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Survey: Consumer sentiment on sustainability in fashion

Engagement in sustainability has deepened during the COVID-19 crisis, with European consumers wanting fashion players to act responsibly and consider the social and environmental impacts of their businesses.

While the fashion industry is reorganizing for the next normal after the COVID-19 crisis, European consumers have become even more engaged in sustainability topics. That presents an opportunity for the fashion industry to reiterate its commitment to sustainability. Moreover, now could be the moment to drive less seasonality in the fashion system.

Our survey was conducted in April 2020 across more than 2,000 UK and German consumers. 1 It is part of a firmwide effort to capture consumer sentiment during the COVID-19 crisis.

Sentiment toward sustainability

Amid the shock and uncertainty that the fashion sector is facing during the COVID-19 crisis, there is a silver lining for the environment: two-thirds of surveyed consumers state that it has become even more important to limit impacts on climate change. Additionally, 88 percent of respondents believe that more attention should be paid to reducing pollution.

In practice, consumers have already begun changing their behaviors accordingly. Of consumers surveyed, 57 percent have made significant changes to their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact, and more than 60 percent report going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging (Exhibit 1).

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Emphasis on social and environmental commitments

While the industry is reorganizing for the next normal, it should consider that consumers want fashion players to uphold their social and environmental responsibilities amid the crisis. Of surveyed consumers, 67 percent consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, and 63 percent consider a brand’s promotion of sustainability in the same way.

Additionally, surveyed consumers expect brands to take care of their employees, as well as workers in Asia, during the COVID-19 crisis (Exhibit 2). That highlights the need for brands to maintain ethical commitments, despite the crisis.

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Overall, it is imperative to build trust and transparency with consumers, as 70 percent are sticking with brands they know and trust during the crisis. Of surveyed consumers, 75 percent consider a trusted brand to be an important purchasing factor. However, younger consumers, particularly Gen Zers and millennials, are more likely to experiment with smaller or lesser-known brands during the crisis (Exhibit 3).

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Shift in purchasing behavior

With 88 percent of consumers expecting a slow recovery or a recession, general consumer confidence is low. As a result, consumer spending on fashion is also changing. More than 60 percent of consumers report spending less on fashion during the crisis, and approximately half expect that trend to continue after the crisis passes. However, consumers are likely to cut back on accessories, jewelry, and other discretionary categories before reducing their spending on apparel and footwear (Exhibit 4).

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When it comes to making changes to purchasing behavior, younger consumer segments are willing to buy cheaper versions of products they normally buy—approximately 50 percent of Gen Zers and millennials in our survey report trading down (Exhibit 5).

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The COVID-19 crisis has recruited new consumers to online channels: 43 percent of surveyed consumers who didn’t purchase fashion online before the crisis have started using online channels. And that shift is unlikely to reverse, as nearly 28 percent of consumers expect to buy less at physical stores—a trend seen in higher shares in Generation Z and millennial respondents (Exhibit 6).

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Mindset on fashion cycles and circular business models

The survey findings indicate that the consumer mindset is not strongly tied to the fashion cycle, so now could be the moment to drive less seasonality in the fashion system. Of surveyed consumers, 65 percent are supportive of fashion brands delaying the launch of new collections as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Additionally, 58 percent of respondents are less concerned about the fashion of clothing than other factors following the crisis, and consumers now cite newness as one of the least important attributes when making purchases (Exhibit 7).

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As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, 65 percent of respondents are planning to purchase more durable fashion items, and 71 percent are planning to keep the items they already have for longer (Exhibit 8). Additionally, 57 percent of respondents are willing to repair items to prolong usage.

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Particularly among younger European consumers, there is interest in purchasing secondhand fashion items following the COVID-19 crisis. Of surveyed consumers, around 50 percent of Gen Zers and millennials expect to purchase more items secondhand (Exhibit 9).

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Overall, consumer sentiment suggests that the COVID-19 crisis could serve as a reset opportunity for players in the apparel, footwear, and luxury sectors to strengthen their sustainability commitments and accelerate industry-wide changes, such as reduced seasonality and scaling of circular business models.

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