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The Next Economy
How Young People Are Changing the Fashion Industry

New York Fashion Week is here and there is a growing fashion movement that has the potential to fundamentally change the industry: sustainable fashion. If designers want to endear themselves to Gen Z, they’ll take note of this important shift.

New York Fashion Week is here and there is a growing fashion movement that has the potential to fundamentally change the industry: sustainable fashion. If designers want to endear themselves to Gen Z, they’ll take note of this important shift.

The last ten years have seen a dramatic rise in the educated consumer, one who thinks not just about the quality and value of the finished product, but how it got on the shelf — where the materials come from, who made it and under what conditions. This desire to understand the backstory of consumer goods has spread to fashion, and young people are forcing brands to take a look at what they do and how they do it. Gen Z, in particular, wants to align themselves with brands that stand for something (hello, Nike). Sustainability and ethical fashion are quickly becoming a part of this generation’s values set, as the negative impacts of fast fashion come to light (think environmental hazards and human rights issues).

But while there is a cohort of front-row influencers, celebrities and brands such as Allbirds, United by Blue, Girlfriend Collective, Reformation, Outerknown and Everlane that devote themselves to sustainable fashion, the movement still has a long way to go before it’s mainstream. Most young people today would consider sustainable fashion more of an ethical bonus or nice-to-have, not a requirement. The primary reason: The cost.

Most sustainable fashion naturally comes with a higher price point because of the devotion to ethically sourced fabrics, thoughtful construction methods, improved factory conditions, and improved pay for workers. When the average cost of one eco-friendly item is about $80 (at the low end), young people often have no choice but to shop elsewhere. Especially when you can buy several outfits at stores such as Forever 21 or Old Navy for that same amount. Young people are still in that fashion phase of wanting to wear the latest looks — and changing up their outfits daily. They don’t yet have that mindset to buy more higher-quality (read: more expensive) clothes and keep them for a long time.

Gen Z is also known for being notoriously frugal, having witnessed their families struggle through the financial crisis and millennials unable to get jobs after college. That’s why big brands such as **H&M** and Zara are coming out on top. H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection and Zara's Join Life line are making sustainable fashion affordable and on trend. A brand such as H&M recognizes its contribution to the problem as a fast fashion leader, and has a long-standing and strong commitment to textile recycling to help offset that. It sees a challenge (young people want to be more sustainable but can’t afford it) and are delivering a practical solution.

With its voice, Gen Z is pushing brands to adopt more sustainable and ethical practices — here’s how companies can begin to contribute to the movement and stay at the forefront of fashion.

Be more conscious of how you make your clothing

Consumers are asking more questions: Who made my clothes? And how did they make them? Ethical fashion is about both paying living wages to everyone involved and taking steps to reduce the environmental impact of the production process by cutting back on water use, reducing chemicals used and more. Take a close look at your policies and see how you can make changes. Movements such as #GrabYourWallet, while more politically focused, are challenging consumers and brands to consider their role in the supply chain.

Start with one sustainable piece

Start somewhere. Need an idea? Madewell just released its eco collection, which is a small collection made using less water and energy. Or consider a pair of these adidas shoes developed in partnership with Parley for the Oceans that use upcycled waste intercepted from beaches and coastal communities before it reaches the ocean. While only available in limited quantities now, adidas is committed to expanding the line. And more demand for it increases that likelihood.

Offer clothing recycling

Almost 100 percent of household textiles and clothing can be recycled, regardless of quality or condition. H&M takes textiles of all kinds and all brands in store for recycling — and gives you a discount on your new purchases. You could also organize an in-store donation day, partnering with secondhand shops or charities. Or switch up your business model: The clothing line For Days — tagline: “Own nothing. Have everything.” — is unique for creating a circular economy model. For a subscription fee, you receive a box of new t-shirts and you send back the old. It’s an interesting business model that may appeal to the fashion-, eco- and clutter-conscious.

Brands are watching how they can adapt these movements to their own business, products and services to appeal to those who are driving and adopting them.