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Sustainable fashion in 2021: What are retailers focusing on

The 5 key themes retailers need to address across sustainable fashion in order to create a better future for people and the planet.
Sustainable fashion in 2021: What are retailers focusing on | EDITED

2021 indicates a fresh start for the fashion industry and retailers are gearing up to leave 2020 behind and bounce back from the challenging year. However, as the climate emergency accelerates, sustainability efforts need to remain a core focus in brands’ strategies. 

The events of this past year have made it clear that the fashion industry cannot return to its pre-pandemic processes and levels of mass production. In this report, we’ve rounded up the essential themes retailers need to address in order to create a better future for people and the planet.

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Climate control

Why take note

COVID-19 drove the biggest annual fall in CO2 emissions since WWII. Emissions declined by 2.4 billion tonnes with the most significant drops registered to France and the UK. Despite this, the fashion industry is still forecasted to overshoot the 1.5-degree goal set in the Paris Climate Agreement twofold. To achieve it, 1.1 billion metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent would need to be restricted by 2030.

How to act

Retailers need to hold themselves accountable with an action plan to reshape their most carbon-intensive processes such as fabric sourcing, shipping and electricity use. In addition to investing in renewable energy and water-saving projects to offset emissions. Putting these practices in place, Reformation is one of the latest brands rethinking its goals and focusing on becoming climate positive by 2025.

New York Fashion Week was estimated to be responsible for between 37,830 and 44,520 metric tons of CO2 each season. Additionally, the global accessibility of digital shows this season is here to stay and will further disrupt the traditional trickle-down effect into the mass market, which has only amplified the industry’s emissions over time with the birth of fast fashion

To stay relevant in 2021, fast fashion needs to act now and consciously evolve. Retail experienced a much-needed slowdown at the pandemic’s peak, with fast fashion arrivals declining 11% between January to April. Younger consumers may be dubbed the activist generation, yet a paradox has long existed with Gen-Z fueling demand for throwaway culture while pioneering sustainable change. This is shifting as consumers fall out of love with fast fashion – 46% of US brands reported a decrease in consumer purchases this year. 

Retailers need to align themselves with new consumer values and reset to focus on investing in the right products in limited SKUs. In the long run, the traditional cycle of flooding the market with newness will only negatively impact the environment as well as retailers’ bottom line. 

For future communications, look to retailers educating their consumers on the climate crisis and rallying their support to reshape the planet’s future through their purchases, whether through offering carbon positive shipping or store credit by switching to renewable energy.

Closing the loop 

According to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, less than 1% of materials used to produce garments are recycled into new ones. The sheer volume of textile waste makes circular fashion a fundamental cornerstone of sustainability, where a core target of 2021 will be to make it scalable. 

How to act

Despite the 40 million tons of textile waste sent to landfills or incinerated each year, not all can be recycled or repurposed. Retailers prioritizing circularity will need to experiment and invest in alternatives to traditional recycling techniques to recover original fibers at a high quality. Blended fabrics are notoriously difficult to repurpose, leading to H&M’s development of the Green Machine in partnership with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA). The machine separates mixed fibers using heat, water and biodegradable chemicals to re-spin into new materials. By early 2021, it will have the capacity to transform around 1.5 tons of old textile waste into raw materials daily. 

Pre-COVID, the rental market was poised to disrupt traditional retail and  become a mainstream sustainable alternative to purchasing new products. However, retailers continued to fine-tune initiatives with Selfridges partnering with HURR Collective on a designer rental collection and Levi’s collaborating with Ganni on a range of upcycled pieces only available for rent through Ganni Repeat. Despite the setbacks to this market, sustainability in fashion will remain an ongoing issue with ample opportunity for the rental space, especially when events restart. 

In comparison, the resale and second-hand market has continued to boom, with ThredUP projecting it to grow five times in size over the next five years. Originally spearheaded by luxury brands, recent initiatives such as Levi’s Buy-Back scheme as well as COS and Zalando’s own resale platforms paves the way for more mass brands to get involved. Collaborations are a great way for brands to dip their toes in this market – look to Gucci’s online shop with The RealReal. Depop’s prowess with the Gen-Z consumer makes it an attractive space for retailers to entice this demographic. 

The pandemic has led consumers to reevaluate their relationship with their clothes. Lockdown led to a surge of DIY tutorials on TikTok, educating consumers on upcycling or repairing goods, as well as refreshing clothes through crafting to increase the item’s longevity. Additionally, 65% of consumers plan to purchase more long-lasting, high-quality goods. This will lead to future demand for timeless, investment pieces that will retain value over time and can eventually be resold. Cult handmade-to-order brand Maison Cléo has launched a capsule collection in Selfridges, reinvigorating interest in tailoring and making slow fashion more accessible. 

Intersectional Environmentalism

Why take note

COVID-19 was a catalyst to rethink sustainable fashion and unpack its entanglement with race and privilege. In 2021, labels can’t rightly call themselves sustainable without being inclusive as marginalized people of color are often left out of the conversation, yet are the most vulnerable to adverse environmental impacts.

How to act

Retailers can no longer afford to not show up. Their support needs to be authentic, going beyond solidarity posts and embedding diversity in their core values to drive actual change with tangible and transparent results. 

To be truly sustainable, environmental initiatives need to be intersectional to benefit both the planet and people. Major players such as Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger launched initiatives this year to improve social and environmental issues with a spotlight on diversity. 

This year, communications to “Reclaim Black Friday” surged, drawing attention to Black-owned businesses or promoting the Redistribution Pledge where retailers allocated a percentage of total sales to Black and Indigenous-led environmental organizations instead of offering markdowns. In the future, these initiatives will only magnify as mass sales events become more considered

As previously discussed, COVID-19 has encouraged fast fashion to experience a much-needed slowdown. However, the repercussions of orders canceled and factories closed were felt by marginalized communities, leaving garment workers in tough financial positions. Regardless of how eco-friendly the fabric is on the care tag, retailers need to promote transparency through their supply chain, foot their bills and ensure humane working conditions.  

Additionally, new research has uncovered hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other minorities forced into hard labor in Xinjiang’s cotton fields. This region accounts for 85% of China’s and 20% of the world’s cotton, making it imperative for the fashion industry to reexamine its ethical sourcing. 

Worldwide Google searches for Intersectional Environmentalism spiked between May and June following the civil unrest in the US and has waned since. While great strides have been made, retailers need to continue raising awareness and championing environmental and social justice all year round. The reckoning from 2020 can’t afford to lose steam and needs to carry through to 2021 and beyond. 

sustainable fashion

Blue is the new green

Why take note

An estimated 4.8 million to 12.7 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, which is expected to triple by 2040 if nothing is done. Following the damage of global warming on coral reefs and the coronavirus pandemic adding to plastic waste as single-use masks and gloves wash up along global shorelines, ocean conservation will remain paramount in 2021.

How to act

Education and raising awareness is vital. Earlier this year, Prada teamed up with UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission to educate secondary school pupils on sustainable practices to preserve the oceans. 

When holidays reboot, sustainable swimwear will be a core focus once more as people flock to the beaches. With consumers spending a year in and out of lockdown, outdoor activities will take precedence as people look to reconnect with nature. This opens an opportunity to invest in eco surfwear, a direction legacy brands such as Roxy and Quiksilver are already leaning towards. 

Currently, recycled synthetics dominate eco-friendly swim collections, led by ECONYL® and REPREVE®. While these materials’ production creates less waste and carbon emissions than their petroleum-based counterparts, they can still damage oceans and water systems due to the shedding of microfibers. Steps were made towards natural, bio-based swimwear using hemp and cotton. However, they are yet to transfer to the mass market, spotlighting another area of future opportunity. 

As the beauty industry prioritizes sustainability, many brands are focusing on ocean conservation leading to the blue beauty movement. While most efforts are around eliminating plastics from packaging, there’s also opportunity in marine-friendly products. Reef-safe sunscreen, which is free from common UV-filtering ingredients linked to coral bleaching such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, is a category to watch.

Animal alternatives

The World Health Organization (WHO) states 60% of all human pathogens and 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases originate from animals. With the coronavirus outbreak beginning from a live trade market and Denmark carrying out a mass culling of infected minks, consumers will further question their consumption and purchase of animal products. 

How to act

Despite the turbulent year for new product deliveries, vegan arrivals continued their upwards trajectory, increasing 8% YoY across categories from August 1st – a trend showing no signs of slowing down. 

Alternatives that are sustainable and mimic the texture of fur, silk, wool or leather aren’t yet widely available in the mass market. Yet, change is in motion and demand is outpacing supply, so retailers need to act fast. 

Kelp leather, which Nike has previously experimented with, has been hailed as one of the best vegan alternatives. It grows faster than bamboo and absorbs CO2, slowing down global warming and ocean acidification. Fruit waste continued to be popularized in sneakers this year with grape leather at Pangaia, apple leather at NA-KD and mango leather at SAYE

There was also growing interest in lab-developed, biofabricated materials such as yeast-engineered silk or mushroom-root leather that were both cruelty-free and less polluting than conventional petroleum-based fabrics. 

Mushroom leather is set to become more commercial in 2021, with adidas, Kering, Lululemon and Stella McCartney investing in Mylo™, a material made with less water and greenhouse gas emissions than real leather. 

Pure leather continues to be big business for luxury brands. However, as high-end designers phase out the use of exotic skins, we can expect them to innovate with materials and techniques that produce cruelty-free goods of a high quality, which could lead to an overhaul of more commonplace animal materials. 

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