Fashion Forecast: Sustainability is Trending for Apparel brands

Last year’s eye-opening fast-fashion documentary The True Cost may have highlighted the disconnect between clothing manufacturers and today’s consumers, but surely Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscars acceptance speech on climate change is a call for real action. There is no excuse left to ignore the sustainability issues inherent in the fashion industry – and innovation and creativity could be at the heart of the solution.

IKEA’s chief sustainability officer, Steve Howard, recently suggested that we have reached “peak stuff”. His comments may come as a surprise given the business model of the Swedish furniture giant, yet this sentiment resonates throughout consumer groups. Many people are growing tired of the instant gratification provided by cheap product purchases, and are instead seeking out quality and longevity in the goods they buy.

For some, sustainability is actively sought out; for others, it adds an extra feelgood factor to a purchase. Due to the increasingly transparent nature of supply-chain management, brands are being forced to disclose their practices but are, crucially, recognising the benefits of doing so.

“Some 41% of US consumers claim they are influenced by the environmental impact of the products they buy, and 64% of US consumers claim they expect companies to be more environmentally friendly,” suggests the Mintel UK Consumer Trends 2015 report.


Sustainable fashion innovation is appearing in many forms, from the catwalk to the street, and feelgood purchase power is becoming an increasingly valuable commercial asset. Stella McCartney has an established ethical stance, and other designers are playing their part. Rome-based designer Stella Jean works with artisans in developing countries to help foster traditional craftsmanship and develop skills; New York’s Suno works with production facilities in Kenya, India and Peru to develop what it calls “high-end collections with a conscience”.

New designers face many challenges when trying to start a business. Many lack the financial backing to invest in trade shows, PR or even materials, and even with the best intentions, sustainability can be too complex and costly to achieve. The Selfridges department store in London recently revealed its Bright New Things showcase, and this year’s theme is sustainability. Designers such as Faustine Steinmetz and Martina Spetlova focus on upcycled materials using handmade techniques, and encourage consumers to keep clothing for longer.

Designer Katy Jones told The Guardian newspaper, “You pick a couple of battles when working with sustainability and decide what you want to target.” Though these young designers are aware of the limits in becoming 100% sustainable, they prioritise innovation – whether that’s sourcing reclaimed fabrics, reducing electricity use or encouraging customers to wash their clothes less often.

Not only is sustainability becoming a priority for clothing brands, but accessories, swimwear and footwear are also receiving a ‘green’ overhaul. New York-based swimwear brand Giejo recently collaborated with Madewell to produce a sustainable range. Using vintage and reclaimed fabrics, the collection is produced in New Jersey. Canadian brand Matt & Nat was established in 1995, and produces non-leather handbags. It continues to experiment with materials such as cardboard, rubber and cork, and is now committed to only using linings made from 100%-recycled plastic bottles.

The rise of sustainability also coincides with the increasing popularity of activewear. Exercise trends show a return to the great outdoors; fitness fanatics would rather take on hikes and outdoor challenges than continue the monotony of running in a gym. This establishes a renewed connection with the environment, which is reflected in their choice of clothing. Patagonia is known for its unorthodox selling style, encouraging consumers to buy less and offering to repair worn garments for free to reduce the need for further purchases. Some smaller activewear brands are also incorporating sustainability into their USP.

Newton Running, based in Boulder, Colorado, is the first footwear brand to achieve B Corps status, which certifies its commitment to social and environmental sustainability. Surfer Kelly Slater’s brand Outerknown takes inspiration from the natural world with a focus on sustainable materials; reclaimed fishing nets offer an alternative to nylon, while hemp is used to replace cotton in denim blends.

Technology is also helping to further the cause. Online brands can reduce their overheads and, in doing so, pass the savings on to customers. Sustainability focused fashion company Zady talks about “the new standard” where consumers are returning to ideas of style and quality over trend-based buying. It claims that the fashion industry is now producing 400% more clothing than 20 years ago, and that something must change to stem the tide. Not only does it produce its own range of clothing, accessories and homeware, it also acts as a platform for other brands engaging in sustainable methods and ethical principles. Brand spokespeople such as actor Emma Watson support its cause.

Though ethical and sustainable issues will continue within the fashion industry for some time to come, there is hope for change. Designers, mass-market brands and ecommerce platforms are busy innovating in order to do less harm to the environment and to the workers that produce their products. And if they don’t, the increasingly educated consumer will take their custom elsewhere.



Louise Stuart Trainor is a lifestyle and consumer trend-forecasting specialist with a background in fashion design. Through the lens of art, design, technology and fashion, she analyses sociocultural changes to provide consumer insight and brand strategy.