Sustainability Can Be Deceptive

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There are so many conflicting messages about retail sustainability that it’s hard to know what’s real. This is by design. Some messages encourage customers to buy secondhand to save the planet, others preach the benefits of upcycled fashions, while other still encourage customers to buy nothing at all. The more confusing it is for customers to get a full picture of a retailer’s sustainability footprint; the more consumers can fool themselves into thinking that their fast fashion purchases have a negligible environmental and humanitarian impact.

The Rana Plaza Collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 people and injured over 2,500, is no longer so fresh in customers’ minds. The past two years have brought forth new global crises. Despite the fact that more consumers now tout “sustainability” as a driving factor in their purchasing behavior, many also experienced new levels of financial uncertainty during the pandemic. This explains why the secondhand apparel market is growing at 3x the rate of the global apparel market as a whole.

The more confusing it is for customers to get a full picture of a retailer’s sustainability footprint; the more consumers can fool themselves into thinking that their fast-fashion purchases have a negligible environmental and humanitarian impact.

Let’s take a look at a few of the ways that the term “sustainability” is being volleyed around by fast fashion brands, as well as what other retailers can learn from their mistakes.

Greenwashing v. True Initiative

The term “greenwashing” refers to those instances when a brand alters its messaging to fallaciously make products appear more sustainable. The Truth in Advertising Organization provides a list of companies doing just this, doing for sustainability what Pull Up or Shut Up does for diversity and inclusion. Some of the brands listed in Truth in Advertising’s callout list are expected –– nobody is going into shock over the fact that McDonalds falsely marketed the Big Mac as sustainable, for instance. And not one of us will retire to our beds to process the fact that Red Lobster falsely marketed Maine lobsters as sustainable. Even Walmart claiming that chemically harmful rayon products were made from sustainable bamboo wasn’t particularly surprising.

But few of the other brands listed might actually induce a modicum of surprise. For instance, who would have suspected Burt’s Bees of misleading advertising? How about AllBirds running shoes, which was hit with a class-action lawsuit for falsely touting that their shoes had a low carbon impact? And these aren’t the only brands that caused shock and disappointment when their true practices were brought to the forefront –– Nature’s Own, Rainforest Alliance, Method and Simple Green Cleaning Products, Dasani Water and even Oatly oat milk have been called out for greenwashing in the past year.

Still wondering why Gen Z is the most skeptical, inquisitive consumer group yet? Many leading brands that have built their business on the premise of eco-consciousness are yodeling “sustainability” from the highest hilltops when there is little to no veracity to their claims. Consumers have to do an insane amount of research to make a singular purchase that’s actually ethical. While this is slowly starting to change, retail is currently in a culling phase –– calling out brands making false assertions to make room for young upstarts (and OGs like Patagonia) –– that are actually walking the walk.

What the Major Players Are Doing

NRF reports that over 95 percent of a retailer’s sustainability footprint lies deep within the recesses of their supply chain. Supply chain transparency is so important for the welfare of humanity nowadays that New York has proposed legislation that would fine brands making more than $100 million in revenue, two percent of said revenue if they’re unable to adhere to basic sustainability tenets in their business.

Look, it’s no secret that not every consumer is putting money where their mouth is when it comes to sustainability. The confusion-by-design surrounding what brands and items are actually sustainable has some consumers throwing their hands in the air and just buying the cheapest, best-looking items they can find for the right price. I caution analysts to hold off on the judgement on this one: Next gens are already facing a global mental health crisis. The overwhelm is real.

Shein comprises over a quarter 28 percent of fast-fashion sales in the U.S. It’s followed by H&M (20 percent), Zara (11 percent), and Forever 21 (10 percent). Asia-Pacific is still the largest market for fast-fashion consumerism, followed by North America and Western Europe. International brands like Uniqlo and ASOS have a less villainous supply chain structure than Shein. But the ticket price on fashions is also slightly higher at these retailers.

The Cold, Hard Facts

Here’s what Shein, H&M, and so many other fast-fashion retailers have realized: Most consumers are too overwhelmed to get down to the brass tacks of the supply chain. Modern consumers often believe what they need to. Because of this, fast-fashion retailers are able to take some of the sustainability market share by coming out with sustainable clothing lines that focus on one particular eco conscious feature. It will be years before international fast-fashion retailers are actually held accountable for the full environmental impact of their operation.

Calling a release “eco” or (ahem) “waterless” lets these brands reap many of the benefits of operating sustainably, without implementing the deep supply chain restructure that would be necessary to create actual change. Nearly half (40 percent) of fashion goods are sold at a markdown and much of it ends up in landfills. Buying one used item, on the other hand, saves 82 percent of that item’s carbon footprint. Which is why it’s so hopeful that big players like Macy’s and Nordstrom are restructuring their operations to get in on the resale game.

Make no mistake… actual change will require forward thinking retailers to retrain their customers to shop for longevity over accessibility. It will require influencers to start refusing to do “Shein Haul” videos on TikTok and YouTube and instead strive to create partnerships with smaller, eco-conscious brands. It will require every single one of us to forego those look-twice, readily Instagrammable fast-fashion finds for secondhand, consignment and vintage items with a story.

In the end, most fast-fashion retailers will need to implement a massive supply chain overhaul to meet the sustainability demands of modern consumers. But for retailers that can’t afford this, announcing sustainability goals and the timeline in which you intend to reach them –– and following through on that –– will be key to retaining the trust of eco-conscious consumers.

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