United Kingdom / Analyst Insights
Thoughtful Threads: Ethical Consumerism and Fashion

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by Cristina Dumitru, Gaetana Mak & Alex Green
Oct 02 2018

As companies have come under the spotlight as wasteful, unethical and environmentally damaging, all players in the supply chain, from designers to retailers, have ramped up sustainability initiatives to tap into the budding ethical consumer market. In a testament to the direction for the fashion industry, last month's London Fashion Week went furless for the first time. Helsinki Fashion Week has gone further, announcing plans to ban all animal-based leather goods at its 2019 iteration, whilst Milan closed its fashion week with a star-studded Green Carpet Awards. Indeed, one of the most pertinent issues facing operators in the clothing sector is the environmental footprint of the clothing supply chain. According to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the fashion industry is one of the most damaging sectors in the world, with an estimated 87% of all clothing, accessories and associated items disposed of in landfills or incinerated annually, and fast-fashion trends often draw criticism from environmental groups. As more and more global consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable brands, this trend is only likely to intensify.

In vogue

Over the past year, ethical and environmental concerns have come increasingly under the spotlight. Burberry's practice of burning unsold products in order to protect its brand value was a beacon for the ire of the environmentally conscious, with the company burning £28.6 million worth of unsold clothes, accessories and perfume in 2017. As a result of the consumer backlash, Burberry was forced to end the practice, becoming the first major company to do so, and now states that it will reuse, repair, recycle or donate unsold products. The company also committed to ending the use of fur in its products, debuting this new collection at London Fashion Week.

This shift in consumer attitudes means business as usual is no longer an option. Over the past five years, provenance has been a prominent trend in the Clothing Manufacturing industry (IBISWorld report C14.000). Many firms have sought to capitalise on the 'Made in Britain' label, which was launched in 2013. According to a survey conducted by primary research firm Mintel, 40% of the survey’s participants said they were willing to pay a premium for goods manufactured in the United Kingdom, and this trend is expected to be mirrored in the case of environmental and ethical consumption. According to a 2017 report by Fashion Revolution, a group advocating for greater transparency, fairness and safety in the fashion industry, 25% of those aged between 20 and 24 in the United Kingdom would like to see how clothing is made using videos, and 60% would like more eco-friendly fabrics used. Numerous high-street brands at a range of price points have seen the value in tapping into the environmental and ethical trend. H&M, the fourth largest player in the Clothing Retailing industry (IBISWorld report G47.710), and a prominent fast-fashion firm, operates a garment collecting initiative for reuse and recycling, as part of its circular strategy to reduce environmental impact. At the higher end of the market, outdoor clothing retailers Patagonia and Rohan offer advice on how to maintain and fix broken items, with the former offering to recycle its products if they are beyond salvageable.


Although high-street retailers have increasingly sought to ameliorate their environmental impact, the tension between fast-fashion and environmental pressure has come under government scrutiny. On 22 June 2018, an inquiry to investigate the environmental impact of disposable fast fashion was launched by the Environmental Audit Committee. The inquiry will examine the carbon footprint and energy usage throughout the supply chain and look for alternative solutions to recycle clothes and to reduce pollutants. Any measures aimed at minimising emissions are likely to increase the need for capital investment in the industry.

Supply situation

Operators have also had to consider similar trends throughout their supply chains. In 2013, H&M launched its fair living wage strategy to ensure all 930,000+ garment workers across its supply chain receive a wage sufficient to support a household during legal working hour limits. The company has also made a commitment to ensure that all cotton in its range comes from sustainable sources by 2020. Low-cost clothing store, Primark, the second largest operator in the Clothing Retailing industry, launched its own sustainability initiative in 2013 to encourage the use of independent cotton farmers in India and Pakistan, helping to promote local economic development. Primark was also at the centre of controversy in 2013, as a result of the collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh that supplied some of its clothing. In response, Primark conducted structural building surveys and offered compensation to the victims and their families.

Whilst the fashion and clothing industries have taken steps to address their environmental impact, with the victory over Burberry a beacon in this regard, the forthcoming inquiry from the Environmental Audit Committee is likely to illustrate that there is still some way to go. While government action could be incisive, the widespread pressure from consumers is likely to be key in leading to sustained change as people demand more environmentally conscious apparel. Provenance has already been a key trend in UK fashion, with the 2011 Made in Britain campaign allowing firms to indicate their heritage and domestic production; with consumers increasingly likely to prioritise environmental credentials, an active and expressed focus on environmentally aware production could become vital.

For a printable PDF of Thoughtful Threads: Ethical Consumerism and the Fashion Industry, click here.

IBISWorld industry reports used in this series:

C14.000   -   Clothing Manufacturing in the UK
G47.710   -   Clothing Retailing in the UK

For more information on these, or any of the UK’s 400 industries, log on to www.ibisworld.co.uk, or follow IBISWorldUK on Twitter.