Why Should Consumers Care About Sustainability?

Robin Barrett Wilson

“Your prices are too high.” This was the message I often received from new customers when I had my own fashion brand.

As a longtime supporter of sustainability, fair wages, and safe work environments, I had a vision for building a brand that was socially conscious. For me, that meant designs that were produced in the United States, and in some cases, sustainable fabrics. If you are familiar with the industry, then you know my vision translated to higher costs. Not only were the raw materials more expensive, but production cost more, so my cost to the consumer was higher.

Producing my line in New York City provided me with numerous benefits: The garments were of high quality. Based in Rhode Island, I was close to the production process, which gave me the ability to adjust my line quickly and react to trends faster.  Meanwhile, I remained transparent about the cost to produce a garment was always top of mind and a daily effort for me and my team.

In the end, I found the message didn’t resonate with most. Sadly, customers saw only the higher price tag and did not want to foot the bill in exchange for the ethical and sustainable clothing I was providing.

Even though my business didn’t flourish, I am still fully committed to the cause. It is refreshing to see that embracing transparency and sustainability has become more than just a trend. The fashion industry is making great strides to change the status quo as it relates to its carbon footprint. Almost every day, there is another article about the latest commitment a brand is making to the sustainability cause.

But what about the consumer? Not everyone is committed to the same cause. There is definite proof that there are customers supporting sustainability. Allbirds, Rothy’s, and Patagonia all seem to be thriving. But this is just a small part of the pie. The food industry has done a great job of convincing us organic is better. We pay more for organic apples and fair-trade coffee, but what about our favorite tee? While spending more for celery grown without pesticides is now second nature, what about spending more for a garment made from organic cotton?

The truth about sustainability: It’s expensive. Changing processes, tracking where materials are made, and putting standards in place are investments. Upcycling plastic water bottles into fabric and using recycled polyester and organic cotton are practical ways to be more “green,” but they take innovation and money. While the cost on the planet might be lower for these designs, the consumer ends up paying a higher price for their new items. Until the practice of sustainability becomes mainstream, the cost to the consumer will remain high.

Closing the gap

In a time when having more is better, can your favorite tee be made of organic cotton and not cost as much as a dinner for two in New York City?

There is good news: We now see those slow movers catching up, and in a very big way. I recently attended The Innovation Summit in NYC, produced by The Lead Co., which addressed the topics of transparency and sustainability in fashion. During one panel discussion, the CEO of a sustainable emerging brand (recycled bottles, anyone?) and an executive of one of the largest retailers in the country shared how they are contributing to the cause.

These executives discussed everything from owning their own factories to sourcing sustainable raw materials. Not only did I learn that there is no risk of a plastic bottle shortage (sad), but the two companies confirmed that the high cost of staying committed to the cause was real. Nonetheless, both have their plans in place and are making a positive impact on the cost to produce new designs. A reminder of our economics class: As demand grows, prices decrease. My hope? That these mammoth retailers focus on more than just cotton.

What’s next: Support those innovators

“Why should they care” continues to be the challenge as it relates to sustainability, or any cause for that matter. The standardization that is now happening in fashion will be the foundation of sustainability and its future.

Watching startups in the fashion industry drive innovation to tackle the challenges of sustainability is exciting. The ability to pivot and adjust when an idea doesn’t produce results requires the kind of agility and risk-taking startup organizations are proficient at. The idea that organizations like Ulta Beauty, Plug & Play, and SAP all have programs in place to incubate these new innovators propels this type of innovation in ways a self-funded business can’t. It brings the consumer closer to the cause and the cause closer to being obsolete.

How I will support the cause? I can’t wait to add the latest sustainable design to my wardrobe and wear it during Fashion Week.

For more on sustainability in the fashion industry, read Recyclable Fashion Renews Legacy Brand As A Big Favorite For Industry Insiders.

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Robin Barrett Wilson

About Robin Barrett Wilson

Robin Barrett Wilson is an industry executive advisor, focused on the fashion industry, at SAP. Leveraging her past experience and knowledge within the fashion industry, she works closely with our customers to understand their respective businesses and growth objectives. Additionally, she is a recourse for when it comes to trends in the industry. Prior to joining the SAP team, Robin has held various roles including founding her own omnichannel, socially conscious women’s clothing brand and developing and producing her line in New York City. She also has held a wide variety of roles for well-known brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s, and VF Corp.