Sustainable Fashion: Give Youth A Chance

Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry.

Brought to you by Retail Insider, Clipper Group and Give Back Box

This month’s column wonders if the youngsters need to be brought in to achieve real change in fashion. Brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.

A large amount of research exists on the fact it is the young who are the most likely to have green goals close to their hearts. This is often presented as a positive corollary against the more conservative approach of the over 40’s who are much more likely to shy away from renting clothes, reselling clothes, and other such tactics to reduce the amount of textiles going into landfill.

The subscription box from Ralph Lauren

But this is only half the story. The scale of the fast fashion phenomena is driven by the young – the perceived conservatism of the older generation on renting is balanced out by the higher likelihood of them hanging on to clothes for much longer or repairing damaged items rather than re-buying. The problem of endless, carbon-creating returns also belongs to the younger customer. An older purchaser is more likely to physically try on a garment, buy the correct size and colour the first time and thereby avoid the continuous to-and-fro.

Recent research from clothing retailer Superdry found that the bulk of the wardrobes of a majority of 16-25 year olds was made up of fast-fashion items, which is not the case for the older age brackets. The same survey told us what we already knew in that over-55’s buy a new piece of clothing every 21 weeks while the under 16’s go shopping every seven weeks (and even that sounds suspiciously infrequent).

But if the problem can be laid at the doors of the young then so can the solutions. Veteran retailer Marc Bolland, now working with biodegradeable materials manufacturer Polymateria, recently claimed at the World Retail Congress Summit in London that all business should be led on sustainability by people younger than 30 as they are the ones most likely to turn the world upside down.

Marc Bolland at the World Retail Congress in London

This is partly because within that world (and especially the fashion world) the innovators are working in a predominantly online environment. A digital native is by definition much more likely to respond with a tech response to a real world crisis for the simple reason that the smart phone, as the parent of any teenager will confirm, is permanently in their hand. This is just not the case for those over 45 years of age.

It is no surprise that younger consumers are leading the charge at companies such as Depop, which Etsy recently bought for $1.62 billion. Depop is the cool young face of resale and is as far away from rummaging around in a musty charity shop as it is possible to get. Individual sellers create a lifestyle and image into which others buy by purchasing their clothes. It’s all about the curation. And its huge valuation pulls others behind it. Rent The Runway has now entered the same resale market allowing its customers who previously rented to now buy used designer clothes – the company reports that twice as many members now cite sustainable reasons for joining as previously.

The UK-based HURR Collective, which offers peer-to-peer rental, has also teamed up with Depop to launch a collection of pre-rented designs to purchase at a discount of up to 80%. Presumably these are rentable dresses that have come to the end of their rental life. Again the management of HURR is young and actually uses these services, which is why it knows where and how to sell its inventory into yet another life-elongating phase post-renting.

The youthful street-up ripples continue further up the luxury chain as well – a sector frequented by the older consumer and not yet known for being particularly interested in eco-credentials. Ralph Lauren, of all places, has launched a rental service called The Lauren Look. This is when you know that the young are forcing the pace.

And in yet another sign, if it were needed, Selfridges has launched a whole pre-loved wedding shop Resellfridges: The Wedding in its Oxford Street store. Brides and grooms will be able to buy second hand outfits and accessories or rent designer wedding wear for the big day.

The wedding shop at Selfridges

Bolland also noted that this younger sector is the generation who have to be responsible on sustainability – as they will be dealing with the consequences. If one believes that it is the insatiable demands of predominantly the younger customer that has built up the whole fast fashion world as we know it then it is fitting that as that model becomes ever more discredited the solutions and leadership will probably also come from the same generation.

Obviously the older generations have their part to play and a lot of what counts now as ‘sustainable behaviour’ they simply do by nature and upbringing but in terms of innovation and moving the market along at a greater pace it’s time to hand over the reins of power, oldsters.

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