Sustainable fashion: 5 key trends

13 minute read
30 March 2023


For those in the fashion space, sustainability is a trend that has gathered considerable speed in recent years. This focus is in no doubt driven by the newest generation with purchasing power, Gen Z, who according to multiple recent surveys (Deloitte's Global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey and its 'How consumers are embracing sustainability' reportForbes' 'Gen Z and environmental issues' article and our own 'Tomorrow's World' report) happen to be the most climate conscious of us all.

In 2022, the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action updated its commitments so that its signatories are pledged to halve their emissions by 2030 (which is a 20% increase since 2018). Brands who are committed to this goal notably include Burberry, Ralph Lauren and Stella McCartney.

Yet, despite the stated interest of consumers and at least some commitment by certain brands to make more environmental choices, the fashion industry appears to be progressing slowly.

Below, we set out five sustainability trends which demonstrate how seriously the retail sector is taking the environmental challenge and how it is innovating to address it.

  1. Second-hand market
  2. Rental market
  3. Deinfluencing
  4. Repair
  5. Upcycling

1. Second-hand market

Over the last decade, the interest in pre-loved, retro and vintage fashion has boomed and trend forecasts suggest that this movement is not slowing down any time soon. In fact, the resale market is said to be growing 11 times faster than traditional retail and is expected to be worth $84 billion by 2030.[1] The sudden increase in demand for second-hand garments is, arguably, owed to younger customers being increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of fashion. Buying second-hand is certainly one of the more sustainable ways to shop given that it minimizes the environmental cost of production by keeping garments in circulation for longer.

Fashion apps such as Thrift, Depop, Vinted and Vestiaire Collective, alongside the classic resale apps of eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree have achieved a heightened popularity, partially inspired by retrospective fashion trends (think Y2K revival) as well as a desire to make "greener" purchases. Some of these businesses facilitate an entire marketplace, as they enable sales as well as purchases, but also add value by quality checking items to ensure their customers get a good experience and will come back in future.

A gloomy economic outlook further fuels the fire for the second-hand market, as consumers tighten their belts on discretionary purchases and look for cheaper alternatives (who could say no to 'used but like new'?).

For brands, this trend presents a strategic decision - to engage in the second-hand market and enjoy a slice of this growing market (but without cannibalising sales of new goods) or to dedicate itself to sale of new goods (whilst managing its sustainability credentials in other ways). For luxury and high end brands, the economics of this decision will look very different to a fast fashion retailer. Having a good understanding of your customers' preferences and a clear articulation of your brand's proposition will be key to ensuring that any strategy is coherent and clear in how it delivers value to consumers and is consistent with the brand's story. Indeed, brands like Selfridges have engaged with the 'Reselfridges' range to help customers who may not otherwise interact with them to find preloved pieces. Their service goes even further, as if you choose to sell your preloved items to them, Selfridges will give a credit to buy new products, giving them access to shoppers who may otherwise not come to a high-end brand. It also means Selfridges can control this second-hand market, rather than competing directly with it.

2. Rental market

If buying second-hand is not the solution, then perhaps renting is?

This trend has seen young consumers wearing designer apparel without actually owning it. This trend is especially prevalent during Fashion Weeks, as showcased recently in London, Milan and New York in February 2023, where social media influencers and celebrities rented or were loaned designer "looks" to attend runway shows and events.

Indeed, in recent years, a number of fashion rental subscription platforms have emerged and have placed significant emphasis on sharing clothing instead of owning. Online platforms such as Rent the Runway, Hurr, By Rotation and My Wardrobe HQ enable price and environmentally-conscious consumers to keep pace with the ever-changing fashion trends without relinquishing their sustainable habits. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the rental market gaining traction is the integration of rental options on retailers' websites, such as Selfridges (as mentioned above) and Harrods. Even high street retailers such as H&M, M&S and John Lewis have begun to offer the option to rent over buy.

Rental fashion has proven to be a hit with consumers given the low cost - giving an option of both sustainability and affordability.

But is renting fashion truly sustainable? A recent study by LUT University[2] suggests that renting clothing may have a significant environmental impact due to the CO2 emissions generated when transporting the garments from the lender to the borrower, although the study was met with some scepticism (particularly when considering the CO2 emissions associated with returns of items bought online).

Renting a garment for a special occasion for a proportionately small charge, is akin to an 'operational' cost, as opposed to buying a new item for much larger a 'capital' outlay which is similar to business models seen in software-as-a-service, or anything-as-a-service in the technology sector which has proved very successful and more lucrative. Clearly, rental would reduce supply chain costs, and therefore arguably raise supply chain standards if there is less pressure on margins for mass production.

3. De-influencing

While younger consumers may have 'influenced' the fashion industry into adopting more sustainable habits, one of the latest trends in sustainability has been dubbed ironically as, "de-influencing".

"De-influencing" recently emerged on TikTok and consists of creators advising viewers on what products are not worth purchasing, often despite the "holy-grail" or "viral" status of the product itself.

This is a generation who manage to create a trend or "core" out of any aesthetic nuance - try searching for the following on your Pinterest page if you are looking for proof: "bloke-core", "cottage-core", "ballet-core" and even "indie-sleaze". It therefore seems like the natural course of progression for a generation, inundated with styles to consume would be to simply stop consuming all together. What could be more sustainable than that?

This turn of events is not surprising, but instead seems to be an equal but opposite reaction to the prevalence of the "haul". The rise of influencer culture combined with the availability of low-cost, yet trendy, fast fashion had normalised shopping in extreme quantities. However, recent online hauls have attracted backlash from followers, who are growing increasingly weary of the cycle of unsustainable consumption.

The question is whether "de-influencing" is here to stay, or is itself a mere trend.

It is clear that "de-influencing" has a second purpose, which is to point consumers in the direction of less expensive, alternative products, known colloquially as "dupes". Clearly not as sustainable as the absence of a purchase, the prevalence of "dupes" in fashion spaces will undoubtedly place pressure on brands to up their level of protection, such as through the enforcement of their intellectual property rights.

4. Repair

Sometimes the answer can be closer to home - in the form of repairing and restoring items that have seen better days, but still have life left in them.

Consumers wanting to repair old clothes for re-wear have a number of options available. Bespoke repair outfitters such as The Restory or Sojo provide direct to consumer services (Sojo even up the environmentally-friendly ante by sending its employees to pick up the goods on bicycles).  Alternatively, some fashion brands themselves have started to branch out into repair services - including Jigsaw, Uniqlo and Selfridges.

There has also been a noticeable move towards repair services in the outdoor clothing sector specifically, with Rab, Patagonia and Cotswold Outdoor all launching repair services in recent times.

Patagonia is well-known for gold star environmentalism (its recent claim that the planet is its ultimate stakeholder has drawn many plaudits) - and this new focus on goods repair exemplifies this. Not only does Patagonia offer a more traditional repair service, where consumers can place repair requests via the online portal, but it also offers a series of "at home" DIY repair videos, where experts show consumers how to repair products and goods themselves at home - making the repair process even simpler and reducing consumer costs. In the same sector, Cotswold Outdoor has demonstrated a keen understanding for the environment to which their garments are subjected - providing not only a repair but also a wash service, ideal for those consumers who have worn their item in all elements, and who otherwise may discard it as too dirty to use again.

Repair services are certainly not the miracle answer to fast fashion and wasteful purchases. There are clear costs involved in having something repaired, including postage fees, and for those with a wardrobe full of cheaper garments they intend to last them one season only, the process of repair may not seem worth the hassle.

However, the repair industry is clearly developing and expanding, and we are starting to see just how it will play out on a large scale. There is no denying that for customers who have more classic or expensive items they just cannot say goodbye to, the repair trend provides just the solution.

5. Upcycling

Or if you can't repair a beloved item, but equally can't quite throw it out, there is another option: ;'upcycling' - the process of taking an old piece of clothing and reusing its fabric and parts in some way to create a new garment.

Upcycling therefore contributes to a circular economy by re-using clothes that are already in existence. This means that fewer clothes are thrown into landfill each year, and reduces the amount of chemicals, water and greenhouse gasses produced when manufacturing fabrics.

Upcycling also drives innovation and provides unique opportunities for smaller, upcoming brands to distinguish themselves. "Rubymoon" bills itself as the world's only "not-for-profit swimwear brand", which creates unique swim and active wear pieces made entirely from plastic bottles and fishing nets from the ocean.

Bigger brands are also dipping into upcycling services. Denim brand Levi's have launched "RE/DONE", where new jeans are constructed entirely from vintage denim. According to Levi's website, this has diverted over 158,000 pairs of vintage Levi's from landfills.

Similarly, the fast fashion retailer Urban Outfitters has commenced the Urban Renewal line of clothing featuring a collection of unique, vintage pieces manufactured from rediscovered remnants fabrics or existing items.

Embracing innovative circular design methods for fabric leftovers and textile waste can not only significantly reduce the environmental impact of the fashion and textile industry, but can also contribute to  a real cost saving providing a win-win situation for consumers and designers alike.

If you have any questions about this article, please contact Jocelyn Paulley or Jasmine Lalli.


[1] Online clothing rental market to grow 11% as shopper habits make big shift
[2] Jarkko Levänen et al, 'Innovative recycling or extended use? Comparing the global warming potential of different ownership and end-of-life scenarios of textiles' (2021), Environmental Research Letters' - accessed 22 February 2023.

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