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Retail Expert: What Sustainability Means To The Millennial Generation

Retail Expert: What Sustainability Means To The Millennial Generation
Beauty

Jo Godden, Founder of RubyMoon, discusses how brands can limit their environmental impact worldwide

PSFK Op-Eds
  • 25 august 2016

According to Goldman Sachs, there are around 92 million millennials in the US currently, making them the largest demographic in American history so far. Critically, they are also set to be the most important consumer group yet, with estimates of annual spending projected at around $200 billion by 2017, and $10 trillion over their lifetimes as consumers. With these figures comes the all-important question of how business can best cater to this multi-faceted millennial marketplace—the real questions being what do they value? And therefore, what do they want to spend their money on? The question points us back to sustainability.

Recent studies indicate that millennials have a new, insistent consumer appetite that is colored distinctly green. According to a late 2015 study by consumer insight group Nielsen, which polled more than 30,000 online consumers in 60 countries, almost 75% of ‘Generation Y’ (another umbrella term for the millennial generation) are willing to pay extra for sustainable products and services, up from around half in 2014. Moreover, 66% of global respondents said they were willing to pay more to companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact, up from 55% in 2014, and 50% in 2013. It is clear that the millennials are a generation poised to reshape the economy in a number of ways—as their values become increasingly ethically-oriented, so do their expectations as consumers.

Although environmental concern is evidently widespread among this group, the mainstream fashion industry is, surprisingly, one that appears to have remained relatively untouched by this anxiety. The food industry has seen vast improvements over the past ten years, with increases in quantities of organic, fair-trade and free range produce, as well as a concerted effort to reduce unnecessary packaging and produce more packaging from recycled materials. The number of vegans in the UK has increased by more than 360% in the last ten years, and close to half of all vegans today fall within the 15-34 age bracket. And the clothing industry will be a natural follower in the well-willed footsteps of food.

However, as it stands the clothing manufacturing industry is still the second most polluting industry in the world (second only to oil), and it will take years for large companies to make the significant changes that are required – years that can’t really afford to be wasted. With 1 in 6 of the global population currently employed in textiles and clothing, there is opportunity for a wonderful, fashionable upheaval, that would turn this industry into a real game-changer with positive effects worldwide.

rubymoon 4

However, what is often overlooked as part of this revolution is the plethora of small, young and independent fashion companies that are approaching the idea of sustainability with a fresh eye: as an integral part of the organization’s DNA from the very beginning. The surf industry in particular is one that has been mindful of its impact, particularly on the environment. From August 26th, The Surfing Heritage & Culture Center in San Clemente, Ca. is holding “From Plastic to Fantastic,” an exhibition that will focus on ways to reuse, reduce, recycle and repurpose plastics and will showcase examples of innovative, environmentally-friendly products made from recycled materials that would otherwise be filling landfills and polluting oceans. It will feature products from brands such as Betty Belts, Patagonia, Quiksilver, and RubyMoon. 

While some of these brands may be recognizable, there are hundreds of smaller sustainable brands that are consistently flying under the radars of mainstream retailers, and therefore remaining unknown to large consumer segments. Although corporate social responsibility departments and sustainability officers are now commonplace within many large fashion retail corporations, they very often operate from an isolated department instead of forming an integral part of the decision-making process, making change slow and labor-intensive. This is compliance rather than innovation. Here is where the majority of smaller, sustainable brands have the advantage: these purpose-led labels are leagues ahead in terms of using better supply chains, packaging and raw materials, precisely because they have been built upon ethical and sustainable principles from the outset.

However, the main problem facing these pioneering brands is gaining consumer exposure. It is no secret that there is the potential for a sustainable fashion revolution, beginning with a real choice of better brands – but this potential is being suppressed, simply because conscious brands are not being stocked within multi-brand environments. Furthermore, if it is products from ethical brands that millennials want to invest in, then there are hundreds of retail giants that are missing out on this segment by not supplying enough, if any, better sourced product ranges. Buying better would not only benefit the planet, but that all-important bottom line, too.

Millennials are also leading indicators of what BCG Perspectives call a new type of ‘status currency,’ wherein individuals express and project their own values and identity through their purchasing decisions and in particular, the brands they affiliate themselves with as a result of their marketplace choices. Millennials are experiential shoppers who thrive off the special measures a company takes to go beyond the sell: the product alone is no longer enough. This is important, because it means that in order to build strong, trusting and profitable relationships with market segments, companies must first satisfy this generation’s escalating demand for real environmental impact, human passion and compassion, and unarguable authenticity from the companies and brands they choose to buy from – because otherwise, they will simply shop elsewhere.

This is why the revolution must begin at the top. If each buyer from every major multi-brand retailer were to choose just one range from a sustainability-oriented vendor, major positive environmental impact would be put in motion worldwide. Sustainable fashion is expanding rapidly, becoming more impressive and intuitive than ever, but there is a huge proportion of the consumer market that just aren’t getting the opportunity to buy into this sector owing to its lack of incorporation within mainstream multi-brand retail outlets.

Smaller sustainable fashion companies often lack the marketing budget to be able to catapult themselves into the limelight in the same way as larger, long-established brands. They struggle to make wholesales with high-profile retailers, and often instead sell online and remain at the ethical edge of fashion commerce, reduced to a select and internet-based consumer market. The idea of companies ‘doing good’ must be exchanged for that of companies ‘being good,’ as the needs of the millennials require a fundamentally different corporate approach to sustainability, that calls for the integration of ethics with ethos. The responsibility therefore must lie in part with buyers for major multi-brand retailers, to supply consumers with easily accessible, beautiful fashion that doesn’t cost the earth to produce: a simple and under-explored step on the path towards a more sustainable – and highly profitable – future for fashion.

Jo Godden is a specialist swimwear designer with over 20 years of experience working all over the globe for a variety of lingerie and swimwear brands, including GapBody, M&S and Victoria’s Secret.  In 2011 Godden founded her own ethical and designer swim and activewear brand, RubyMoon, as a way to use her industry expertise to make a positive social and environmental impact. RubyMoon offers vibrant, high-quality garments made only from sustainable materials, in order to provide small loans to empower female entrepreneurs in eleven developing nations.  

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