Sustainable fashion: An inevitable necessity or another fad?

Given the rise in the number of environmentally conscious consumers, government initiatives & e-commerce, the growth prospects of the sustainable fashion industry seem to be promising. However, this growth is not without certain challenges though there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  • The global ethical fashion market is expected to grow from US$ 6,349.9 million in 2020 to US$ 15,584.2 million in 2030, driven by demand for organic fabric and eco-friendly labels.
  • During 2020-2025, the fastest-growing regions in the ethical fashion market are likely to be Eastern Europe (13.6%) and South America (12.1%), followed by Asia Pacific (11.9%) and Africa (11.9%).
  • While sustainable fashion is a mushrooming industry, there are three main challenges to its success: greenwashing, perceived high production costs and fast fashion.
  • However, the industry can gain success by strategies to educate customers, clothes swapping, adopting ecolabels, influencer marketing, R&D and secondhand fashion.

Sustainable fashion TPCI

Image credit: Pexels

According to industry estimates, approximately 2.2 billion meters of denim fabric are produced annually. But from cultivation to production, a pair of jeans uses about 7600 liters of water, making denim one of the most water-intensive industries in the world. Similarly, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, it takes more than 20,000 liters of water to produce just 1 kg of cotton. The World Bank states that textile manufacturing and the fashion industry accounts for 10% of carbon emissions and one-fifth of 300 million tons of plastic produced globally each year.

However, customers across the world are becoming more sensitive towards this as temperatures soar and they are exposed to the perils of environmental pollution. India Sustainability Report 2020 found that 45% respondents want to adopt recyclable fashion, 49% like to adopt sustainable practices and 22% would prefer upcycled—garments. Likewise, 64% of those polled across Hong Kong, London, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo regard themselves as supportive of sustainable fashion, according to a KPMG Survey. This blog looks into the global growth prospects of sustainable fashion, the challenges to its success and the strategies that companies can adopt to resolve these.

Sustainable fashion: Rising high

Given the increase in the number of environmentally conscious consumers, government initiatives like ban on SUP & e-commerce, the growth prospects of the sustainable fashion industry seem promising. The global ethical fashion market is expected to grow from US$ 6,349.9 million in 2020 to US$ 15,584.2 million in 2030. The survey defines ethical fashion market as “the designing and manufacturing of clothes while caring for the people and communities involved in the process, and while also minimizing its environmental impact”.

Asia Pacific was the largest region in the global ethical fashion market, accounting for 31.6% of the total in 2020, followed by Western Europe, North America and the other regions. Going forward, however, the survey predicts that during 2020-2025, the fastest-growing regions in the ethical fashion market are likely to be Eastern Europe (13.6%) and South America (12.1%), followed by Asia Pacific (11.9%) and Africa (11.9%).

Within this segment, organic fabric is expected to be the fastest growing segment, growing at a CAGR of 18.4% during 2020-2025, followed by the eco-friendly segment (12.2%). Further, the women segment is expected to drive the ethical fashion market, growing at a CAGR of 10.9% during 2020-2025. Eileen Fisher, Reformation, H&M Conscious (H&M Group), Levi Strauss & Co, Everlane, Alternative Apparel, Inc., Tentree, United By Blue, Wear Pact LLC, Amour Vert are some of the top players in the market.

Challenges to success

While sustainable fashion is a mushrooming industry, there are three main challenges to its success:

  1. Greenwashing:

In 1986, environmentalist Jay Westervelt coined the term greenwashing. It refers to misleading advertisements or false claims by companies that suggest they are doing more for the environment than they actually are. In 2019, for example, a very eminent global apparel brand introduced its ‘Conscious Collection’ featuring leather-like Pinatex products, made from orange peelings and pineapple leaves. The company, however, drew flak on the ground that Pinatex contains plastic and petroleum-based agents and is therefore non-biodegradable.

Brands deceive customers given that terms like ‘ethical’ or ‘eco-friendly’ have no legal significance. The fact that there is limited public awareness and education around the harmful practices that the apparel industry embraces allows companies to get away with such labels. The skyrocketing incidence of greenwashing can also be attributed to pressures from both non-market actors (regulators and NGOs) and market actors (consumers, investors, and competitors).

  1. High cost involved in producing sustainable clothes:

Another hurdle in the global adoption of sustainable fashion is the high cost involved in producing sustainable clothes. One of the reasons for this is that sustainably made items aren’t mass produced. Further, there is a paucity of sustainable fashion supply chain. So, those venturing into this industry need to start from the scratch and go the extra mile to establish the value chain.

There is also certain customer inertia given that sustainable clothes are made for everyday wear. Customers regard them as being made of cotton or not looking expensive enough to justify their high price. The long process of creating such garments (6-8 months) and not keeping up with the latest fashion fads also demotivates customers from buying these fabrics. Fashion Designer Anita Dongre opines:

The primary challenge has been changing people’s perspective of fashion. It involves helping a shopper, who is trained to expect seasonality and speed in fashion, to appreciate the beauty and value in slow fashion.

  1. Fast fashion:

According to a blog by McKinsey, across nearly every apparel category, consumers keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago. Further, some studies also suggest that consumers treat the lowest-priced garments as nearly disposable, discarding them after just seven or eight wears. This is corroborated by another estimate that suggests in the United-States, 88% of consumers prefer shopping for fast fashion, followed by consumers in Europe (46%), India (25%) and China (21%).

Why We Buy New Clothes?
I am a shopaholic and need retail therapy from time to time


I cannot repeat the same clothes or accessories


I need to buy new clothes, accessories to create a good impression


Every season I need to add new variety to my clothes


I buy when a new fashion trend sets in


I do not have enough garments or footwear or accessories


I am browsing a market or mall or looking online and I like it


Source: India Sustainability Report 2020

The India Sustainability Report 2020 shows what motivates customers in the country to buy new clothes. Factors like the need to buy new clothes to create a good impression in the society, the need to keep up with novel fashion trends and the convenience of online shopping are the top drivers of this trend in the country. Additionally, customers are attracted to such clothes since they are very affordable, offer dupes of popular international brands and offer an extensive variety. Manisha Kinnu, Campus Director, NIFT, opines

Sustainable fashion awareness, in the Indian context, is still in its infancy. While a section of urban consumers is waking up to the environmental challenges with which the fashion industry operates and are increasingly receptive to the idea of sustainability in fashion, a lack of eco-friendly options limits the penetration of sustainable fashion. There is another section of consumers who have not warmed up to the idea of sustainable fashion yet due to a strong desire for variety, therefore, the mindless consumption of cheaper fast fashion. 

Sustaining sustainable fashion

While roadblocks remain to the success of sustainable fashion, there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel. One such measure is to develop ecolabels to make brands accountable for their claims regarding being eco-friendly. “Ecolabels are marks placed on product packaging or in e-catalogs that can help consumers and institutional purchasers quickly and easily identify those products that meet specific environmental performance criteria and are therefore deemed environmentally preferable,” United States Environmental Protection Agency states. Some agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have created ‘Green Guides’ to help ensure that marketing claims regarding the environmental attributes of products are not deceptive. Global adoption of such standards will keep the menace of greenwashing at bay and instill confidence in consumers.

At the same time, the industry must also leverage the rise in environmentally conscious citizens and invest in educating customers about the need for adopting sustainable fashion. Storytelling through targeted digital marketing campaigns and how a brand is embracing green fashion can also raise awareness among the customers. Brands must also invest in R&D to expedite the time taken to produce sustainable clothes and come up with variety to keep up with constantly changing fashion. Options like clothes swaps and second hand shopping can also help in bringing down the price of these products, thereby creating demand for these products. Finally, famous fashion influencers and celebrities can be roped in to endorse such products and encourage young consumers to purchase them.

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