Buying Sustainable Fashion Isn’t Always Easy — Here’s How Some Retailers Are Changing That

By now it’s no secret that the fashion industry has to find a way to become more sustainable — but whose responsibility is it to make that happen? Is it on the consumer to avoid fast fashion and buy less, but better? Is it up to brands to alter their supply chains to cut down on emissions, water usage and waste? Or is it on retailers to buy and highlight eco-friendly labels?

If anything’s going to change, experts suggest it has to be all three. But while individual brands have traditionally been the ones tasked with communicating their values and environmental efforts, some online retailers are now stepping up to the plate to make sure these messages are passed along to the consumer as they shop. That way, they can make informed decisions about the brands they’re supporting without having to put in extra legwork Googling how a T-shirt or pair of sneakers was made.

Last month, Net-A-Porter launched its Net Sustain platform, a permanent edit that brings together 26 brands that meet a set of standards for at least one of five pillars: locally made, craft and community, considered materials, considered processes and reducing waste. Each category comes with specific criteria: To be considered “locally made,” for instance, a brand must produce at least 50% of its collection within its country or community; to fall under “considered processes,” as the buzzy sneaker label Veja does, it must be certified by an independent auditor like the Leather Working Group.

“We have always had sustainable brands on our site, and it’s exciting to have a place that allows our customers to easily navigate these brands,” said Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-A-Porter’s global buying director. “We’re continuing to add brands to the Net Sustain edit as they fit into the standards we require, and look forward to the next chapters of this initiative.”

At a trend presentation earlier this year, von der Goltz said that the company is pursuing more sustainable brands for coming seasons because, “we realize that as a collective force in fashion and with the size of our global audience, we have a big voice.” Will other retailers follow suit?

On the mass level, ASOS also recently added a new “responsible” filter to its site, allowing shoppers to home in on products that meet its criteria for recycled and sustainable materials alongside the usual filters like size and price range. The retailer has had a curated page called the Eco Edit (originally The Green Room) since 2010, highlighting brands that meet criteria like fair-trade practices, up-cycled materials and small-scale manufacturing. The new filters, though, make this merchandise easier to find among ASOS’ tens of thousands of products, even for shoppers who are used to browsing by category or new arrivals.

The e-commerce heavyweight says its goal is to achieve £30 million (about $37.7 million) in sales of sustainable products by 2020 — though, of course, this is still only a fraction of the £2.4 billion ($3 billion) in revenue it took in last year alone.

Increasingly, customers are factoring sustainability into their purchasing decisions. “I believe that five to 10 years from now, you’ll be considered a dinosaur unless you are able to show with transparency how things are made and where they’re coming from,” said Mortimer Singer, CEO of the business development and strategic consultancy firm Traub in a recent interview with FN.

Further, he argued, merchants should be making sustainable shopping as straightforward as possible for their customers. “That’s the thing about being a retailer: you get to choose. And therefore they need to continually be thinking about this from a merchandising perspective,” he said.

Some newer marketplaces are skipping over the brands that don’t meet their environmental and ethical standards entirely and curating a selection of only the ones that do. Buho, which launched last month, looks for labels that fit into at least one of its seven values: sustainable, ethically made, vegan, locally made, gender equality, handmade and vintage. It carries products for men, women, kids and home, including footwear brands like TOMS, Nisolo, PONS and Ahimsa, a Brazilian line that manufactures in the world’s only fully-vegan shoe factory. Each product is tagged with the values that apply to it, and the site includes a “Why you care” section in each product detail page to help educate and inform.

“Prior to Buho, there wasn’t one place where I could go to find everything I needed for my family,” founder Maria Casey told FN. “There are a lot of brands implementing innovative design and sustainable practices into their businesses, but you really have to dig to find them. We want to make that discoverability process much easier so regardless of income and where you live, customers can make buying choices that don’t have a detrimental impact on our climate.”

Similarly, the trend-conscious marketplace Canyon Goods debuted in June, showcasing shoe brands like Coclico (which sources and manufactures locally in Spain) and Rafa (which makes its vegan sandals out of recycled textiles and reclaimed wood) alongside apparel and accessories, both vintage and new.

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