• Angad Chowdhry

‘Tis the Season for Sustainable Fashion

The holiday season is upon us. A time for mulled wine, joyful carols, and exciting gifts. People throng the malls seeking the best holiday sales or increasingly turn to online shopping. During the holiday season, clothes are one of the most popular gifts to give with people spending almost $40 million at clothing stores. As people shop, conversations around where their purchases are sourced and what they are made of are becoming more important.

Such conversations are triggered by the growing evidence of climate change and how our lifestyle can amplify its impact. In particular, clothing and fashion are a significant contributor to climate change. Fashion accounts for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.

Despite the harmful impact clothing has on the environment, fast fashion brands thrive off producing clothes quickly and en masse. Moreso, about 93% of fast fashion brands do not pay garment workers a living wage. As these atrocities come to light, more people are looking for brands that are sustainable and ethical. A sustainable brand ensures that the production process is environmentally-friendly, materials can be recycled, and pays workers a livable wage.

Quilt.AI set out to understand people’s attitudes towards fast and sustainable fashion with a closer look at brands themselves. We analyzed 1117 unique search keywords and used our proprietary Cultural AI tool to study the Instagram posts of 8 popular sustainable fashion brands.

Through this, we aimed to answer the following questions: “When it comes to sustainable fashion, what are people searching for?” and “How are brands gaining traction through social media

In order to better understand search trends, the keywords were divided into 5 categories:

  • Fast fashion shopping hauls

  • Brands' sustainability initiatives

  • Looking for sustainable fashion

  • Sustainable fashion (general)

  • Thrift stores

This is what we found:

People are increasingly interested in sustainable fashion and brands' initiatives

A recent Forbes survey reveals that 88% of consumers will be loyal to brands that support social and environmental causes. Brands are now rallying to meet these demands by becoming more purposeful in their production and marketing. A look at how categories have trended over the years reflects people’s growing interest in companies’ social responsibility.

For example, searches related to brands’ sustainability initiatives have a low volume but are seeing high growth (+1000%). This means more people want to learn about how brands are sourcing their clothes or recycling them afterwards.

The uptake of sustainable fashion may be slower compared to the continuous demand for fast fashion, but it is growing and will continue to do so with more awareness and brands transitioning to be more environmentally-aware/friendly.

For example, people’s searches for sustainable brands and fashion show a 1615% increase. In particular, there is a surge in related searches in 2019 that peaks in 2020.

Though the sustainable fashion categories have relatively lower growth and volume, searches for the keywords “sustainable fashion information” and “sustainable clothing” have increased by 331% and 163% in the last 5 years.

Sustainable brands use their planet-friendly ways to draw consumers

The Quilt.AI team identified 8 sustainable brands in the U.K. and United States. The brands include: Ten Tree, Pact, Kotn, Mate the Label, Nobody’s Child, This is Unfolded, Beyond Retro, and Outer Known.

We analyzed 250 posts from their Instagram pages using our Cultural AI tool to understand how they were communicating their purpose and the comments. The image below shows that the terms ‘waste free clothes’ and ‘sustainable fashion’ are some of the most frequently used words. Waste free clothes refers to brands that use recycled materials in their products or cut their patterns in a way that results in no textile waste.

The selected brands also focus on providing a unique and tailored product for their customers. This sets the brands apart from fast fashion industries that produce for the masses. For example, terms such as “curated assortment” “handpicked vintage” and “customised second hand clothing” help customers feel that their product is exclusive and designed especially for them.

All eight brands studied by our AI put out positive and hopeful content on Instagram. Their post captions focus on being minimalistic and environmentally-friendly with references to making a difference in communities. The top emotions detected by our AI are: “happiness”, “affinity” and “solitude”.

Thrifting: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

Thrifting as a practice has gained immense traction and transformed into a $28 billion industry that is expected to surpass fast fashion in 2029.

Our analysis of thrifting related keywords also reflects the surging interest over time. Within the category of sustainable fashion related searches, thrifting related keywords are the most popular as it has the highest search volume. In particular, searches for the keyword “thrift stores” increased by 191% over the last 5 years.

Some people have reservations regarding thrifting as a practice due to the idea of wearing “secondhand outfits'' in outdated styles or in poor condition. However, the influx of popular thrifting stores on social media, such as LamLabel and West Hexas, have dispelled common misconceptions through appealing aesthetics.

Moreover, Youtubers such as Ashley (best dressed) have also popularized the concept of thrift flipping, which allows one to alter or redesign their thrift hauls in ways that reflect one’s personal style.

What’s next: fast fashion is in demand but ethical fashion is not far behind

Fast fashion brands are attempting to be more environmentally conscious through recycling initiatives or collection programs but only 5 to 10% of donated clothes are actually recycled while the rest are either discarded or downcycled.

Our analysis also shows that searches for fast fashion continue to have high volume and growth. However, interest in sustainable fashion is not far behind. People will continue to care about how brands are helping the world and switch to the ones that resonate with them.

This holiday season, think twice about what you buy and gift. If you are looking to wean off fast fashion and become a conscious shopper, here are three simple ways to start:

  • If you can afford sustainable clothing: Find sustainable clothing brands near you! Shop local or look for international brands that deliver to you.

  • If you are on a tight budget: Look for thrift stores near you. You’ll be surprised by the variety and prices. If you don’t want to leave your favorite fast fashion store just yet, focus on buying what you need - not what you’ll wear just a few times.

  • If you have a pile of clothes you don’t wear anymore: Rehome them! Sell them on platforms such as Depop and Carousell. You can also research/call them to make sure your clothes will be donated to somewhere that actually needs them, and not just thrown away

It’s never too late to start the season of giving with a gift to our environment and communities around the world.