Gen Z may be leading the sustainability charge but so far their eco-conscious hopes for the future is marred by their shopping habits and keeping fast fashion retailers like Shein and H&M in high demand. A viral hashtag on TikTok, called “Keep or Return”, has clocked over 140 million views.
Here fashion bloggers order mountains of clothing to try on, calling on their followers to decide which purchases deserve a place in their closet. Thanks to free returns, creators can produce videos on tight budgets by sending back most (if not all) of their purchases.
The fashion industry has a notoriously high carbon footprint and clothing returns are incredibly problematic for both businesses and the environment. Around 30 percent of online purchases are subsequently returned, much of which goes to landfill.
Whitney Carthcart, a sustainability expert and co-founder and CCO of 3DLOOK, the company behind the leading virtual fitting room YourFit, says of the the trend:
“Having spent 30 years in fashion, I’ve seen the damaging impact of the industry spiral out of control as shoppers moved online, happily making the most of perks such as free returns without truly understanding what happens to the items that they send back. That top that didn’t fit quite right will go back on the rack for somebody else to buy anyway, right?
Well, your purchase will make its way from your home to a distribution center and then, at some point, the store on a gas-guzzling truck, filling the air with harmful emissions along the way. It may eventually go back on sale, but if it’s no longer in top condition, its next stop is the bargain bin or on the racks of a discounter. At the end of the day, 92 million tons of clothing end up in a landfill site, where it's either burned - immediately releasing harmful pollutants into the atmosphere - or buried to break down slowly, causing environmental harm for generations to come.
FashionUnited spoke with Whitney about the slow changes happening in consumerism and moving toward a sustainable future:
Social media platforms are not going anywhere and communicating in the digital realm is the norm. What is the alternative for fashion brands and influencers as a large part of their success is the constant newness of showing multiple looks that drives engagement.
If a brand is looking to meet the rising demand for sustainable practices, it should find a way to put them front and center across the whole company. This includes incorporating sustainable practices in design, materials sourcing, marketing, and e-commerce as well. Shoppers today know when a brand is being truly authentic and communicating its commitment to the planet and a more sustainable fashion ecosystem is critical to acquire and keep loyal customers today more than ever.
Brands that have massive social followings can use their channels to educate their shoppers on the damage fashion causes - and not just the products themselves, but also the impact of excessive and unnecessary returns. Shoppers love and trust the brands they follow and will undoubtedly be receptive to this new, eco-friendly message — after all, consumers aren’t over-reliant on returns because they enjoy causing environmental harm. They just aren’t aware of the damage it causes.
Many brands have sustained success in the digital realm without putting engagement ahead of the environment. Collaborate with eco-focused influencers, present your products with transparency and create an experience that reduces the guesswork involved in the customer journey. Brands can provide product images that feature a diverse range of body shapes, for instance, or create videos that showcase clothing from a variety of angles. Alternatively, implementing a virtual fitting room can allow shoppers to judge an item’s fit and look on their own body - while encouraging shoppers to share outfits to their own social media followers, driving further engagement for brands without an environmental cost.
Many influencers buy clothes to showcase on social media and subsequently return these. A virtual fitting room would not solve this issue of consumerism, for which there remains a huge appetite. What are your thoughts on the industry moving toward a realistic and sustainable future?
The shift towards sustainable practices is already happening! Statistics show that more than 50 percent of consumers want the fashion industry to become more sustainable and are actively doing their part for our planet. For instance, 57 percent are now trying to make their purchases last longer to ease the effect on the environment, and are willing to pay more for products that promise less impact.
Gen Z consumers are leading this change, with 90 percent having altered their actions to be more sustainable. Some 70 percent are now influenced by commitments to fair wages and safety, 60 percent care about a brand’s carbon footprint and 45 percent are already seeking eco-friendly materials. These young consumers are closely watching what the brands they shop with say and do, and are more than willing to boycott those that fail to meet their increasingly high sustainability standards.
Change cannot occur overnight, but the industry must accept that excessive consumerism and frivolous returns are fast going out of fashion - just look at the recent collapse of Missguided. While there was a multitude of issues involved, growing knowledge among consumers of fast fashion’s sustainability and ethical lapses certainly played a part. Consumers are wising up to the fact that fashion has forced unhealthy practices on them for decades, and for those retailers that fail to freshen up their image, an abundance of mission-driven brands are just waiting to address these concerns.