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Fashion’s ‘Green’ Recovery Looks More Like New Product Overload

·3-min read

While the degrowth movement showed promise at the pandemic’s onset, as the world reopened, product drops once again ramped up.

This and other sustainability trends were captured in global market intelligence firm Edited’s annual sustainability report released Wednesday. Leveraging artificial intelligence, the platform tracks data from more than 180 online retailers spanning luxury, department stores and mass market retail across the U.S. and U.K.

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According to Edited market analyst Kayla Marci, overproduction remains a “glaring issue” with the lines between progress and greenwashing ever-blurry and “more [product] newness than ever before.” Add to that, “fast fashion is only getting faster” with Edited finding the majority of products online at the major fast-fashion players are less than three months old.

From May to August this year, new product arrivals were up 38 percent from 2020 levels, according to Edited, throwing promises of a pandemic-prompted reduced consumption reset out the window. Product arrivals even outpaced pre-pandemic levels, up 7 percent compared to 2019 levels.

And within that, what sustainable products have been hitting the shelves? Definitely more than in years past.

Since 2019, the number of sustainable underwear stocked, for example, has increased 111 percent. Outdoor wear also rose, with sustainable hiking boots and trail sneakers up 76 percent and sustainable outdoor puffers up 284 percent, since 2019. These products used some portion of recycled content.

New categories for fashion, like sustainable homeware, also emerged as work-from-home lifestyles continued. Both John Lewis & Partners expanding its furniture rental, and Mango dropping a locally sourced textiles line, stoked interest in the category.

But just because a product is marketed as sustainable doesn’t mean it’s actually better. Edited’s latest report also homed in on some common greenwashing areas, including around “recycled” and cruelty-free fabrics.

Only 34 percent of products marketed as “recycled” contain 100 percent recycled materials in the U.S. and 26 percent in the U.K. “This means over half of the recycled products in each region are blended with other materials,” Marci said, meaning environmental claims can “ring hollow.” The same can be said about vegan products, which are not inherently more sustainable.

In any case, Marci believes “retailers need to be tackling the environmental crisis from multiple angles — not just their products’ care and composition label, but also extending to the emissions within their value chain, what happens to their products at the end of their lifespan, the welfare of their garment workers and so on.”

Another angle long missed in the sustainability conversation is extended sizing. Referencing brands like activewear label Girlfriend Collective, underwear brand Parade and Scandi label Ganni’s collaboration with plus retailer 11 Honoré, Marci said sustainability must encompass size-inclusivity.

“These players have nailed the ability to speak to younger consumers through inclusive marketing and making responsible products aspirational as well as available to all, especially when there are limitations around more environmentally friendly products not being available in extended sizes,” Marci said.

Edited’s report also examines Gen Z’s complicated relationship with sustainability. Often painted as the biggest drivers of sustainability (and soon to be largest consumer demographic), Gen Z may be perpetuating overconsumption with clothing hauls and unboxing videos.

“The Gen Z consumers’ devotion to sustainability is an oxymoron,” Marci said. “As the impending effects of climate change cloud this cohort’s future, they are portrayed as the ultimate eco-warrior. However, they are also the only generation that has been weaned on fast fashion and their addiction to the latest flash-in-the-pan trend translated to a disposable garment at a dirt-cheap price is hard to break.”

Sifting through the existing hurdles, the report signals solutions for advancing sustainability in innovative materials, pre-order, digital and circular (including repair and resale) fashion, as well as marketing transparency.

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