Consumers’ calls for sustainability are transcending social media chatter and translating tangibly into how they’re spending their shopping budgets.

Shawn MacDonald, CEO of Verité

Shawn MacDonald, CEO of Verité

Liddy Manson, chief operating officer at PreciseTarget

Liddy Manson, chief operating officer at PreciseTarget

During moments of disruption, new ideas and movements often find a unique opportunity to thrive. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the push for sustainability in the apparel world is gaining steam among consumers calling on brands to foster change through their products and move toward a system that reduces waste and supports greater ecological integrity and social justice.

The continued—and even accelerated—momentum behind consumer demand for sustainability has notable implications for retailers, many of whom are struggling to kickstart their recoveries and begin moving the inventory that’s been languishing in their warehouses.

What should these brands consider in their recovery planning as they strive to reconnect with consumers who are buying less but demanding more from their products?

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Hitting the retail reset button

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic put consumer shopping behavior as we know it on hold. Typical buying patterns froze as everyone tried to collectively wrap their heads around the world’s new social and economic realities. During this moment of pause, many consumers took the time to rethink what they need. They hit the reset button on their spending habits and, with the newfound realization that they don’t need nearly as much as they once thought they did, they turned renewed attention to the sustainability of their purchases.

Given the current political climate, younger generations are raising their voices and expecting to be heard on many levels. If they’re not already, retailers need to start listening. Consumers’ calls for sustainability are transcending social media chatter and translating quite tangibly into how they’re spending their now-limited shopping budgets and managing their purchases. Consider, for example, the explosive growth currently being seen by online resale platforms like thredUP, both in terms of item intake and actual sales. Such growth represents a clear movement away from the disposable economy as younger shoppers declare that they’re going to do things differently with their actions and dollars.

Brands like Patagonia and Allbirds have already firmly aligned themselves with the trend toward sustainable practices in apparel. Still, the current movement is extending well beyond niche audiences for premium products. Second-tier brands are waking to discover that they’re not going to be able to hold onto their customer bases—particularly among Gen Z—if they don’t move toward greater sustainability.

The pandemic challenges for American brands

For American brands, the need to determine where and how sustainability fits within their value propositions comes at a time when other fundamental production and logistics processes also need to be reevaluated. For example, in a world where no one in America will be able to travel abroad for the foreseeable future, what happens to relationships with overseas factories? In short order, some brands might be pulling certain manufacturing jobs closer to home, while others contend with the loss of control that a lack of on-site visits affords.

Meanwhile, in the age of DTC and the continued decline of American department stores, it’s highly likely we’ll see certain overseas factories bypass American brands altogether and go direct to American consumers through Amazon and Shopify. Their decision to remove designer labels from their products and go direct to consumers will result in further fragmentation in soft goods delivery. It will also put greater pressure on American apparel brands to refine their value propositions—both in practice and in messaging—and ensure they’re reaching the right customers with the right communications.

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For many brands, recovery and growth in the future will depend on how they adapt to current consumer demands for demonstrated sustainability. But regardless of where sustainability fits within a company’s value proposition, success will ultimately depend on finding the customers who share those values and articulating a brand’s unique fit within the ever-constricting market. In a world where less suddenly means more to consumers, making the right connections has never been more vital.

PreciseTarget provides shopper data helps apparel retailers and brands.

Verité is a nonprofit that provides the knowledge and tools intended to eliminate the most serious labor and human rights abuses in global supply chains.   

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