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Is The Fashion Industry Changing To Embrace Sustainability, Or It Is Just A Marketing Strategy?

Updated: May 31, 2022


Abstract:

Climate change is the defining human development issue of our generation (United Nations Development Programme, 2007). Importantly, environmental and economic issues are highly interdependent (Tienhaara, 2010, Venkatachalam, 2007), this has developed into a switch in consumer behaviour, brand positioning and value proposition among others. Over the last few years, consumers have changed their purchase behaviour to products with sustainable backgrounds for various reasons; political acts, a form of boycotting and also by the preference for similar products. Although research has made very clear how a consumer’s buying behaviour works and how it correlates to sustainable consumerism, understanding a firm’s intentions is often more difficult to grasp. Sustainability is just another form of social responsibility inside a business; these norms, values and ethical or unethical practices are the principles of every business and are, nowadays, some of the mainstays of every marketing plan. Understanding whether environmentalists' marketing will become a simple trend or will stay as an essential principle for future business is primordial for long term marketing plans.


This study will investigate if the fashion industry, which had a climate impact of 1.3 Gt carbon dioxide a year (Greg Peters, 2021), is changing to embrace sustainability, or if it is just a marketing strategy to fulfil customers' socio-ethical needs without changing their supply chain. The findings show that there is a positive connection between values from sustainable companies and consumer purchasing decisions, however, the study also found that marketing something as sustainable is commonly overused without transparency or real effort to change the industry to a sustainable one.


Introduction:

Climate change is the defining human development issue of our generation (United Nations Development Programme, 2007). The innovations and technologies that brought us to the modern era, have caused that since the industrial revolution, the earth's temperature has risen 1.5º C (Valérie Masson-Delmotte, 2018), this has caused severe degradation of the ecosystem and a switch in consumer behaviour. Worldwide concern about climate change has been correlated with the uptake of direct and indirect pro-environmental behaviours (Tobler et al., 2012). This has had a direct effect on the sectors of the economy. Industries have switched their traditions to embrace new technologies that, on paper, are less harmful to the environment. And it has also caused a surge in sustainable marketing, where marketing managers nowadays focus on satisfying consumers’ socio and ethical needs, such as through providing cultural promotion, environmental protection, and disaster relief activities (Jaesuk Jung, Sang Jin Kim, Kyung Hoon Kim,2020). This switch in brand behaviour was caused because importantly, environmental and economic issues are highly interdependent (Tienhaara, 2010, Venkatachalam, 2007). Although Brands keep coming up with different ways to manufacture, transport and sell their products most sustainably, fast fashion continues to satisfy consumers’ rapid-changing trends. These tendencies make us question whether companies are investing in newer technologies to better their business morals and environmental ethics or if they are adapting their marketing to a more conscious consumer.


Research Question and Objectives:


Question:

  • Is the fashion industry changing to embrace sustainability, or it is just a marketing strategy?


Objectives:

  • To understand what exactly means to be sustainable in a business context.

  • To investigate how the impact of Covid-19 combined with global warming has transformed the fashion industry.

  • To analyse how organisations, use sustainability to create value.

  • To identify the reason behind sustainable purchases.


Literature Review:

Concerns about climate change started around the 80s, wherein 1976, in a set of papers and reports widely acknowledge a 'climate shift' (Trenberth et al, 2007), following this acknowledgement, global mean temperatures began a discernible upward trend that has been at least partly attributed to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere (Trenberth et al, 2007), partly by natural emissions and mostly by human activities. Since then, more reports started to appear on the media platform, warning about this universal issue, paving the way to nowadays, where global climate change is a worldwide acknowledged issue, except for some negationist minorities.


Companies and corporations, at the present times, to appeal more to customers, and satisfy their ethical and social needs, use different approaches to position themselves as ecologically friendly. Ecological marketing, sustainable marketing and environmental marketing are terms used synonymously with green marketing (Chan et al., 2019), and catchy phrases can be seen all in different product tags, advertisements, packaging, etc, all claiming to be carbon neutral, sustainable or simply letting us know that this product is less harmful to the environment. Even governments are jumping into the green trend promoting and easing the acquisition and use of electric cars and renewable energies. This switch in behaviour was necessary, after a period of years of seeing increasingly new consequences of climate change. From sea levels rising to more frequent and destructive natural catastrophes.


Although companies and governments used various approaches to the definition of sustainability since 1976, when sustainability was broadly accepted as a state of human development that meets present needs without compromising the future ((Brundtland, 1987), nowadays sustainability has to embrace economic, social, environmental, cultural and security aspects (Mitja Bervar, A. Bertoncelj, 2016). While there are many academic research papers and works of literature discussing the implications of being a sustainable brand, plenty of organisations sending sustainable messages and adapting their marketing to be sustainable and appealing. There is a lack of transparency in organisations, mainly in their supply chains. Overuse of sustainability as a value proposition and a lack of a faithful definition of sustainability applied to organisations. Where the definition is not only developing without compromising the future generations but focusing more on transparency and the real-life consequences of the development of organisations. With an emphasis on their real plans and objectives for the future to not only focus on creating marketing slogans but to create actual changes in society and the environment that will reduce the impact on the environment and will pave the path for the future new organisations.


Sustainability for organisations

Hypothesis 1: Sustainability by well-known fashion brands is a marketing strategy, they mostly don’t change their supply chains.


Nowadays customers mostly want companies to take a stand on current and broadly relevant issues like sustainability, transparency or fair employment practices (Accenture, 2018), therefore, their purchase behaviour is, generally, in non-essential items, conditioned by the value proposition of the brand they are looking for. Moreover, a survey conducted by Accenture stated that 53% of the customers who are disappointed with the brand’s words or actions on a social issue complain about it, 47% walk away with frustration and 17% don’t come back ever (Accenture, 2018). Therefore, in today’s world claiming you’re sustainable without complying with it may lead to your brand being cancelled. Organisations realized that traditional marketing wasn’t enough, so they are coming up with a different solution, and it’s creating an ecosystem, where not only customers are happy, but also workers and every step of the supply chain. This created the purpose-led brands, where the objective is not only the financial rewards but a social and environmental change. Studies suggest that a positive relationship between the strength of purpose and business results makes leading with purpose an imperative for business success yielding a stronger reputation, brand affinity and bottom-line results. (Zeno, 2018) But is this true for all brands?


While purpose-led brands like Patagonia make social changes by participating in the Fair-Trade Program. Or lowering their environmental impact by using 87% of recycled materials in their production line (Patagonia, 2021), using transparent marketing campaigns that show every step in the supply chain.


Other well established and famous brands like Nike are claiming that they are moving to Carbon Neutral, without setting a deadline and using only a maximum of 20% to 50% in their “sustainable” line products (Nike 2021). This combined with their marketing-driven over-consumption and fast fashion that can also be seen in Inditex, Asos, and other well established popular firms, makes the answer to the hypothesis as controversial as the topic itself. While there is no denying that using recycled materials is a more sustainable way to produce nowadays, marketing your products as sustainable because you are using 20% of the raw materials sourced from reprocessed fabrics doesn’t make your company a sustainable one. Brands are purpose-led organisations, some aim to make actual social changes, like Patagonia, while others ride the wave of sustainability making small changes to their supply chain without taking into consideration the other aspects of sustainability. These are economic, social, environmental, cultural and security aspects (Mitja Bervar, A. Bertoncelj, 2016) and without using transparency as the tool to prove their commitment to the planet their claims fall more into the category of greenwashing marketing campaigns. And the main issue is that it works since a recent study by Zalando found a disorienting disconnect between what consumers say they want from brands and how they act (Sam Foroozesh, 2021).



The Worldwide Pandemic emphasizes the human impact on the planet.

Hypothesis 2: Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown emphasized for customers the need to purchase sustainable products.


Following the Covid-19 pandemic, changes in the roots of our society have emerged, from consumer behaviour to general perception of climate change. One important issue has been consumer perception of how the fashion industry is aggravating climate change. Studies find that the fashion industry accounts for roughly 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions (Sam Foroozesh, 2021). Throughout the pandemic, the relationship between the corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach of fashion companies, their strategic CSR communication and their corporate reputation, actually emphasized more the consumers' propensity toward buying sustainable products (Elena-MădălinaVătămănescu et al, 2021), but this change was mainly because of Gen Z’s throughout online sales, according to the findings in the primary data collection. Although sustainability nowadays is widely acknowledged, mostly gen Z’s are the individuals who changed their consumer behaviour and not only their brand and industry perception. The pandemic forced governments to take radical decisions to the point where regular business was simply not possible and business as usual transformed into thinking outside the box, with online marketing and influencers being the only vehicles to sell products. Global retail e-commerce sales rose to nearly $4.28 trillion (Clodagh O’Brien, 2021).


Although the rose in sales affected mostly the same way all retailers regardless if the company was using a sustainable strategy, a surge in second-hand clothing was significant. This revalued some second-hand portals. Depop Clothing, with approximately 90 per cent of its active users being under 26 (Hannah Rogers,2021), was bought by the American platform Etsy for $1.6 billion in June. while Vinted raised $300 million in fundraising that valued the app at over $4.2 billion in May (Iain Martin, 2021). So, as an answer to the hypothesis, yes. There has been a clear change in consumer brand perception after the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly because brands were taking different approaches to online marketing and especially focusing on CSR communication as a value proposition. But the actual change in consumer behaviour was predominantly on Gen z’s, who focused more on a model of circular economy with a special interest in reusability.


Challenges in the transition to a new era.

Hypothesis 3: It’s easy to make a sustainable transition from a regular outdated fast-fashion business.


What mean to be sustainable for a business? As discussed before, the definition of sustainability has been adopted over the past years, nowadays it not only means that you are not taking resources from the future generations but goes deeper than simply that. Some business models like Patagonia’s discussed before embrace sustainability. And the sustainability they comprise has to embrace economic, social, environmental, cultural and security aspects (Mitja Bervar, A. Bertoncelj, 2016). Therefore, for a fast-fashion business to be sustainable, taking into consideration an already existing company, not only the supply chain and materials have to change, but the whole business CSR to offer a sustainable value proposition. As an example, we will use Zara, which is a Spanish brand from the Inditex group. One of the largest clothing retailers nowadays, since 2020, Inditex claims sustainability is embedded in their Company’s long-term vision, with €2.7 billion invested by 2022 to meet exemplary sustainability criteria (Inditex, 2020). This amount of resources should be done to transform a regular old-school fast-fashion mammoth into a sustainable one.


A study that analysed Zara’s Join Life collection, one of their first attempts to create a sustainable collection, concluded that the collection presented aspects of partial sustainability, and partially met the transparency criterion, even though in terms of promoting human rights and avoiding the exploitation of people that work in the textile industry, the information provided by Zara’s website was quite limited (Carmen Adriana Gheorghe et al, 2021). As an answer to this question, and having experienced the creation of a sustainable brand myself, for existing slow-fashion brands it’s doable (2 collections a year maximum). Although they would need to change the supply chain and every aspect of the business to meet the sustainable criteria and it’s unlikely in the short term. Because to change the supply chain to transform it into a sustainable fashion business, high quality, low production garments with the circular economy in mind should be the only ones produced. The idea of sustainable fast fashion is impossible, taking into account that 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1 Kg of cotton, the equivalent of a single t-shirt or a pair of jeans (SAP, 2019). Even if the materials used are recycled and sourced locally or organically, the business model and value proposition of the business don’t allow for sustainability to reach environmental nor social or cultural aspects.


Factors for sustainable purchases


Hypothesis 4: There is a positive connection between values from sustainable companies and consumer purchasing decisions.


Advertising is the storytelling of our time because the consumption of items is a process, not an act. (Belz & Peattie, 2012) There is indeed a positive connection between values from sustainable companies and purchasing behaviour, there is a general concern about climate change nowadays, and the rapidly increasing demand for eco-friendly products is an example of responsible purchasing intention of customers. (Anil Kumar et al, 2021). In a connected world, global concerns are general affairs, and social media contributed to this trend, shaping consumers’ attitudes into more environmentally conscious behaviour. (Rebeca-Anna Pop et al, 2020). Consumers feel better when they purchase sustainable items, but the issue is not the consumer behaviour, but if the product that’s marketed as sustainable is sustainable. To address this issue, in point 4.3 it was discussed that sustainability is marketed more often than it should be and that some brands that claim to be sustainable tend to not be transparent about their supply chain. Therefore, even though there is a general concern and people have a positive connection to sustainable products, there is a discrepancy between intention and actual sustainable buying behaviour (Carrington et al., 2014)




Methodology:

It is proposed that the sources embraced to write this report will mainly, but not limited, consist of secondary data, as they allow to use of information whose data collection procedure was guided by proficiency and expertise, therefore this research questions will mostly be addressed through the analysis of a data set that the researcher was not involved in collecting. In addition, the increasing availability of online high-quality qualitative resources (Chatfield, 2020), makes secondary data the best option for my research purposes. Moreover, primary data is often shaped by responses to questionnaires and interviews that may be influenced by the subject's view of what the researcher might want to hear, by a reluctance to talk about sensitive ethical issues, (Howard Harris, 2001) making secondary data the primary and finest source to base my research. Secondarily, primary data sourced from a personal survey using a sample of 54 individuals will be used to back up the research and add more data sourced from people from more than 3 continents.


With the implementation of some consumer perceptions sourced with primary data research, this research will contain some secondary data that will be supported or in some cases, questioned by the information sourced from the primary data making the information even more truthful. Due to time and additional limitations, the sample of the personal survey was limited in quantity, but the quality of the sample lies in the differences in the individuals, focusing more on geographic and social differences to have a multicultural survey. Implementing primary data in this research, with a sample, helped outcome some of the limitations of secondary data, and although some challenges of primary data and secondary data could limit the reliability and accuracy of the report, contrasting secondary and primary data to the extent done in this report helped fulfil some key points sourced by secondary data. The survey was conducted in google forms and posted on a personal social media account to reach participants. The survey, containing 10 questions, asked general but important questions to analyse consumer perceptions and consumer behaviours concerning sustainable fashion. The researcher estimated that the overall level collected in this survey was limited, given its generalized questions. And having mostly a student-based sample, with an age frame of mostly 20-30’s year olds, helped to better understand the perception of Gen Z’s.


A transcript of the survey will be seen in the appendix.



Conclusion:

In conclusion, the fashion industry it’s chan


ging at a really slow rate to embrace sustainability. Too slow for the planet, and since every business's aim are its financial results, and they don’t want to be seen as not caring for the environment, they are marketing their products to be something they are not, using questionable and non-transparent claims.


Nonetheless, there are some real attempts by businesses to reduce their impact in some ways, one inspiring example could be Patagonia, with all of its cotton being certified organic by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and being blue sign certified for some of its fabrics. A high proportion of its materials are made from recycled textiles. Moreover, Patagonia belongs to both the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and 1% For the Planet. They reject fast fashion by creating high-quality, long-lasting products, and offer a repair and reuse program (Isabella Wholfe, 2020), but as good as this sounds, the reality is that with the system we live in today, the production and consumption of fashion items are inevitable. And even if every company in the world switched to a real sustainable supply chain, the impact on the planet would be too major. Ideally, the solution could lay down on a circular economy. But given the nature of fashion consumerism, the rapidly changing fashion trends, and labour costs, a worldwide major consumer change in behaviour could be the key part of the solution. Combined with strict regulations by governments on toxic and highly polluting production practices.


Value of the research:

The value of this research is to analyse the actual meaning of sustainability for an organisation, and whether there is a social change in consumer behaviour towards more sustainable items. “Advertising doesn’t mirror how people are acting, but how they are dreaming”, this is seen in sustainable marketing and it's misleading especially in the world we live in today. With the constant rise of temperatures and severe ecosystem transformations, not only core values and companies' marketing has to change, but also the complete supply chain and brand transparency. Because if not, the future of capitalism and humanity could be something very different from what we have today. The value of this research is that it gives an objective perspective on the human desire to market and consume sustainable items and the gap to accomplishing that. Will provide some solutions to the fast fashion industry but Importantly, will highlight its flaws and why the transition to sustainability it’s not as easy as they market it to be. Moreover, this research will also help Altered Canvas LTD, a personal project, to understand how a sustainable fashion start-up should perform, at every level to become sustainable, and to show whether if some practices are greenwashing or actually sustainable.


Limitations and Suggestions for future research:


Limitations

The main limitation of this research was the lack of fashion industry transparency on their supply chains, moreover, there is an overwhelming amount of marketing campaigns on sustainability in the fashion industry that are founded and subjected to the industry mindset. It has been a trend for textile industries to produce unsustainably to later claim that they are sustainable by only promoting some of their activities in which they counterbalance their prior shortcomings.


Another limitation was the sample size, due to lack of time and economic support, the primary data was mainly sourced from Europeans or the University of Westminster’s students. Consequently, results came mainly from Gen Z’s and therefore gave an overview of the fashion industry that came from similar types of consumers. Without getting an overview of older generations. However, this limitation was partly overcome by secondary research.



Suggestions for future research

Primary data collection should be administered to larger sample sizes. Ideally, surveys are not only aimed at young and educated consumers but also at segments of society with different backgrounds, ages and occupations to better understand how consumer habits are represented in all worldwide markets. Although it is highly important to comprehend how future generations position themselves in front of climate change as consumers, marketing is based on the present, and future research may find that the marketing strategies and supply chains have changed and that the implementation of sustainability, based on worsening climate needs, has to include other social, political or environmental exercises.


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