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In a Post-COVID 2021, Fashion Will Trend Toward Sustainability

Based on research conducted by the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol in 2020, here are three trends we can expect from the apparel industry — as we emerge from COVID-19 and toward a more sustainable future.

This year — as a pandemic put much on hold; and the US saw the most active hurricane season on record, with 30 named hurricanes — the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol conducted research to understand the sustainability conversation in the apparel industry.

Looking towards 2021, here are three trends we can expect from the apparel industry, based on the research we conducted in 2020 — as we hopefully emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shoppers want brands to meet their sustainability needs

Shoppers’ attitudes show a rising demand for sustainability in their fashion. 51 percent of respondents in a Trust Protocol/Economist Intelligence Unit survey of top executives at brands and retailers found that customers were the main driver of sustainability in fashion over other competition or environmental activists.

Consumers have a real influence on how apparel companies do business, and the companies are concerned. In our survey with Sourcing Journal, 49 percent of brands and retailers felt that if they did not meet their sustainability commitments, their customers may choose to take their business to a competitor.

These desires for sustainable goods will become stronger in the coming years. A McKinsey survey found that 31 percent of Gen Z and 26 percent of Millennials were willing to pay a premium for more environmentally friendly products; only 17 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of Baby Boomers were willing to make the same choices.

In 2021, the oldest members of Gen Z will be turning 24. As the younger generation’s buying power grows, their demand for sustainability is going to grow with it. It’s going to be on brands and retailers to respond to a larger portion of their customers willing to put the environment first when it comes to how they spend their money. But the demand for environmental products isn’t going to grow slowly over the coming years. After the events of 2020, Gen Z will demand immediate changes.

COVID-19 has strengthened demand for sustainable products

In our Sourcing Journal study, 54 percent of brand sustainability professionals felt there has been more demand since the pandemic began. Additionally, in another consumer study from McKinsey, 57 percent of shoppers agreed that they had made significant changes to their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact; and 64 percent of shoppers have decreased their spending on clothing and footwear during the pandemic.

With new stories of successful vaccine trials every day, the economy will begin to recover in 2021 and customers will return to stores with these new attitudes towards clothes shopping. This means that brands and retailers will have to pivot quickly to more sustainable products.

Brands and retailers are changing practices throughout their supply chains

43 percent of Sourcing Journal respondents believe COVID-19 has made a positive impact on their investments in sustainability. Sustainability is not only a crucial strategic priority, but brands and retailers see it as something that can fit reasonably into their business. Sixty percent of EIU survey respondents also said implementing sustainability measures across the organization was a main strategic objective, ranking only second to improving the customer experience.

Seven out of 10 respondents to the EIU survey also agree that “fast, affordable and sustainable fashion is achievable.” If it’s possible, it’s important to determine what decisions brands and retailers are making to get to a more sustainable fashion future. Going forward, brands and retailers are making investments to better understand their global supply chains’ impact and providing clear insights about their sustainability to their customers.

Three-quarters of the apparel sustainability professionals polled in the EIU study agreed that global standards and certification are a good mechanism for measuring and evidencing a brand’s level of sustainability to customers. And a quarter of them said the availability of reliable data to help inform decision-making will be key to improving sustainability over the next decade.

“While many brands and retailers are already working with a range of sustainable cotton-sourcing programs, there is a growing need for environmental metrics at the farm level,” said Tara Luckman, director of Flourish CSR and advisor to the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. “Whether it’s water usage or biodiversity, this data will be a valuable tool for brands as they look to demonstrate the quantifiable impact of their sourcing decisions.”

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton, is designed to ensure a more sustainable fiber element of the global cotton supply chain.

“There’s a focus on setting a standard and on reliable data. And we believe that’s what the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol can bring to the supply chain,” said Gary Adams, president and CEO of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. “Our objective with this new system is to help brands meet these new demands with verifiable goals and measurement, and by driving continuous improvement in key sustainability metrics. “

A combination of a unique credit accounting system and the Permanent Bale Identification (PBI) system enables brands to have transparency throughout the supply chain to finished product. Companies across the globe who join the Trust Protocol have access to the Trust Protocol credit system to validate the consumption of cotton and associated credit.

Through quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement, the Trust Protocol can drive continuous improvement in sustainable cotton production in six key sustainability metrics: land use, soil carbon, water management, soil loss, greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency. Brands and retailers can use these data points to show progress against their committed pledges and goals. Enrolling in the Trust Protocol can help brands and retailers receive the data they need to ensure that the cotton fiber element of their supply chain is sustainably grown.

The Trust Protocol gives evidence to the sustainability credentials that are proven via Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, measured via the Field Calculator and verified with Control Union Certifications, and is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As we enter 2021, sustainability systems such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol can help the global apparel industry continuously improve its sustainability through better data and better understand the elements of its worldwide supply chain, moving us all toward our goal of protecting the planet.