Why the conscious consumer is here to stay
What retailers and brands need to know.
When 22-year-old New Zealand designer Maggie Hewitt caught the eye of global luxury retailer Net-A-Porter, it was the start of a fairytale rise to the top of the fashion world.
Over the next four years Hewitt and her sustainable fashion label, Maggie Marilyn, would quickly find their place among some of the most coveted brands in the world. The label was stocked by more than 60 retailers, from NAP to Bergdorf Goodman; worn by the likes of Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama; and feted by fashion magazines, with British Vogue describing her ascent as a “lightning rise”.
But a ‘lightning rise’ was never the aim for Hewitt, who has always placed a premium on sustainability and ethical production. So, last month she announced she was pulling her brand from the shelves of all her wholesalers, and doing away with seasonal collections.
Why? To reduce carbon emissions and “use fashion to create a better world”.
At any other time, the designer’s decision might have seemed hopelessly idealistic. But her approach reflects a new commercial reality – and puts her at the forefront of the growing, global trend towards conscious consumption.
Around the world, there’s been an explosion in sustainable fashion and beauty brands, from Nagnata to Biossance, and an adjacent rise in profit-for-purpose retailers such as Warby Parker, which donates a pair of glasses for every pair sold, or Thankyou, which delivers 100 per cent of its profits to charity. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of brands are lending their clout to social causes, from #BlackLivesMatter to non-binary and gender inclusion.
“People are becoming more aware of the planet and of the impact they have,” says Tim Duggan, the founder of youth media website Junkee and author of Cult Status: How To Build A Business People Adore.
People are becoming more aware of the planet and of the impact they have”- Tim Duggan
For the past decade, Duggan has overseen Junkee Media’s annual survey of Australian Millennials and Gen Z, and says that conscious consumerism has emerged as an unmistakable trend. “What’s changed over the past 10 years is this rise in desire for brands to act ethically and with integrity. Brands still need to offer quality… and respond to customers, but the desire for brands to act ethically just overtook everything over the past few years.”
Junkee’s research is backed by numerous other global studies. One Australian study found that a third of consumers have actively boycotted a company or brand in the past year, due to its poor social responsibility; another US study discovered that nine in 10 Millennials would prefer to buy from a brand that supported a cause.
And this isn’t just a feel-good trend. Studies suggest that conscious consumerism makes commercial sense, too. A 2019 US study found that although sustainably marketed products made up just 16.6 per cent of the consumer packaged goods market in 2018, between 2013 and 2018, they accounted for more than half of market growth.
What’s behind the rise in the conscious consumer?
The advent of social media, as well as with our unprecedented access to information, is driving the trend, says Duggan. “Millennials and Gen Z are the most educated and connected generation in history. [This generation] has grown up online, and as part of a global community.”
This has, in turn, fuelled demand for more transparency and accountability. “So, for example, if you think a brand isn’t up to scratch, you can call them out on social media and other people can also call them out, which creates a critical mass.”
If you think a brand isn’t up to scratch, you can call them out on social media”- Tim Duggan
Today’s conscious consumer hasn’t come out of the blue; it’s an evolution of previous social movements, says Duggan. “The difference is that it’s properly mainstream [now]. So, in the past you would have movements like Fair Trade or [business leaders] like Anita Roddick from The Body Shop talking about cruelty to animals, but those people were seen as revolutionaries or environmentalists – or very far to the left. Now that entire movement has shifted so far into the centre.”
Clare Press, who hosts the sustainable fashion podcast The Wardrobe Crisis, agrees. “The interest in sustainability has skyrocketed in the past two years. It now feels that I never receive a fashion-based newsletter or visit a fashion magazine website without being met by stories about upcycling, or even complicated issues like carbon neutrality.”
This is a marked shift, says Press, who spent more than a decade working in magazines, including at Vogue. “When I worked in mainstream fashion media it wasn’t cool to be talking about values or ethics, but now you’ve got a whole generation that’s very motivated by this.”
The interest in sustainability has skyrocketed in the past two years”- Clare Press
This is partly because today’s consumers are more aware of climate change and the textile waste caused by fast fashion, says Press. “We’ve doubled clothing production in 15 years. We’re producing more clothes and we’re throwing them away at a faster rate.”
The issue of textile waste wasn’t even on the agenda when Courtney Holm attended design school in Melbourne in 2012. But when she landed her first job in fashion, she was horrified by the waste she discovered. “I guess I had a moment of clarity where I had to decide: ‘Do I get out of this [industry] entirely? Or am I going to try and change it?’, and that’s when I decided I would give it a try.”
Today Holm runs the fashion label A.BCH, which designs every piece – from the fabrics to the thread and buttons – with sustainability in mind. “We make garments that have fully considered lifecycles,” says Holm, who sends care instructions out with every garment, offers free repairs, and a “pathway for [customers] to send the garment back to us to be recycled at the end”.
Holm also teaches fashion and says, unlike her days at design school, sustainability has become a core subject.
What’s next for the conscious consumer?
As more fashion students study sustainability, and as Millennials and Gen Z rise into positions of power at work, Duggan believes that the influence of the conscious consumer will only grow. “I think that traditional companies with traditional leaders at the helm will not survive the next 30 years,” he says. “There are a lot of new players coming in and over the next 10 years they will put pressure on some of the traditional players.”
What will change is that consumers will become more savvy about greenwashing, and third-party certification bodies such as Good On You and B-Corp will become increasingly important. “On the surface, right now, it’s easy to say you’re sustainable or you use a recyclable material,” says Duggan. “The next change will be people really understanding what different labels mean.”
Press believes that brands will need to work harder to appeal to consumers, especially after COVID-19, which has shown many people how to live with less.
In the meantime, designers like Hewitt will continue pushing for change. “Whilst the last couple of years we have seen a rise in conscious brands and consumers, we are far from being a sustainable industry. But I believe one day we could be, and that is my North Star.”
What retailers can do to appeal to the conscious consumer
Identify your impact
“My first tip would be to take a step back from your day-to-day, grab your team together and try to quantify on paper: what is the impact you’re trying to have as a company?” advises Duggan. “If your impact is only to sell garments or make money for your shareholders, that’s not enough. These days you need to have a bigger impact.”
“Sustainability needs to be part of the DNA of your business, not just ‘bolted on’,” says Holm. “The true conscious consumer will ask the tough questions: is there diversity in your team? Is there a plan to move to circularity, or a plan to eradicate modern slavery from supply chain?”
Evolve your business
“Big brands and department stores must innovate on new business models, from rental to on-demand production,” says Press, who suggests taking on a sustainability consultant. “In the UK, Selfridges is a great example.”
Start small with sustainability
“If you are a smaller independent brand or a boutique retailer, where [employing a sustainability expert] is not realistic, think about breaking up the work into manageable pieces – so start small,” adds Press. “Maybe your first project is to make the switch to more sustainable packaging. That process might fire you up to do more and learn more. Remember, it's a journey. We can’t turn this stuff around overnight.”
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Anna Saunders is the former executive editor of marie claire, and the co-founder of PRIMER, a website, content studio and social enterprise.
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