We would like to answer with an unequivocal no, state that mentalities have changed for good, and that like today’s consumers, new company leaders are concerned with sustainable development ahead of anything else…
Is fashion virtuous?
For a few years now, the brands taking off here in France have been those that have embraced sustainable values: Le Slip Français, Sézane, Veja, etc. Especially in the jeans and trainers segments, start-ups stand for ethically-sound values, seek out items made In France, with short supply chains and organic or recycled raw materials, and they are thriving!
They have attracted new consumers, not least millennials. This is most probably due to their disruptive values, but maybe more than anything – let’s not be under any illusions here – due to their trendy products, off-the-wall messaging and advertising. Their inspiring storytelling is also well in keeping with the zeitgeist.
Would these brands have been as successful if they had merely stated their sustainable development values? Indisputably not. To reach this conclusion, you only have to look at how poorly a few organic textile brands have fared without any other messaging. Lastly, an essential point must be stressed: these brands are aimed at populations who have – or allow themselves – the budget to buy items with an average price that’s much higher than average.
Conversely, faced with growing demand [44% of those in the 17-26 age bracket state that they would like to see greater use of eco-friendly fabrics in fashion], more and more big chains are embarking on the sale of certified organic or ethically-sound products. According to a study by the IFM (French Fashion Institute), these brands (often offshoots of major groups), embrace the eco-friendly trend to improve their image (83%) or increase their turnover (65%). Certainly they are more virtuous, but also opportunistic. Let alone that the same study shows that only 8% of textile chains see sustainable development as a priority.
It has to be affordable for every budget
2020 was a terrible year for the clothing sector. While online sales overperformed (+42%), turnover as a whole is said to have plummeted by 55%. On top of this recessive trend came a worrying structural figure: the household budget allocated to clothing purchases dropped by ten points between 1990 and 2020.
Clothing purchases – seen as low priority – are very much governed by the household budget. And when that budget is tight, you check the price before anything else.
According to the IFM, 58% of total online sales are made at discounted prices. In 2020, those who did well out of clothing sales were Vinted, Vestiaire Collective, Veepee and Showroomprivé, so second-hand or bargain basement sites, which millennials also favour. As for the younger set, with an even tighter budget, they go right ahead and buy on sites like Shein or go in for Fast Fashion. For the majority of them, sustainability and ethically-sound values are very much secondary concerns.
Most ethically-sound brands, however, have incorporated the rejection of rolling promotions like Black Friday, private sales and the like into their values.
Opportunistic business leaders
As a result: alongside brands with ethically-sound values, a number of mini labels are popping up which work on a just-in-time basis “customising” clothes that are pre-designed and bought at low prices from the same suppliers as Fast Fashion labels. In fact, this is one of the models recommended to young company leaders wanting to set up a fashion brand.
All the more since one of the best-performing markets of recent times is that of streetwear, which is not the most ethically sound. In this way, a number of sites or shops offer T-shirts or sweatshirts made in Asia or North Africa, customised to order and on site.
So it’s still much easier and more profitable to set up a label that uses the resources of Fast Fashion but the advertising of trendy labels. That means small production runs, on a just-in-time or made-to-order basis, at very affordable prices. Even if it means being here today, gone tomorrow, and switching concepts in line with trends.
Long live metafashion!
Solving the problem of overconsumption and exploitation of natural and human resources, whilst supporting the creative process and selling a few clothes – expensive ones for the moment – is a done deal in the virtual world. It may seem surreal, yet 2020 saw a boom in virtual fashion, and the announcement of Metaverses to be created by Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook, now renamed Meta). Other players on the web of the future offer a promising future for digital fashion, as is already the case of the Fortnite game.
In this way, at home in your pyjamas, you can create avatars which will wear clothes picked out or even co-created and purchased online.
Back in 2019, The Fabricant created Iridescence, the first virtual dress, auctioned for $9,500. The virtual fashion pioneer also works with a number of big names in fashion, like Under Armour and Puma, to create screenwear. Here there are no seasons or surpluses, but instead creative or even zany clothes whereby fashion reclaims its values.
And in the words of the founder of The Fabricant: “Digital fashion production generates less than 10% of the carbon emissions of a physical garment across its life cycle (0.7 g versus 8 g of CO2). Digital fashion will never end up in a rubbish dump, will never generate plastic waste and will never contribute to water pollution.”
So it seems difficult to set up ethically-sound and sustainable fashion brands only. Because they require customers to have a certain amount of purchasing power that the vast majority – especially the youngest ones who are the biggest clothing consumers – do not have.
Conversely, with the advent of digital fashion, are we to expect a future in which we only wear physical clothes that are ecologically sound, plain and utilitarian and in which creativity and craziness would be let loose in digital universes? Utopia or dystopia? You be the judge.