The rise and rise of the modern ethical consumer

The sustainability movement in fashion has come a long way from its humble origins. While it would be hard to pinpoint the exact lightbulb moment, the conversation around eco-friendly fashion has been making the rounds since the late 1960s when the hippie revolution rejected conventional tropes of fashion in favour of natural fabrics and going back to a simpler way of life. rise

Cut to 2021, and sustainability is no longer an outlier looking in from the outside—terms like carbon footprint and fabric traceability are now firmly entrenched in the lexicon of an enlightened tribe of consumers who are compelling brands and labels to follow suit.

The rise of ethical consumerism in the post-pandemic world

“The pandemic shocked people into change,” believes Ragini Ahuja, fashion designer and founder of eco-conscious label, Ikai by Ragini Ahuja. She adds, “Fashion needed to reset, to pause mindless consumption and reevaluate our actions. This time off from everyday life brought clarity of thought, vision and action.” Further proof of the same, as always, can be mined from the numbers. The concerns around sustainability have been clocking in at an all-time high, with 65 per cent respondents of an international study admitting that climate change needs to be prioritised in the economic recovery after the pandemic.

The good news doesn’t end there—the increased conscientiousness among everyday consumers is already translating into tangible results. Another study by a market intelligence firm on the changing customer sentiment around sustainable fashion discovered that consumers are now making significant changes to their lifestyles to reduce their environmental impact, with 60 per cent of the surveyed consumers going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in eco-friendly packaging. So, what is causing the sudden wave of revolution and how can we collectively build on it in a consistent manner for the long haul? We asked industry insiders to join us in tracing the source of the domino effect, and here’s what we learned.

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Increased consumer awareness

As millennials and gen Z increasingly assume monopoly over spending power, the digital-first natives find themselves with access to a plethora of information on the environmental implications of fashion, which is subsequently being funnelled into their purchase habits and patterns. Anjali Patel Mehta, founder of sustainable resortwear label Verandah, affirms the change in consumer behaviour she has observed firsthand as the world transitions into the new normal. “Earlier, purchase decisions were made if a consumer liked the print or the style. Now, my newer clients want to know about the story behind every piece—where it was made, how it was made and the journey from its origin,” she says.

For the former investment-banker-turned-designer, the increased awareness and interest in sustainable practices serves as the silver lining on an unprecedented year. “It has come as a heartening surprise to know that consumers have been making an effort to educate themselves during all those long hours at home during the lockdown. With a wealth of information at their fingertips, they now want to know the story behind every collection as well as transparency in the production process before pledging their loyalty to a brand,” she notes.

Mindful shopping

Having learned to make do with what was available during the lockdown, both designers agree that there’s an increased level of mindfulness being adopted to the conventional shopping process as the world opens up again. The sentiment is further backed up by numbers—the same study found that 71 per cent of the respondents are planning to hold on to the items they have for longer. As a direct consequence of the health crisis, fashion purchase decisions are now being driven by durability, with a corresponding uptick in the number of respondents planning to repair their purchases to prolong its usage.

Mehta further affirms, “I’ve had clients come in who have changed sizes during the lockdown and have been requesting alterations to their existing pieces instead of indulging in a new wardrobe lineup entirely. For those pieces that didn’t suit her lifestyle any longer, a client requested that I find a way to upcycle it into my future collections. This consciousness about returning unused pieces back to the system points towards a healthy first step to developing a circular economy in the future.”

Shift away from newness

The unplanned timeout afforded a moment of rare introspection for the industry, with questions being raised about the need for seasonality in the conventional fashion calendar. While industry heavyweights used the opportunity to move towards a seasonless cycle, the move has been underscored by 65 per cent consumers lending their support to delayed collection launches in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. It has also been reported that newness now serves as the least important attributes for purchase decisions, with other factors such as functionality, durability and trust in a brand clocking in higher priority in the new mindset. Ahuja seconds the sentiment, and observes, “Every season, we push not just the newest collections but also our classics and seasonless designs. This year, we’ve recorded out best sales for Ikai classics—it’s the consumer who is now drawn more to the craftsmanship and design, rather than just newness.”

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Greater appreciation of homegrown goods

With international travel halted, Mehta believes that the move towards local, homegrown goods was afforded further impetus by logistical reasons. “It may have started out given the lack of availability of imported goods, but the silver lining to the pandemic was that people started taking greater notice of the diverse craftsmanship that is available locally. It has been an interesting year of learning and educating ourselves as the world comes full circle,” she says.

The Mumbai-based designer also believes that labels will want to use the momentum as an opportunity to further educate consumers. “Over the past few years, our collections have been crafted from a diverse range of sustainable fabrics, from lyocell to econyl, but I never thought much of it. But after recently introducing clothing tags to all our pieces for enlightening customers about where the fabrics they are wearing come from, I’ve seen a surge of interest from consumers who weren’t aware about the eco-conscious choices they’ve been making with their purchases. Labels and brands will definitely want to keep the momentum going by putting in that extra effort to educate consumers about what they are wearing, even if it’s as simple as adding a clothing tag,” she surmises.

The road ahead

The role of ethics in fashion often finds itself charting a well-worn trajectory back and forth across both ends of the spectrum—is it the responsibility of big corporations to usher in remedial measures or can everyday consumers affect lasting change by sending out contextual cues to the market with their purchase decisions? The answer is anti-climactic in that it bestows the responsibility on both. “The crisis has brought us closer in thought and action even while distancing us physically,” believes Ahuja. The quest for discovering a more ethical iteration of consumerism necessitates all hands on deck, but with the pandemic ushering in more conscious decisions every day at every step of the consumption chain, the optimists among us will be justified for believing that a mindful future can be here sooner rather than later.