The fashion industry is constantly wrestling with the demand to “be more sustainable”, but instead relying solely on making changes to production, true innovation comes from inspiring audiences to think and act differently.

With the inherent ability to implement trends that have the power to decide whether as individuals, we are either in or out of style, the fashion industry also has the potential to impact and shape society as a whole; affecting the buying habits of people globally. And yet, the industry has always had a tempestuous relationship with sustainability. This is a steep uphill battle that is neverending, but there is hope. Both luxury and non-luxury brands typically employ one of two key approaches when it comes to becoming more sustainable; integrating innovative materials or shifting people’s behaviours.

Route one relies on altering the materials used to create collections and ensuring the end-buyer is aware of their positive choice and related impact they have; think of things like Zara’s “Join Life” logo, or Net-A-Porter’s NET SUSTAIN, where you can browse a selection of consciously crafted fashion, beauty, homeware and jewellery.

The level above this is when brands take their sustainability beyond the simple commitment of net-zero. One of the best examples of this kind of innovative design is “material science company” Pangaia, which is leading the sustainability conversation through reconcepting the material composition of materials to align with their inspired vision to accelerate an Earth Positive Future. The company’s patented technologies, such PPRMINT™ (an antimicrobial treatment that enables clothes to stay fresher for longer) and FLWRDWN™ (a material that offers a plant-based, animal-free and resource-efficient alternative that doesn’t compromise keeping you warm) are some of the most innovative design technologies currently on the market.

Route two, moves beyond the materials that make clothes, and looks to shift audience behaviours to change purchase habits and deliver a more sustainable approach to shopping. This comes in many forms; from resale and rental, to repair and restyling. Audience demand plays a huge role in sustainability and brand innovation. The industry is largely dictated by what people want, and there’s recently been a seismic shift when it comes to the demand for sustainable practices. In a survey conducted by McKinsey during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, “67 percent [of respondents] consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, and 63 percent consider a brand’s promotion of sustainability in the same way.” And, there are a set of innovators proposing new solutions to create positive impact.

Take for example the luxury resale platform The RealReal, founded in 2011 by Julie Wainwright, the platform’s goal was to create (and then dominate) a market for secondhand luxury fashion, which as defined by Wainwright means “occupying the space between eBay and Sotheby’s.” The RealReal shifted the audience and industry’s perception of how resale could work in the luxury space, meeting an audience demand that had long existed, but never in a dedicated luxury fashion format. Other brands have quickly followed suit; with the likes of Boyish, Oscar de la Renta, Rachel Comey, Mara Hoffman, Madewell, Amour Vert, Filippa K and Kut from the Kloth are among the brands that launched a resale shop in 2021, followed by Maaji, Ministry of Supply, Michael Stars and Steve Madden among others in 2022. Department stores are also making new sustainability commitments and shifting their sustainability strategy, for example Selfridges’ Project Earth sustainability initiative includes The Repairs Concierge. The dedicated space aims to encourage people to re-wear and care for the pieces, thus making items last longer than a season.

Similarly, rentals and repairs are accessible yet innovative methods to upping a brand’s sustainability ranking. HURR and By Rotation are the front runners, but we’ve even seen non-fashion industry brands get in on the rental market, namely Japan Airlines, which is now trialling a program called “Any Wear, Anywhere”, where visitors need only pack underwear and a toothbrush as they’re able to ditch the environmentally unfriendly suitcase and instead rent every other item upon landing in Japan.

Looking beyond the fashion industry, there are interesting things happening in the tech space, taking on the styling, fit and the design process itself. There’s restyling via the app Think Shape, founded by Anna Berkely, an industry veteran. Designed to enable users to understand how clothes fit their body type, the app teaches customers what shapes suit them best. Empowered with knowledge, people are likely to only shop for items that they know will suit them style wise, they’ll use them again and again; meaning less deliveries, less emissions, less returns, less waste, making your wardrobe go further.

There’s also Stylescan, who herald themselves as a ground breaking solution set to revolutionise the design process by reducing the need for multiple samples when designing and photographing by using currently 2D (but soon 3D) models and placing clothes on, virtually. 

The point is, systemic and ingrained behaviours rarely change, until something comes along with an alternative that isn’t too much hassle and gives people the same benefit. Innovative modes to make your wardrobe go-further, are now part of the handshake deal people make when upon purchase. The future of sustainable fashion isn’t a done deal, but there is hope.