Fashion used to be a PEST - that is, influenced by Politics, Economics, Society and Tech. Speaking at this month’s NRF conference, WGSN’s VP Consumer Insights, Andrea Bell, delivered a forward-thinking overview of the industry entitled, “Global Forces Shaping the Retail Business Landscape” that elaborated on the acronym created by Harvard professor Francis Aguilar in 1967. 2026 will be the year of redirection as a result of the elections held in 64 countries across the globe. Between now and then half of the world's population will be heading out to vote and old established ideas will be threatened, even rejected, while a polarized society widens further. But it will also herald in new opportunities as creativity and activism will be unleashed aided by fast-emerging technologies.
So to meet this unprecedented moment, the trend forecasting platform has created its own index of six macro themes, or STEPIC drivers: Society; Technology; Environment; Politics; Industry; and Creativity. Here is the breakdown:
Two drastically different scenarios are playing out across the globe. Some countries are aging out while others are exploding with youth leading to a dismantling of age stereotypes. This calls for brands to adopt an age-agnostic mindset and be more fluid when it comes catering to customers. The reality that 48 percent of Americans aged 18-29 live with their parents while Gen Z are freezing their eggs and delaying childbirth will impact business, and the DINKWAD (Double Income No Kids With a Dog) cohort will be an important consumer target.
Intentional tech is the way to stay ahead of the wave of rapid innovation threatening to overwhelm us. By 2031, the virtual human market will reach 440.3 billion dollars, giving rise to a new pool of talent, and we will be managing a virtual human on our team sooner than that. While techno-realists recognize tech as a tool for ethical endeavors, strategic creativity, and real-world solutions, what unites tech-optimists and tech-pessimists is the idea of cultivating symbiotic connections, a desire for balance, the conscious use of tech and eradication of viral disinformation. By 2026, 90 percent of online content could be AI-generated and Adobe, Google and TikTok are already rolling out labeling of content provenance.
The shift from urgency to emergency in the climate crisis is now being led by consumers demanding accountability. Amid murmurs that Europe is considering bans on outdoor advertising that promote mass consumption, and an imminent global biotech boom, innovators will need to consider materials and ingredients from a multi-species perspective. Ethics is the new social capital and efforts should be rewarded, as exemplified by the Plastic Bank Initiative which offers credits for hitting milestones or the promotion of ethical consumption being led by Early Majority, “Fashion’s first degrowth brand” which only allows a limited number of annual purchases.
Geopolitical tensions and rising inequality will give rise to new solutions involving emerging technologies and fresh regional alliances. Get ready to embrace a borderless future as migration enhances the cultural flavor of cities and strengthens the workforce while rebellious resistance against inequality flourishes.
We’ll see a new level of product development in which goods will be designed to disappear without trace at end of use due to material innovation. Polarized consumption resulting from growing political divisions means customers will increasingly be spending based on their values. Pushback against “greedflation” in 2026 will challenge the omnipotence of corporations and globalization. Prepare for the Parallel Partisan Economy where you donate to fund your agenda, whether it be checking where your preferred brand spends its money on Adtech or joining wireless provider Public Square or Patriot Mobile to fund the conservative or Christian agenda.
Activating the imagination and tapping into new worlds will help us make sense of a planet in chaos in 2026. Harnessing the creative power of all five senses across the phygital realm will be important, and offering customizable levels of tactility and interaction. Microjoys will be built into products and experiences.