Fashion isn’t sustainable. Can brands make sustainability fashionable?
Analysis by Audrey Tsen, Rachel Ng
Writing by Michelle Lee
Data by Hoang Nam Nguyen
Design by Eeza Sheren
Fashion is destroying the environment. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions - more than air travel and shipping combined. Washing synthetic textiles releases 500,000 tons of microfibres - the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles - into the ocean each year.
Many major brands have responded by amping up their commitments to sustainability. At the recently concluded COP26, the United Nations Fashion Charter - signed by 130 brands including Chanel and Burberry - set a new target for brands to halve carbon emissions by 2030.
The growth of fast fashion has been fuelled by an insatiable desire for cheap, trendy clothes that are rapidly discarded. In the US, the average consumer throws away 81lbs (37kg) of clothing every single year.
As the climate crisis accelerates, we ask: how can brands make sustainability fashionable?
People’s online behaviour reveals what they care about. What people post, like, search or comment upon, and who they follow is telling of their values and interests.
With this in mind, we used social network mapping to explore how brands can make consumers in the US care about sustainability.
How many consumers in the US care about sustainability?
We started with a broad definition of what ‘caring about sustainability’ could look like: following politicians or influencers outspoken about climate change, media that focus on environmental issues, authors and activists, movements like Fridays for Future, as well as ethical brands like Stonyfield, Allbirds, REI and Olio. We created a long list of US Twitter accounts that reflect these categories.
Looking at the followers of this comprehensive list of ‘sustainability’ accounts, we uncovered the network of people who engage with sustainability in its various forms on social media. We treated this as a proxy for how much they care about sustainability.
What we found was that 26% of consumers in the US (85mn) engage with sustainability accounts online.
After identifying the people who engage with sustainability, we grouped them into audience segments based on their interests (sustainability-related and otherwise), such as media, brands, and people they follow. Those with similar interests were mathematically ‘clustered’ into the same segments.
We identified 6 different audience segments who care about sustainability in the US.
In fashion, how much do consumers care?
We found that 26% of US consumers do care about sustainability. But do fashion consumers care more, or less?
We looked at five major sports apparel brands: Nike, adidas, Lululemon, Patagonia, and The North Face, to see how much their consumer audiences care about sustainability.
We looked at how much of each brand’s audience overlaps with the US sustainability audience online. Brand audience: Twitter accounts based in the US that are following official brand accounts, e.g. @patagonia, @patagoniaprov. Sustainability audience: Twitter accounts that match any one of the six audience personas identified above.
These 5 sportswear brands represent different brand approaches and commitment levels to sustainability, along a range of price points: streetwear (Nike, adidas), premium athleisure (Lululemon), and outdoor/technical sportswear (Patagonia, The North Face).
We hypothesized that aside from their publicized sustainability efforts / initiatives, the type of sports the brands focus on and their product price points would be two important factors influencing their appeal to consumers who care about sustainability.
We predicted that outdoors brands are more likely to attract nature lovers, people who might naturally gravitate more towards eco-causes and sustainability.
We also expected premium brands’ audiences to care more about sustainability, because they can afford to. Sustainable items tend to come at a price premium. Green products have become the new status symbol: a way to signal one’s eco-friendly values. One manifestation of this is the HydroFlask’s elevation to a fashion accessory, with consumers willing to pay $50 for a premium water bottle that also cues a personal commitment to reducing waste.
Here’s what we found…
Unsurprisingly, Patagonia and The North Face have the strongest appeal to consumers who care about sustainability. What both brands sell is the adventure and wonder of exploring the great outdoors, with slogans like “Never stop exploring”. They don’t offer equipment for team sports. Instead, their apparel caters to activities like hiking, surfing, and rock climbing that emphasize individual communion with the beauty of the wilderness.
Patagonia takes the love of nature one step further, making sustainability its core purpose. In 2019 it changed its brand mission from “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” to “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet."
These outdoors brands’ technical gear also comes with a higher price point. Their price premium - a beanie from The North Face costs $62 - offers a shortcut to signal not only spending power, but also that one is willing to invest in ethical consumption.
Do brands match their consumers' values with actual commitment to sustainability?
Are brands like Patagonia and The North Face as sustainable as their eco-friendly consumer base would suggest? Conversely, are brands like Nike and adidas, with fewer consumers who care about sustainability, really more responsible for destroying the planet?
We compared their sustainability audience size to their rating on Good On You, a platform that rates fashion brands based on their commitment to doing better by the planet, people and animals—crucial issues that matter for a sustainable future in fashion.
Good On You’s brand rating system considers factors like eco-friendly materials, supply chain transparency, sustainability goals, and fair wages to assess a brand’s impact.
Patagonia: a strong case for the consumer upside to sustainability.
Patagonia is an example of a brand whose commitment is highly aligned with its consumers’ values. The brand is genuinely invested in sustainability with eco-friendly materials, transparent processes, and consistent activism. With 80% of its consumers engaging with sustainability, Patagonia is delivering what its consumers want.
Patagonia’s example tells us that when brands are laser focused in their sustainability efforts, the potential to attract consumers who share the same values is high.
With 85mn people in the US who already care about sustainability, brands like Patagonia are well-placed to use their platform to encourage more people to challenge unnecessary consumption and support brands that genuinely champion sustainability.
Lululemon and The North Face risk falling short of consumers’ expectations.
Despite 34% and 72% of their consumers caring about sustainability respectively, Lululemon and The North Face have low ratings for sustainability. Image source: Lululemon/Business Wire
Lululemon and The North Face should lean much more heavily into sustainable practices to retain their audience - or risk losing them. Their consumers care about sustainability. Yet, according to Good On You, both brands have some way to go when it comes to eco-friendly practices.
Both brands should be mindful in their sustainability messaging as they run the risk of being called out. Not only does a significant proportion of their audience care about sustainability, consumers are becoming increasingly discerning, with a 71% rise in searches around sustainable goods over the past five years. As consumers’ knowledge and expectations grow, we foresee increasing pressure on these brands to do more.
Taking action is especially critical for The North Face. Of their brand audience, 72% care about sustainability, a proportion close to Patagonia’s brand audience. Yet, The North Face has room to improve when it comes to environmental impact and supply chain transparency. The brand risks alienating or losing their majority consumer base if it doesn’t step up.
To them, we say: don’t wait for your consumers to start pushing you toward sustainability. Take the lead to close that gap and drive sustainability efforts.
Rather than claim to already be sustainable, these brands can acknowledge and communicate that they are on a journey to minimise their impact - they are not perfect yet, but working on it. To them, we say: don’t wait for your consumers to start pushing you toward sustainability. Take the lead to close that gap and drive sustainability efforts.
adidas is doing a great job - but do its consumers care?
adidas has focused on reducing its carbon footprint, specifically plastic usage, since 2012. Initiatives include adidas x Parley shoes made from ocean plastic (above) and the ADIZERO Primegreen Authentic NHL jerseys made from 50% recycled material. Image source: adidas
To our surprise, adidas’ small sustainability audience size belies its big commitment to the cause. Good On You rates the brand as “Good” thanks to its use of eco-friendly materials, including recycled ocean plastic and ethical leather, and the transparency with which it traces and audits its supply chain. That’s the same rating as Patagonia!
adidas should be confident about growing with more consumers who care about sustainability. It’s a great example of a brand making big commitments to change: realising early that it needs to be better and making the right investments to actualise this. In fact, the brand is well-recognised within the industry for being a sustainability leader.
Yet with only 28% of its consumers caring about sustainability, its efforts could be falling on deaf ears - or the wrong ones.
adidas shouldn’t hold back when it comes to winning over new audiences who care, but who may not yet consider it a ‘sustainable’ brand. The brand has the credibility to reach out to serious eco-warriors who have high expectations for the brands they buy from.
We already see adidas starting to reach out to a wider sustainability audience as it makes a big play in adventure and outdoor sports with the launch of its TERREX FW21 sustainable hiking collection and first outdoor sport flagship store opening in Munich.
adidas’ lower price point makes it more accessible for more people to engage with sustainability, giving it the potential to become even more influential than brands like Patagonia. With the right moves adidas can lead the sustainability narrative in fashion and wider consumer culture.
Brands have different opportunities and challenges in the sustainability space.
To draw in a bigger ethical audience, it’s important for brands to demonstrate their commitment to the cause. But there's another part of the equation - how their sustainability initiatives are being marketed.
As consumers, we’ve all experienced moments where our best intentions don’t live up to our actions. Packing groceries into plastic bags despite being aware of worsening ocean pollution. Consuming meat despite livestock farming contributing to 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Mark Sagoff, author of The Economy of the Earth, captures the inconsistency between intention and action:
"I love my car; I hate the bus. Yet I vote for candidates who promise to tax gasoline to pay for public transportation. I send my dues to the Sierra club to protect areas in Alaska I shall never visit…I have an “Ecology Now” sticker on a car that drips oil everywhere it is parked."
Effective marketing can offer the extra push to get consumers to act in a way consistent with sustainable values. To do this, brands need to understand that people’s tastes and values are multi faceted. Consumers may care about sustainability, but their purchase decisions and brand preferences can be influenced by other factors, like purchasing context or their other concerns and priorities.
In part two of this piece, we’ll go into more detail about each brand’s sustainability audiences. We’ll look at who each brand’s core sustainability audiences are, which audiences they have to work harder to win over, and how this can shape effective sustainability strategy and marketing efforts.
Interested in working with us to analyse your sustainability audiences and how you can reach them? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.