Why Making ‘Sustainable’ Fashion More Searchable Matters

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Sustainable fashion is predicted to be one of the hottest trends of the coming decade, so how do you adapt?

Online shopping is making it easier for customers to ‘shop’ their values. People can do extensive research into the products they want to purchase, such as where it is made, who owns the brand, what other companies the brand is related to, the logistics chain used, and what other products might be similarly offered by another brand.

It makes the shopper more informed about their purchases, but it is also promoting people to be more conscious about the choices they are making and questioning if their purchase aligns with their values. While this transformation has taken place in the food and grocery industries over the past 2 decades, its evolution into the fashion industry has been a little slower.

Much of the focus on the fashion industry has been on human rights and the manufacture of clothing. While this is still a major issue, people are also starting to think more about how the clothing they choose impacts the environment. While the fast-fashion industry has been in motion since the 1960s, it was Zara in the 1990s that elevated the industry to global status and started offering items ripped from the runway, made from cheap fabric and poorly constructed designs, that change weekly.

Fast-fashion clothing is disposable clothing. It is not intended to last. It is designed to appeal to young people with a disposable income wanting to mimic the trends of the runway or celebrities. It is an increasing awareness of this business model, as well as the environmental impacts that such clothing has on the environment, that is driving online businesses to answer customer calls for improved access to information about the clothing that they want to purchase.

Sustainable or environmentally-friendly choices are “…becoming a really important thing to customers,” Zappos Goods for Good Project Manager Anna Copilevitz said.

According to a 2019 Lyst report tracking data for 6 million fashion products from over 12,000 online stores:

  • Searches including sustainability-related keywords increased 75%
  • The gap between what people say their values are and how they actually shop has been closing in recent years.

According to NYU’s Center for Sustainable Business:

  • 50% of packaged goods market growth between 2013 and 2018 came from products that are marketed as “sustainable,” despite such goods only accounting for about 17% of the overall market.

Shoppers are searching for more ‘ethical’ products, and online stores that are aware of how to tailor searches to include such items are seeing improved traffic conversions. Consumers are driving interest in ‘ethical’ product choices, and even larger luxury brands are responding.

However, the biggest question is ‘what qualifies as an ethical product?’ How can online stores organize their products to appeal to consumers without greenwashing?

An online store that sells ‘vegan’ products might also include wool hats. For some vegans, this counts as an animal product. While there are manufacturers who work to be certified as ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’, ‘environmentally friendly’, or otherwise, there are no standardized criteria that manufacturers must adhere to in order to use any of those words. This can be confusing for consumers who might not know what terms mean, or how they can or cannot be applied to products.

While there are apps and other resources available that can help consumers to better understand how terms are applied, what they mean, and which brands are actually fulfilling consumer expectations of ‘ethical’ production, and to what level, it is still confusing for most consumers, particularly in the fashion industry which can be logistically very complex.

For example, an item of clothing might claim that it is made from recycled materials. This could include the use of repurposed plastic, which might only make up 5% of the product in total. Without reading the label, consumers do not know what materials have been used to create a fabric and the percentage of each material. It could feel misleading for some consumers who believe they are making an ethical choice only later to discover that the fabric is not more or less of an ‘ethical’ choice than another material.

Conscious fashion, meaning vintage and second-hand items, are becoming increasingly popular as consumers are becoming aware of the environmental impact of disposed of clothing on the landfill every year. According to statistics:

  • 84% of clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators
  • According to the World Resources Institute, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make 1 cotton shirt
  • The volume of clothing Americans throw away each year has doubled in the past 2 decades, from 7 million to 14 million tons
  • In 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills
  • Textiles can take more than 200 years to decompose in landfills

Making it easy for shoppers to discover which product on your website conforms with their values is a difficult task, but not one to be neglected. While the wellness movement of the noughties paved the way for much of the language used in advertising ‘conscious’ or ‘ethical’ products, the vagueness means that terms are overused, misunderstood, and even misleading. This can be solved by providing a glossary on your website explanation of how you use the terms. For example, an ‘organic’ body wash might have only one ingredient derived from natural sources, as the scientific definition of the word includes all other compounds of carbon. All products with a plant or animal component can claim ‘organic’ ingredients.

However, the cultural term ‘organic’ means ‘of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.’ (Merriam Webster) And that is what customers have come to expect when they purchase organic items. Some consumers are aware that such a label means nothing without the ‘organic’ certification of the country origin of the product, while others are less informed.

Within the textiles industry, there are no autonomous authorities controlling product labeling regarding the status of material used. Textile manufacturing is a large and expansive global industry. Huge amounts of resources are used to make textiles. Cotton requires thousands of liters to create enough fabric for a single shirt. Yet, most consumers have no idea about the journey a single item of clothing takes from plant to rack, which is why they depend on retailers to inform them that the purchasing choice that they are making qualifies with their values.

It is expected that in the coming decade the standards for labeling will change, Greenwashing will be exposed and brands that have been irresponsible, misleading, or ignorant will likely be hit hard in the coming years as the global economy slows with the impact of the pandemic reaching further into global trade and job opportunities. People working from home need less clothing and are buying leisurewear. Others are taking the opportunity to downsize and reassess the need for maximalism. Others still are trying to save money and shopping for second-hand and vintage clothing in an effort to reduce their spending, and their carbon footprint. Including such topics in your blogs, and making them easily searchable on your website will encourage shoppers to trust that your online store is working with social consciousness and paying attention to what consumers say that they want.


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