Sustainability and Fashion in 2023: Harnessing Community Engagement
It’s the beginning of a new year and it feels like the right time to pause and reflect on some of the changes that the fashion industry is experiencing. The past three years have been a rollercoaster for all of us, a challenging time for many of us and a dumpster fire for others. The pandemic wiped out some businesses altogether and for some, poured fuel on the fire. No matter how you fared from 2020 to 2022, the pendulum swing is in full motion, leaving brands everywhere clinging on for dear life.
The Industry’s 2023 Outlook: Sustainability in Fashion is Key
As a Founder and CEO of a fashion e-commerce brand, I saw firsthand how we couldn’t keep up with the demand during the pandemic. Now, we are seeing a remarkable uptick in consumers celebrating in-person experiences and store re-openings as well as rampant inflation and the proliferation of promotional pricing, which has caused the customer to pause before paying full price for anything. This means that the macro environment is less than hospitable for apparel brands, especially for those whose primary channel is online.
According to a recent Bank of Canada survey, businesses in Canada anticipated a recession with many companies expecting slower sales growth in 2023. The cost of living is rising and the average consumer simply will not have the same amount of disposable income to spend. This means that each purchase will be much more carefully evaluated and scrutinized. Couple this consumer trend with retailers being overstocked, and the result is a highly promotional environment, with retailers now having to choose cash over margins to compete for the wallet of their customers. Many brands, both established and emerging, find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
“This could prove to be a time of great opportunity, where they can lean into community, listen to them, pivot and double down on their brand identity and purpose.”
Despite these worrying trends, it is not all doom and gloom. For some brands, this could prove to be a time of great opportunity, where they can lean into community, listen to them, pivot and double down on their brand identity and purpose. People buy with their hearts and justify it later. So how can we as business leaders navigate these rocky waters, appeal to the hearts of our customers and come out on the other side leading the fashion industry with purpose in 2023 and beyond?
Today’s retail landscape is more dynamic than ever and there remains a clear opportunity for brands–in a way that capitalizes on the power of community, partnerships and their evergreen role in sustainability and fashion–to survive, and even thrive in a recession.
Why Fashion Brands Should Build Engaged Online Communities
Naturally, rising prices on things like gas and groceries affect the way Canadians spend their money and their ability to purchase discretionary goods, and this has forced people to reconsider some aspects of their budgeting and spending. People are more inclined to save for the future and are less interested in spending on key items, including clothing (40% less likely, according to a recent EY Future Consumer Index Survey).
“Working closely with online communities will give retailers an opportunity to engage with real user experiences and feedback.”
To help businesses keep pace with these changing consumer trends and behaviours, working closely with online communities will give retailers an opportunity to engage with real user experiences and feedback, allowing them to stay on the pulse of what customers are thinking. As a result, brands can create products serving their customers’ needs, resulting in a deeper, more meaningful connection between brand and customer.
At Smash + Tess, engagement with our community was particularly helpful when the pandemic changed the nature of work dress codes for video conferencing. We were able to cater to customers’ needs for more simple, yet presentable looks. By simply listening and engaging with our online customers, we have amassed a large following with our stylish “everywear” rompers and launched the #RomperRevolution into a Canadian cult favourite.
Bringing your customers into a community where they can be part of something larger is crucial to a company’s success in 2023 and perhaps even more so during economic downturns.
Sustainability And Fashion: Be Intentional About Social Impact
In challenging climates like these, it is easy for brands to focus simply on reducing costs and put their commitments to ethics and sustainability on the back burner. However, if history has taught us anything, it is that this quick-fix strategy is not only harmful to the environment but also detrimental to business. In fact, the Great Recession of 2008 showed us that businesses that continued to work on their sustainability goals and considered Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) a strategic imperative fared better than their competitors and recovered more swiftly and successfully.
“Three-quarters of Gen Zs view sustainability as the most important factor when choosing a brand to spend their money on.”
Today, sustainability and fashion are shaping the major trends in retail in 2023. A growing number of consumers are becoming more interested in how the products they purchase are being manufactured. This means that understanding why customers shop the way they do and how brands can best meet their requirements is essential. If you do not believe me, just ask the Gen Zs. Three-quarters of Gen Zs view sustainability as the most important factor when choosing a brand to spend their money on.
Fashion brands must focus on the interplay between sustainability and fashion and maintain complete transparency with their customers. Brands should clearly outline their processes—from the creation of products to packaging, to the way they treat and support employees and to the technology and manufacturing partners they choose. Empowering customers with knowledge of how a brand approaches its business gives customers the opportunity to make informed decisions when purchasing products.
There are also other ways to drive the mission of sustainability and fashion. At Smash + Tess, we deliberately make small batches of clothing on demand so that we are not overproducing and contributing to clothing waste. We test collections through a made-to-order model and provide an incentive to customers to order in advance by offering discounted pricing. This helps us match supply with demand.
Brands must constantly evolve and take further steps toward a more sustainable future. They should explore all low-waste packaging for products, consolidated shipping to reduce fuel costs and manufacturing partners who share sustainable values. By doing so, brands will continue to learn and grow, getting closer to achieving their long-term sustainability goals while establishing deeper emotional ties with their communities to allow for stronger performance, even during recessions.
Create Meaningful Partnerships
We have power in numbers. When the going gets tough, we have to get the partnerships going.
When we engage in more meaningful partnerships, we build brand awareness and extend our reach to other communities that share our values, gaining access to new markets. If we think about the rising cost of digital acquisition through Meta and Google and the ever-elusive Instagram algorithm, effective brand partnerships can be a much more cost-effective means of new customer growth.
By collaborating with other like-minded brands, influencers and celebrities, we are able to leverage our existing customer base and override traditional means of new customer acquisition, bonding together like a raft in the rocky waters of an economic downturn.
“Gone are the days of the “growth at all costs” mentality that swept the D2C apparel and tech industries.”
While a recession may not last forever, we still need to survive it. Gone are the days of the “growth at all costs” mentality that swept the D2C apparel and tech industries. Instead, a more measured approach is required. Now, more than ever, we should be laying the groundwork for a deeper engagement with our consumers. Of course, we need a keener eye on our unit economics, but arguably one of the major ingredients to a profitable business is understanding what your community wants.
It is that loyal, supportive, and engaged online community that will give valuable insight into the kinds of products and initiatives that matter. In turn, brands can have a more strategic approach to production, eliminating excess and growing the sustainability and fashion movement in an industry that so desperately needs it. Some of the best innovations arise from adversity and I believe that mission-driven brands will be the ones that survive, and eventually thrive in 2023 and beyond.