Banana Republic is plugging its vegan suede jackets. J. Crew's Madewell brand is urging consumers to turn their "old jeans" into "new homes" through its denim recycling program. Even fast-fashion giants, such as H&M and Uniqlo, which by definition are the opposite of ethically sourced apparel, are touting organic collections or recycling initiatives. Nearly every apparel marketer is following consumer demand by leaping onto the green wagon.
"Sustainability used to be seen as a nice-to-have and a fringe trend, but now it's a core differentiator and a way consumers are really deciding between brands," says Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the Innovation Group and JWTIntelligence.com at Wunderman Thompson. New generations of buyers, specifically millennials and Gen Z, care more about the earth they're poised to inherit and have adjusted their spending accordingly. Indeed, in a recent Nielsen survey, 81 percent of consumers said they felt strongly that companies should help improve the environment.
Of course, incorporating some type of environmentally friendly practices into a label could mean a variety of things. Some brands use recycled materials to produce their wares; others claim to recycle goods after they've been purchased. Uniqlo, for example, has a recycling drop-off bin at its stores for consumers to leave unwanted clothing. Other companies, like direct-to-consumer player Everlane, market radical transparency so shoppers know how goods are produced every step of the way. Sustainability can also mean ethical production, in which workers are treated fairly and paid well, and sourcing materials in an environmentally friendly way.
This lack of a clear definition of terms is proving both beneficial and burdensome for brands grappling with how to best market their environmental consciousness to consumers. Some have gotten in trouble for inauthenticity, or when common practices, like Burberry's burning of excess goods last year, come to light on social media. Meanwhile, new apps for consumers provide brand ratings based on environmental impact, making it even more imperative for brands to get it right with their marketing messaging.
"It's the Wild West out there right now," says Paul Magel, president of the business applications and technology outsourcing division at CGS, a software company that works with retail clients. "Brands can tout what they want to tout. It's not like there's a government-mandated label that says 'To use sustainable, it has to have these tenets.'"
From crunchy to conventional
Historically, brands that dabbled in environmentally friendly practices were considered crunchy and unconventional; in the '60s and '70s, the trend started to gain traction. Some brands, such as sportswear marketer Patagonia and womenswear label Eileen Fisher, have always incorporated green initiatives into their operations, but it was not until the early 2000s that green messaging filtered out into the mainstream, as mass market brands began to notice the potential benefits. In recent years, social campaigns like #fashionrevolution and #slowfashion, which encourage consumers to take a deeper look into how their clothes are made, have helped spread demand for more transparency.