are engaging with. If we look at the hashtag #whomademyclothes back in 2015 it had around 50,000 posts compared to 150,000 by 2017. By 2018 it had seen an 83% increase jumping up to nearly 300,000 posts. 

Celebrity endorsement has a role to play in the rising demand for sustainable fashion, for example when Megan Markle steps out in a responsible brand, Lyst reported that it typically receives a 200% increase in search volume.  The rise in hashtag use is also a key indicator of public interest that drives demand for sustainable clothing. On Instagram today #sustainablefashion has over 4.5 million posts. 

What are your thoughts on the following statement: “some people support sustainable fashion but don’t necessarily buy it”?

I agree with this statement – many people agree that sustainable fashion is important, but they aren’t purchasing it. I was at London MET university delivering a talk about circular economy and sustainable style in early 2018 and I asked the room for a show of hands if they believed supporting ethical and sustainable brands was key for the future, and that their actions could make a difference – everyone put their hand up. I then asked who shopped from ethical and sustainable brands and nobody raised their hand. 

Based on the above statement, why do you think there may be a discrepancy between support and sales figures?

This is due to a number of factors such as sustainable fashion’s higher price point, accessibility (availability on the high-street) there is also a lack of options and styles to suit mainstream fashion shoppers’ tastes.  Other factors include social status, many people want to be perceived as being more sustainable and conscious than they actually are. 

Find Sustainable Shops and Services in London _ By Roberta Lee The Sustainable Stylist

What do you think could be done to bridge this discrepancy?

We need to make it easier for sustainable brands to be found online and in stores, removing the barriers and making it ‘EASY’ for people to purchase from them.  Cost is a major barrier for the brands I work with, they have bootstrapped businesses, low-profit margins, high production costs and it’s not possible for them to get into big department stores.  They don’t work at scale and can’t bring unit costs down low enough to be able to make a great deal of profit. 

Based on your knowledge/experience of the sustainable fashion market, which age group typically supports sustainable fashion the most?

25-34-year-old women tend to be the biggest supporters and most vocal on social media. Typically 75% of sustainable fashion supporters, which include influencers and bloggers are women, and only 25% are men – this tends to be reflected in the proportion of sustainable womenswear Vs sustainable menswear currently available.

Based upon your knowledge/ experience of the sustainable fashion market, which age group is more likely to purchase sustainable fashion items?

35-54-year-old women tend to be the ones purchasing sustainable fashion for themselves, partners and their families 

If there is a variation between your answers to the above two questions, can you explain the variation further? 

Millennials are more vocal about the things they care about –  however, not all of them have enough disposable income to be able to buy from the brands they support.  

This interview was undertaken by a journalist for the Guardian in 2019 but was unpublished.

Photography: Lancton Photography
Stylist: Roberta Lee
Pink and Red Dress: Distinctively Me
Clutches: The Morphbag by GSK

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