Retailers and the rising trend of sustainability: what marketers need to know

What Marketers Need To Know

In the words of our favorite Project Runway hosts: “In fashion, one day you’re in and the next you’re out.” While it may seem like sustainability is fashion’s newest trend, a deeper look at social media shows that consumer demand for more sustainable fashion is here to stay. And while the retail industry has weathered significant change lately, sustainability is one trend that just keeps rising.

Using Sprout Social’s Listening tool, we uncovered just how popular sustainability is online. As of April 21, 2020, the total Twitter conversation volume around sustainability was upwards of 41,000 messages, with conversations including #SustainableFashion growing 7% from January to February.

Despite the obvious disruption due to COVID-19, we still saw nearly 10,000 total Tweets around #SustainableFashion in March (or 73% of the previous month’s total volume). Meanwhile, searches for “eco-friendly living” and “zero waste products” have grown 93% and 108% respectively on Pinterest—leading the platform to launch a brand new sustainable product collection in the Pinterest Shop in honor of Earth Day.

With so many consumers backing the sustainability movement, it’s no wonder that brands are increasingly using the umbrella term sustainability in their social messaging. But with the movement so broad and ill-defined, it was only a matter of time before brands leveraged sustainability for all the wrong reasons. Ahead of Earth Day, for example, it’s common to see some fashion brands paint themselves eco-friendly or ethically made to make a quick buck.

Unlike any other fashion trend, sustainability is an issue many consumers care about year round, regardless of what else is happening in the world. Even with the current COVID-19 crisis environmental issues are still top of mind for consumers, with some already wondering about the long-term impact of the pandemic on climate change. Before publishing that Instagram post or chiming in on the conversation, here are three things social marketers should know about how their brands approach sustainability on social media.

1. Young people are driving the movement

Though it’s been fashion’s favorite buzzword for years, the sustainability movement has been around for decades. Environmental groups, active since the 1960s, were the first to promote sustainable living but the movement failed to gain significant momentum until recently. Thanks in large part to social media, sustainability has now hit the mainstream consciousness.

Leading the movement are members of Generation Z and Millennials, with nine in 10 Generation Z consumers believing companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues. When we break social conversations on sustainability down further, we see 71% of the conversation is driven by women while 52% is driven by 18-24 year olds. And messages pertaining to sustainable fashion boast a whopping 95% positive sentiment. Based on this, it’s little surprise online trends show search terms for sustainable fashion have skyrocketed in the past five years and backlash to fast fashion is growing fast.
Google Search Fast Fashion
Red: Fast Fashion | Blue: Sustainable Fashion (2015-2020)

Action item: Knowing Generation Z and Millennials are concerned with environmental causes, how can brands begin to integrate eco-friendly themes into their products or use their social platform to support a common goal? Insights gleaned from listening data can help brands better align with their younger audience’s environmental interests and create content related to relevant topics like upcycling and consignment.

The more fashion brands can speak to the expectations of Generation Z and Millennials, the more they’ll see their sustainability efforts and social messages resonate with a cohort representing around $350 billion of spending power in the US.

2. Success starts with transparency

For brand inspiration, there’s no better place to start talking about sustainable fashion than highlighting two of the OGs of the sustainable fashion movement: Patagonia and Eileen Fisher. Both brands have been taking a stand on the issue of sustainability for years, something research has shown that 70% of consumers believe is important for brands to do.

Patagonia’s tagline, “We’re in business to save our home planet,” makes it clear what their stance is in regards to ethical and eco-friendly fashion. Worn Wear, Patagonia’s shop for used clothing and gear, was created specifically for customers interested in shopping upcycled and recycled items. Worn Wear uses Instagram to not only raise awareness of upcycling clothes but to share the personal meaning behind the clothes consumers bring in for repair and the impact recycling has on the community.

Additionally, 66% of consumers believe brands can create real change when they take a stand on a social issue. Eileen Fisher embodies this idea by voicing their opinion that in order for our society to truly become more sustainable, consumers need to consume less, advice unheard of in the fashion industry. The women’s fashion brand also leverages its social platform to educate its audience on their commitment to sourcing ethical materials for each of their garments.

Brands like Everlane and Reformation are also weaving sustainability into their messaging and in their actions. While these brands approach ethical fashion differently, they all practice radical transparency in where, how and why they make the products they do. From Allbirds’ carbon footprint labeling to Reformation’s involvement in Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular Initiative to Everlane’s “Transparency Tuesday”, the new wave of sustainable fashion brands are putting their time, resources and money where their mouth is.

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“Sustainable fashion brand @allbirds has just announced it has become the first fashion brand to label every item produced with its carbon footprint.⁣ ⁣ From now on, everything that the brands makes will include a number representing the CO2e emitted to create it – 7.6 kg CO2e being the average for Allbirds footwear.⁣ In context, the carbon footprint of a plastic bag is around 1.6 kg, a pair of jeans is around 29.6kg, and bicycles are around 240.4 kg.⁣ ⁣ Allbirds developed a tool with third-party carbon experts to measure the carbon intensity of every decision they make—materials, development, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping.⁣ ⁣ The initiative follows the brand’s Carbon Fund, which was introduce last year. The Fund is subsidized by Allbirds’ self-imposed tax, but it used to support 100% carbon neutrality (by funding verified emissions reduction projects across air, wind and energy) rather than profiteering.⁣ ⁣ For every tonne of carbon Allbirds’s emits as a business—from the sheep on its farms to the lightbulbs at HQ—it pays to take a tonne of carbon out of the atmosphere.⁣ ⁣ It costs around 10 cents to offset 10 kg of carbon through its own Carbon Fund.⁣ ⁣ The brand is hoping the launch of its Carbon Footprint labelling will not only catalyse the sustainable fashion industry’s commitment to lower carbon emissions, but inspire carbon transparency.”⁣ ⁣ Words by: Lela London / @forbes ⁣ Keep Reading: https://bit.ly/3adoFZS

A post shared by Sustainable Fashion Forum (@thesustainablefashionforum) on

Action item: For brands interested in joining the conversation around fast fashion and sustainability, it pays to be transparent. Consumers are savvier than ever and aren’t afraid to take to social media to hold brands accountable to their sustainability pledges. And with more information at their disposal, consumers aren’t afraid to leverage this knowledge when making a decision between two similar brands.

Consider using social media to give your followers a behind-the-scenes look at how your products are made and breakdown where you source your materials. Use your platform to ask your audience how you can better support organizations committed to sustainability or what changes they’d like to see within your business. Fifty-nine percent of consumers say transparency is when brands are open, and where better to have an open dialogue with your customers than right on social media?

3. Greenwashing is a growing concern

Sustainability can mean many things to many people, but if there’s one thing all successful sustainable brands share is transparency. Reformation, for example, provides a RefScale for each of its products, which breaks down the environmental impact of every individual item.

Some brands will promote their most environmentally friendly products or exaggerate the extent of their sustainability efforts in an act known as “greenwashing.” Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, greenwashing is when brands market themselves as environmentally friendly without taking adequate steps to effectively alter their impact. For brands attempting to capitalize on the growing trend of sustainability just to make a quick buck, greenwashing is a surefire way to find yourself on the receiving end of a customer boycott or featured on the next episode of Hasan Minaj’s Patriot Act.

Action item: Your customers have more access to information than ever before, and consumers are quick to sniff out when brands are authentic and when they’re trying to make a quick profit. Consider creating a list of pre-approved responses, complete with blog posts or an about page detailing your company’s plans for sustainability, that you can easily share with consumers who question the legitimacy of your efforts.

And if you do find yourself the target of criticism for your brand’s sustainability practices, don’t panic. Consider this a learning opportunity and a chance to gather feedback from your followers you can share with your manager. Social marketers can help facilitate those honest conversations between a brand and its audience, extracting valuable insights that can help businesses quickly identify and address any sustainability concerns.

Sustainability is here to stay

What’s popular today in fashion may be old news tomorrow, but one trend that’s sticking around for the long run is sustainability. Consumers, especially Generation Z and Millennials, are more environmentally conscious than ever before and fashion brands are under increasing pressure to respond.

But there is a right and a wrong way to engage in the sustainability movement. Before brands chime in on social, they need to be sure their actions back up whatever statements they make online. When it comes to the environment, talking the talk isn’t enough—brands also need to walk the walk if they want to prove to consumers the authenticity of their commitment to sustainability.

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