Skip to navigationSkip to content
A mannequin wears a red dress inside the Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship midtown Manhattan store, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
At stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, buyers are looking for sustainability.
SHAPE UP

The world’s fashion buyers are sending a strong message to designers about sustainability

By Marc Bain

The store buyers who pick the clothes, shoes, and other items that retailers purchase from brands aren’t as well-known as designers, models, or magazine editors, but they’re power players in the fashion industry.

The items they choose for stores make up a large portion of the sales fashion brands rely upon, and they have a key role in deciding what options shoppers will have when they enter a store or go online. As intermediaries, they wield major influence on brands and consumers alike.

And the buyers from more than 80 department stores across 25 countries, representing some €50 billion ($56 billion) in annual sales, have a message for clothing brands: Sustainability sells.

Sustainability is an increasingly important factor in what buyers choose to stock, according to a survey by the consultancy McKinsey & Company and Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, Italian fashion’s governing body. The researchers surveyed buyers at “the most important international department stores,” including Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys in New York, Takashimaya in Japan, Printemps in France, and Hyundai in South Korea. They shared the results at the Italian group’s third international roundtable on sustainability in Milan on March 26, the Guardian reported.

According to the survey, the buyers expected to nearly double their purchases of sustainable products over the next five years, raising them from 23% of their total budgets to 42%. A quarter of those surveyed also said they had stopped selling a brand or product for falling short on sustainability.

What mattered to store buyers the most was how a brand sources fabrics, its transparency, and the treatment of workers at the factories making its clothes—as opposed to things such as a brand’s marketing, reputation, or charitable donations. It’s an important distinction, the report notes, because addressing these fundamental elements “requires a deep review of both the business model and the supply chain, with investments that can account for 8-12% of total turnover.”

Most store buyers said they would pay a small premium for sustainable products, which makes sense, given that shoppers continue to show more interest in sustainability. Whether shoppers will pay more for sustainable products is up for debate. About 70% of adults surveyed by research firm NPD Group last year said they wouldn’t pay more for them. NPD did note that young shoppers are generally more willing to spend on sustainability than their older counterparts, a distinction that has turned up in other surveys as well. But millennials surveyed last year by LIM College put ease of purchase and price ahead of sustainability in determining what they bought.

Fashion brands, at least, are giving sustainability-minded store buyers more options. As well as sustainable stalwarts such as Stella McCartney, a growing number of young brands are quietly weaving sustainable practices into their businesses. These include the rising French star Marine Serre, the skate-and-surf inspired brand Noah, and 1017 Alyx 9SM, a high-end label with a tactical bent, to name just a few.

“I think it’s a combination of brands finally recognizing that the consumer is more important [than ever] and also that sustainability can help them differentiate from each other,” Antonio Achille, the head of McKinsey’s luxury division, told the Guardian, speaking of the survey results.

It’s a good point. A recent report by WGSN Analytics, the data division of the global trend forecaster WGSN, noted that shoppers have more options than ever to choose from, meaning brands have to work extra hard to win them as customers. One way to stand out from the crowd, it said, is sustainability.

Looking for more in-depth coverage of the fashion industry? Sign up for a free trial of Quartz membership, and read our premium field guide on how fashion and luxury are getting redesigned.