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Future of fashion: stitching convenience with sustainability

To keep pace with customer expectations, the fashion industry is slowly but surely making its move towards sustainable practices. Read how weaving the golden thread of CX might just be the key to gaining customer trust.

By Subarna Ganguly, Staff Writer

Last updated September 22, 2022

It used to be a cliché to say that fashion was as changeable as the seasons, as a way of illustrating how rapidly tastes and trends in the industry shift and evolve. How the world has changed. Today, it would be remarkable if something in the world of fashion remains constant even for as long as a single season.

Don’t believe us? You should. The global market for fast fashion—clothes that take runway trends and repurpose them for the high street, at lightning speed—is predicted to grow by 7 per cent a year, reaching a value of almost US$60 billion by 2027.

But that’s not all that fashion shoppers want. Almost 70 per cent of them say that whether or not a brand uses ethically sourced and eco-friendly materials is an important factor in their buying decision. 63 per cent also say they want the brands they buy from to actively promote sustainability. And a massive 81 per cent say they want to buy from environmentally responsible brands.

While shoppers are more demanding than ever and want fashion that’s sustainable, they are also changing the way they want to shop. According to a recent survey, 40 per cent of all discount fashion is already bought online. And that figure is likely to grow over time.

Interestingly, 69 per cent of fashion shoppers also say they prefer to be able to interact directly with sales assistants. Additionally, 54 per cent of the same shoppers say that mobile apps, used remotely and in store, improve the customer experience.

Here’s where the challenge lies. Customers want to buy sustainable clothes through an increasingly diverse range of on-and off-line channels, while also retaining the personal touch they value from the in-store experience. As an industry, fashion needs to deliver original, exciting ideas, and get their garments from the catwalks to shops in record time, all the while demonstrating steps towards sustainability. Sounds complex? It is.

Changing fashion is an uphill struggle

Striking the right balance between divergent customer expectations isn’t a cakewalk. Just for starters, the sustainability challenge is…well, challenging.

Fashion is, by design and at its core, unsustainable. If it was truly sustainable, it would be called the clothing industry, and would dedicate itself to churning out hard wearing overalls that we’d only ever replace when they started to wear out. But while there will always be a need for overalls, consumers have always wanted more–a way to express themselves through what they wear.

Shockingly it takes 700 gallons of water to make just one t-shirt. To make the clothes we buy, worldwide, in a single year, requires the felling and processing of 120 million trees. That’s double the number of human population in the UK. Cutting down so many trees each year contributes to large-scale deforestation and CO2 emissions. One recent report found that fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon emissions.

There hasn’t been significant progress toward creating a circular economy in the garment industry. 87 per cent of the 100 billion product units created by the industry collectively each year still ends up in the landfill. And only 1 per cent of clothing is recycled.

At the same time, many fashion brands and retailers are struggling to deliver the best possible customer experience in a way that’s both sustainable and affordable. According to one recent study, 70 per cent of consumers said they found it difficult to find clothes that fit. And in some markets, customers return almost a third of all fashion items ordered online, something that isn’t just bad for business but which is also highly unsustainable.

The new trends that will reshape fashion

The good news is that the industry is already coming up with answers to these challenges. The first is something called regenerative fashion. Clothing made according to this philosophy uses materials produced with sustainable agricultural practices that prevent the degradation of land and ecosystems.

Its originators view regenerative fashion as a cornerstone of a circular economy. As well as using sustainable materials, the garments are manufactured using renewable power and other eco-friendly practices. They’re also designed to be recycled. In April 2022, the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI) Fashion Task Force launched its Regenerative Fashion Manifesto and invested €1 million in programmes to encourage sustainable farming in the Himalayas.

Another development is the growth of fashion resale. The resale market is set to hit $36 billion by 2024. Fashion companies like Levi’s, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher have embraced resale in a big way. Nike has just launched its in-house pre-owned program. Retail giants like Selfridges recently launched their permanent resale platform, Resellfridges, as part of their sustainability initiative, Project Earth. The idea of ‘recycled fashion’ gives consumers a deal and retailers a way to keep products out of landfills. Now that’s a win-win.

What all these changes have in common, is a need to both meet consumer demands while also persuading consumers that what’s on offer is compelling enough to not only meet their requirements but influence a change in their shopping behaviours–for good.

To do this requires the highest possible standard of customer experience. To take a straightforward example, by improving customer information and providing a better customer experience, you can cut returns. A recent study found that just 20 per cent of returns happen because a consumer received a damaged product.The majority of online returns, according to the survey, are due to poorly managed expectations, confusion, miscommunication, misrepresentation, or some other element of the customer experience. Now that’s not so complicated to solve.

Retailers can manage returns better by improving customer communications, and the overall customer experience, with tools such as chatbots, integrated data sharing and AI asynchronous messaging. Lower returns are not only good for the bottom line but also for the environment, as it reduces fuel and energy consumption, and our overall carbon footprint.

And the benefits of improved customer experience don’t end with returns. A recent Adobe survey found 76 per cent of consumers saying brand empathy, something impossible to demonstrate without customer-experience excellence, is a key building block of trust. And almost seventy per cent said that a personalised customer experience was crucial to building trust.

Lush, a UK based ethical cosmetics retailer big on sustainable practices, has seen a great boost in customer satisfaction and business continuity using Zendesk’s tools that help monitor and analyse customer enquiries, while third-party systems also integrate with Zendesk. This has made a world of difference for the cruelty free brand, especially around the busy Christmas season.

If the fashion industry is going to earn acceptance for ideas such as regenerative fashion, then the golden thread of trust must run throughout the fabric of customer service. And that means investment and innovation in customer experience. The companies that are thinking about this now, and translating thought into strategy and then action, will dominate the fashion market of tomorrow.

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