Making Sustainability a Fashion Staple

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Remember when shopping the trends was something you did two or three times a year? Now, enthusiastic fashion followers can shop new collections monthly or weekly.

And shoppers have filled up their carts: Innovations in fast fashion were behind a rapid rise in clothing production between 2000 and 2014. Shoppers bought 60% more clothes in 2014 than in 2000. But they only kept those clothes for half as long.

Frequent closet updates can come at a cost to the planet. These days, clothes tend to have shorter life spans and end up in landfills sooner, meaning more clothes have to be produced to replace them, with greater environmental impacts.

Today's consumer demand for cheap, fast fashion may be at odds with a desire for sustainability. But there’s good news too. As the industry grows, manufacturers and consumers are becoming more conscious of the environmental concerns and while there may not be a clear path forward yet, a variety of solutions and approaches are being explored.

The conscientious consumer and a conflicted generation

Karen Levin of the Goldman Sachs Investment Banking Division spoke with James Reinhart, CEO and co-founder of thredUP, one of the largest online resale platforms, on the Exchanges at Goldman Sachs podcast about fashion sustainability.

Reinhart explained that while Gen Z and millennial consumers are vocal about being more sustainable, they are also the generations that buy the most fast fashion. "I think it’s ultimately about them…[using] fashion as a way to show their uniqueness and their delight on a daily basis. Social media drives a lot of this." He called his youngest customers "a very conflicted generation."

But the increased dialogue around sustainability may be encouraging shoppers to rethink how they update their wardrobe. Resale and buying secondhand, for example, could help balance our attraction to the new and unique with a desire to help protect the environment, especially since large-scale clothing recycling hasn’t been successful to date (the technology to turn old clothes into new ones is limited and expensive).

According to Reinhart, buying a secondhand article typically uses 82% less carbon resources, a tenth of the amount of electricity and a tenth of the amount of water.

That’s significant because the fashion industry produces 10% of humanity's carbon emissions today (and that could surge in the next decade) plus enough water to meet the drinking needs of 5 million people.

Resale isn’t without its own issues, however. Secondhand retailers reject many items because they weren’t designed and manufactured to stand the test of time.

Still, resale is one hopeful way forward. In 2021, the global resale apparel market was just under $100 billion. That’s expected to more than double in the next five years, driven by conscious consumerism and the development of new retail technologies and platforms that make selling and buying secondhand fashion more convenient and fun.

Growth vs. sustainability

While resale can be friendlier to the environment, sustainability in fashion isn't just up to shoppers – it must be addressed all the way from creation through disposal. This could include solutions like sourcing greener fabrics and developing cleaner manufacturing processes, in addition to changing the way fabrics are produced so they will hold up better for resale.

These changes can be time-consuming and expensive. Fashion supply chains tend to be global, complex and opaque. Few brands own the assets of production from beginning to end, so true sustainability calls for cooperation among many unrelated companies.

At the same time, stockholders and management pressure businesses to grow. And since it's hard to make shoes or pants or socks perform better, companies continue to try to improve sales by making clothes that are newer, trendier and cheaper. But that may not be the best thing for the planet.

Fashion sustainability has been top of mind lately – and it is a situation that's likely to "take a village" to solve. While clothing manufacturers and other industry stakeholders may look for innovative ways to minimize their direct impact, consumers can help support sustainability by rethinking how they shop.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this website were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but may not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA, Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.

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