Next Steps in Sustainable Apparel Retail: Consumer Communication and Carbon Offsets

Sustainable Apparel Retail

A growing number of consumers are concerned about how their purchasing decisions impact the planet, but even the most sustainability-savvy customer may be confused about how best to align purchases with their green principles. That is a big reason this growing group of shoppers is eager to learn more about the sustainability actions being taken by retailers. To guide these consumers — and perhaps raise the green consciousness of others — retailers should certainly publicize their own sustainability efforts. A logical next step is for merchants to educate themselves about the sustainability of the brands and items they sell, particularly in the apparel space.

Retailers taking such a proactive approach can benefit in several ways. They are well-positioned to boost customer loyalty among their eco-conscious consumers, as well as potentially attract new shoppers. Additionally, embracing education that goes beyond the information shown on product tags can provide a convincing rationale for consumers to spend more on sustainably produced garments.

Of course, apparel retailers themselves may be uncertain about the most effective methods to reduce their carbon footprints and those of their supply-chain partners. Hey Social Good, which examines companies’ practices to ensure they can reach sustainability goals and remain transparent, recommends that apparel retailers and their trading partners start with a few simple steps such as:

  • Examining the sources of the apparel they sell;
  • Implementing greener in-store operations such as cleaning practices and design applications; and
  • Investing in green packaging.

“Instead of saying ‘Oh this is good for the planet,’ explain digestible information of why [it’s good] and use that opportunity to tell the story, and also help build their own brand for the retail store,” said Dr. Cindy Lin, Founder and CEO of Hey Social Good. “Retail stores can play a bigger part in helping educate their customers, which would help their bottom line because when they do a good job of that, the customers are probably willing to pay more because they understand why they’re paying more. They’re like ‘Okay, I’ll pay $20 more for that — it’s totally worth it for me.’”


Consumers Overwhelmed by Insufficient or Contradictory Sustainability Info

When crafting these types of messages, retailers should be aware that although consumers in growing numbers are paying more attention to environmental, social and equitable practices, they are also frequently overwhelmed by the noise of unclear or contradictory information surrounding sustainability. In fact, half of the 1,000 U.S. consumers surveyed in the 2021 Accenture Sustainable Fashion Survey said they were deterred from considering the sustainability of a piece of apparel due to claims, information and guidelines that are vague or limited in their traceability.

But finding the right tone for educational messages can be tricky. According to Frank Zambrelli, Managing Director of ESG Retail for Accenture, “The data clarified [that consumers] want to trust a single entity, but they also want that click back; they want the opportunity to take a deeper dive if they choose to and find out what exactly is ratifying or authenticating that particular product, and they care more at a product level than at a company level,” said Zambrelli. Additionally, all of this has to be done “in a way that doesn’t interrupt the sale. We must consider the interaction,” he noted.

Other key findings from the survey:

  • 63% of consumers looking for product sustainability data cite the labels attached to goods as their source;
  • 66% read about product sustainability on the goods themselves or their packaging; and
  • 61% learn about items’ sustainability through a company’s website.Making it Easier to Be Green

Making it Easier to Be Green

In the apparel space, a sustainability hot topic is the potential represented by carbon offsets. Practices to counter the tons of carbon produced by manufacturing a product may include reforestation projects, investing in renewable energy, methane destruction and the implementation of energy-efficient processes.

For example, with the recent launch of its Port Authority C-FREE collection, which includes pieces that are made using recycled polyester, wholesaler SanMar unveiled new carbon-offset styles that are tracked through Foundation’s Carbonfree Product Certification Program. Each product’s carbon footprint is measured, and SanMar purchases carbon offsets to remove an equivalent amount of emissions from the environment.

According to SanMar Chief Product Officer Pat Noonan, the company has “had a great response from our customers telling us that their end users are really excited for this product. Frankly, the proof is in the sales. Our first C-FREE polo completely sold out when we launched it last fall. This spring, we’re expanding the line much further and it will be exciting to see how the product performs in the market.”

“Product manufacturers and retailers that register products into our Carbonfree Product Certification Program are able to demonstrate true product carbon neutrality to their customers,” said Linda Kelly, SVP of Programs and Partnerships for Foundation. “They’ve taken full responsibility to mitigate the environmental impact associated with the carbon emissions created by that product.”

Selling Virtual Goods Can Shrink Carbon Footprints

Another sign that sustainability is becoming an integral part of the entire apparel business is the connection to the newest areas of innovation — NFTs and the metaverse.

For example, in December 2021, Fred Segal partnered with media tech holding company Subnation to develop Artcade, an experience launched at the retailer’s Los Angeles location on the Sunset Strip and within the metaverse. Artcade’s NFT gallery, including digital skins and virtual goods, were alluring components of this launch. The experience also featured digital asset jewelry tokenized by physical 18-karat goods from Metagolden. A collaboration with artist Ashley Longshore included tangible goods and NFTs featuring iconic women.

“The metaverse is going to be a huge factor in the future of culture and retail,” said Jeff Lotman, CEO of Global Icons and Owner of Fred Segal. “The line between the physical and digital retail worlds will continue to blur, and more and more retailers will be looking for ways that they can incorporate it into their sales strategy.”

The rate at which NFTs and the metaverse are gaining attention will also help shape conversations surrounding sustainable fashion. Relying more on digital entities and virtual goods offers the potential to drastically decrease threats to people and the planet from manufacturing real-world products. Additionally, if consumers are willing to pay for these virtual items, retailers can feel more secure regarding profits stemming from these sales.

Lotman emphasized the brand’s commitment to remaining ahead of fresh retail trends as it strategizes regarding how to incorporate NFTs into the summer launch of the new FS collection: “We’re doing our due diligence to implement programs that lower carbon emissions at the same time. While there’s still so much to be discovered, we’ve seen whole divisions pop up industrywide, which are dedicated to finding ways to assess environmental impacts across the metaverse.”

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