Impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic have provided people the world over with a number of learnings, imparting lessons in humility, dignity, discretion, and restraint as we continue to collectively work through this challenging time. Similarly, retailers and businesses everywhere have also received a sort of unorthodox education during this period, helping to affirm for many just how resilient their operations are and how innovative their organizations can be when faced with this kind of adversity. And, these teachings arrived swiftly. Subsequent to government-imposed lockdowns and societal restrictions, the industry was charged with reinventing itself, pivoting, and shifting in order to address the significant acceleration of trends, the most noticeable of which reflected in the sharp increase in online activity and simultaneous digitization of the retail ecosystem. However, as more data is gleaned from events of the past twelve months, the more granular our understanding becomes with respect to changes in behaviour and sentiment as well as the further shifts that might be required by some. For fashion retailers, the recent rise in eco-consciousness and awareness among consumers will be of significant note, and could potentially signify the sustainable apparel tipping point and decline of fast fashion in the country.
According to a recent report published by Boston Consulting Group titled COVID-19: The Pandemic Is Heightening Environmental Awareness, the attitudes toward and appreciation of the impact that we as humans have on the world around us have become more acute, sparking a change or escalation in our green behaviour. For instance, 70 percent of survey respondents stated that they are more aware now than they were previous to COVID-19 of the ways in which current human activity threatens the environment and how, in turn, that degradation threatens humans. One-third of respondents say that they currently practice green behaviours consistently, with 25 percent admitting to have increased those behaviours since the onset of the pandemic, and a further 40 percent who say that they intend to integrate more sustainable behaviours in the future. What’s more, the survey also found that 87 percent of its participants believe that companies should be doing more to help protect the environment.
They are findings that are, in fact, consistent across multiple reports and surveys concerning the topic. McKinsey & Company released its Survey: Consumer sentiment on sustainability in fashion, in which respondents cited ‘a reduction of negative environmental impacts’ as one of their top recommended actions (38 percent) for fashion brands to adopt going forward. And, the first ever Canadian edition of the EY Future Consumer Index indicates that the vast majority of Canadian consumers (70 percent) experienced a shift in product preferences as a result of the pandemic, with 47 percent stating that the social and environmental impact of products has become a prominent driver of their current behaviour. It’s data that reflects a seemingly significant uptick in environmental awareness among consumers — a growing trend that’s recognized by Anwar White, Faculty Lecturer, Bensadoun School of Retail Management and Program Director for the Master of Management in Retailing at McGill University.
“Today’s consumer has access to a world of information,” he says. “And they’re becoming more conscientious and considerate when it comes to the choices they make. As a result, they’re increasingly more curious about the origins of the garments they purchase, how they were sourced and how they were made. They want to better understand the impact that apparel products have on the environment and the gravity of the choices that they make as consumers. This is primarily evident in the attitudes of today’s younger generations who consider social and environmental practices as a top consideration with respect to their perception of and engagement with brands. Many fashion brands have dipped their toes in the water when it comes to sustainability and the fashion circular design. And some are realizing that without this being a focus, they’ll potentially lose more and more of their millennial customer-base who’s purchase behaviour is heavily influenced by this core value.”
White’s observations, combined with the plethora of available research, underscore the rising tide of eco-consciousness among the general public while calling into question the very real and dramatic nature of the environmental impact that the fashion industry is responsible for. According to a report published prior to the COVID-19 outbreak by the World Bank Group, the fashion industry accounts for 10 percent of all annual global carbon emissions. And it warns that, based on its findings, at current production, maintaining the contemporary means by which garments are typically produced, the industry could conceivably increase its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent over the course of the next ten years.
If this trajectory is preserved, the repercussions could be devastating. Emissions, however, represent just one line on the considerably lengthy ledger of negative effects that apparel manufacturing has on our planet ongoing, which also includes the industry’s consumption and pollution of water, releasing of microfibres into our water supplies, use of chemicals that are both harmful to the environment as well as the consumer, degradation of soil, destruction of rainforest, and creation of waste, among other things. The list begins to illustrate the amount of work required by players in order to clean up the apparel production process. And, according to White, it’s work that has already been started by some within the industry — pioneers that are beginning to pave a new way forward for manufacturers and retailers of fashion.
“The research and evidence related to the fashion industry’s negative environmental impact can’t really be disputed,” he recognizes. “It can only be improved upon by those operating within the space. And, driven by the attitudes and preferences of younger generations, we’re seeing the development of so many patterns of change with the emergence of things like rental streams and business models around vintage and resale product. These are trends that are really beginning to thrive as many consumers within the country and beyond are starting to turn away from fast fashion as a means to build their wardrobe. And, as societal and cultural sensibilities around these issues continue to evolve and change, the industry is increasingly transforming, moving in a direction toward a real environmental and social tipping point. There are a lot of companies today who are trying to affect change, and many others who are beginning to take notice of these patterns and trends, placing sustainability at the forefront of their operations and embracing it as a core value of their brands.”
Waste Not, Want Not
One such company helping to move the industry forward in the direction of sustainability is nudnik — a producer and online purveyor of contemporary kidswear and one of the country’s leaders in circular fashion. Founded and led by twin sisters, Lindsay and Alex Lorusso, the brand believes that waste is one of the world’s largest resources and is dedicated to producing its stylish items using organic cotton off-cut fabrics that would have otherwise been sent to landfill. It’s a passion that the sisters developed while working with their father who co-owns waste management company, Wasteco, amassing more than 20 years of collective experience and witnessing firsthand the astonishing amounts of textile waste that’s collected every day.
Today, just five years since the inception of the company, which began as more of a thinktank than anything else, nudnik boasts an impressive range of gender-neutral garments for children ages one to six made entirely of pre-consumer textile waste. It’s a way in which the sisters are providing an example for the rest of the industry to follow. And, according to Lindsay Lorusso, they consider the work they’re doing to be imperative in helping to minimize the negative impacts of fashion production on the environment and to contribute positively toward the future health of the planet and those who occupy it.
“The real drivers behind what we’re doing are the generations that will follow us,” she says. “And, with our understanding of the significant impact that fashion manufacturing has on the environment, we set out to shake things up, to disrupt the way clothing is made, packaged, and consumed. The mindset of today’s consumer is shifting with respect to their own consumption of apparel. They increasingly want to know where and how product is sourced and made and are showing a greater appetite to support the brands that they know are doing good. And this of course extends beyond the product itself. We’ve taken more of a holistic approach to sustainability, working with ethical supplier partners who share our vision with respect to waste and sustainability. A truly circular business model requires considerations to be made throughout the entire process, from sourcing to the packaging used, and everything else in between.”
Made to Last
Another company doing its part is British Columbia-based men’s and women’s sustainable apparel provider Ecologyst. Founded more than 20 years ago, with locations in Victoria and Whistler, the brand is a firm believer in what it refers to as the ‘reciprocal power of nature’ and in the environmental benefits of a sustainable approach to apparel manufacturing. Producing all of its apparel in Canada and the United States, Ecologyst is able to support local jobs and economies. And, in place of the traditional use of synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, and nylon to make their clothing — materials that are made from petroleum and create microplastics — it instead uses all-natural, biodegradable materials like organic cotton and Merino wool to lessen its impact on the environment. In addition, Ecologyst prides itself on the quality and durability of its apparel, guaranteeing all items for life, promoting the value and responsibility inherent in owning fewer, better made pieces. With these things in mind, the brand is on a mission to become the ‘world’s most sustainable apparel company’. It’s a lofty ambition, one that Founder and CEO, Rene Gauthier, says is supported by constant recognition, awareness and innovation.
“We try to approach our business with as much respect for the environment as we can,” he asserts. “We believe that what a company takes needs to be balanced by the amount that it gives back, resulting ideally in a net positive for the environment. For us, it means considering our impact, as well as the impact of all of our stakeholders in our ecosystem, with respect to every single choice that we make. And it also means constantly evolving and discovering new ways to improve our standards and way of doing things. For example, we use organic cotton, which requires a lot of land and water to grow. And because those are two resources that we’re running out of on the planet, we knew that we needed to find alternatives to the way we’re producing our clothing. So, we started doing some work with the University of British Columbia to find a newer, better way to recycle cotton. Our belief is that we already have enough cotton out there. We don’t need to grow any more and instead just need to develop a way to recycle it so it retains its strength and softness. We were recently able to prove something out in a lab and will now be taking it to the next level, scaling it up. It’s the way we need to be thinking — constantly innovating and exploring newer, better ideas — for the survival of our planet and our brand. Consumers aren’t going to put up with the status quo much longer. And, from our point of view, in order to address the issues and satisfy the preferences of today’s consumer, the industry needs to make sustainability its number one focus going forward.”
A Sustainable Trend?
Despite this current moment in history being a time of true disruption and adversity, a period underscored and overwhelmed by uncertainty, something of a happy consequence seems to have resulted in our collective recognition of the things that really matter. The pandemic has brought our health into sharper focus and elevated the action required to preserve the planet we live on to that of a priority. Whether or not this rise of eco-consciousness in today’s consumer is a trend that will be maintained going forward remains a question unanswered. But, as McGill’s Anwar White points out, it’s a sentiment that’s been steadily growing long before the impacts of COVID-19 began to grip the world, and it’s one that he believes will only continue to increase in significance.
“Sustainability and eco-conscious thinking and behaviour has been something of a movement for quite some time now. But, most recently, it’s been resonating with more people at a much deeper level than at any time previous. It’s increasingly becoming a statement for people, a representation of the person who wears sustainably made clothing, providing them with a way to convey who they are and the core values that they live by. And I don’t think that it’s a fad or a trend that’s going to diminish. Driven by today’s youth, sustainable and ethical practices are going to be demanded more and more of the brands that they interact and shop with. The industry’s slowly beginning to recognize this and embracing their responsibility in reducing the negative impact of the fashion industry on the environment.”