Primark is investing in niche markets with its sustainable cotton programme

Primark is investing in niche markets with its sustainable cotton programme

In the past, consumers shopped on an item-by-item basis. Today, consumer decisions are based on what conforms to their personal lifestyle goals. Here Emma Birnbaum argues that the ideals on which the new industry is constructed are in danger of devolving into a dogmatic ideology.

The western consumer has evolved from a homogenous mass to a vast number of unique individuals. In the past, it was assumed that all consumers strove to acquire and achieve the same things. Today, we know consumers are driven by individual ideals and subculture values.

This new mentality not only affects the apparel industry – but every other consumer centric industry from beauty and cosmetics, to TV and cinema and media, music, news and more.

For a long time the apparel industry has been aware of the demand for sustainable fashion, transparent operations, affordable merchandise and worker rights. However, there are other, equally important values that other industries have been forced to reckon with, but which the garment industry is only recently becoming aware.

These qualities not only shape products but the very organisations that create them. Authentic brand identity requires the retailer to genuinely embrace the ethos they represent and thus transform its entire operation to reflect its new mentality.

  • Access versus ownership shifts consumer status from the owner of the product to the selector: ownership is now secondary to personal taste.
  • Tech-facilitated service is not automated service, rather it is a method of streamlining and enhancing the analogue experience.
  • Free same-day or next day delivery is now non negotiable for basic products: consumers do not want to wait, nor do they want to accommodate companies incapable of factoring in shipping costs.
  • Consumer influence and customisation does not necessarily refer to consumer design but instead, consumer participation through a larger more dynamic role in product development and selection.
  • Finally, subscription based shopping lowers cost for consumers who are consistently loyal to a specific company or product.

Perhaps, most frustrating for traditional industries is that some retailers are actually living up to these expectations by producing more desirable, cost-effective and higher performing products and services.

The $445bn (in sales) global beauty industry is currently being overhauled by Glossier, Fenty Beauty and Deciem. For good or bad, print media is being devastated by Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. Cinema is being taken down by Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. For everyone but Taylor Swift, Platinum Albums have been relegated to the past by YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud.

Make-it or break-it ideals

These ideals are make-it or break-it. In the past, consumers shopped on an item-by-item basis. Today, consumer decisions are based on what conforms to their personal lifestyle goals.

For example, the "wellness" lifestyle not only focuses on personal mental and physical health but extends to global wellbeing. In this case consumer values may include sustainable farming, fair trade, cruelty free, vegan, low carbon footprint, waterless, toxicity free, long lasting and multifunctional.

The selected values deemed important by a consumer play an intrinsic role in all their decisions from which vitamins to buy, to what milk to drink, to where to go for lunch and yes, what clothes to wear. In industries across the board companies eager to stay on top are already investing in niche markets: Amazon bought out Wholefoods, Primark launched a sustainable cotton programme, and Asos established Asos Marketplace.

Today's consumers have the capacity to make or break a brand with their individual voices and articulated opinions

However, today's consumers have the ability to impact the market with more than just their wallets. In fact, they have the capacity to make or break a brand with their individual voices and articulated opinions, which, regardless of socio-economic class, professional knowledge or standing within industry can hold great sway over the entire global consumer community.

Expectations, concerns and complaints that were once a one-on-one conversation with an ambiguous customer service agent are now out in the open, live-streamed and simultaneously read, watched, dissected, distributed and discussed around the globe.

I want to be very clear that we are talking about the immense impact an ordinary consumer can make on not only the sales of an item but the overall survival of a business.

The apparel industry, unlike other industries, is only beginning to experience a shakeup of this magnitude and more is coming. Yes, traditional retailers are clinging on for dear life to both fast and disposable fashion that continues to dominate the marketplace – which they believe to be cutting-edge but in point of fact is becoming somewhat passé. There is still so much more that consumers lust after, search for and crave.

It is obvious and beyond debate that many traditional retailers are going down in flames because they do not understand and, therefore, cannot appeal to the new consumer. The traditional beliefs of "if we build it they will come" and "if we make it they will buy it" no longer hold water.

Lack of industry knowledge

However, the new retailers who understand the new consumer, largely because they were built by new consumers, are not winning either.

While companies such as Zalando, Everlane and Reformation have taken the western market by storm, they are the exceptions. The problem that new retailers face may be that they cannot find a supplier or manufacturer small enough to produce for them. More likely, it is a combination of lack of industry knowledge and an ill-informed opinion that prejudices them against the very people who could help them.

These new companies are born from the desire to finally provide the perfect T-shirt, the perfect pair of jeans, the perfectly tailored trouser and are founded on the questions: Why aren't people doing this already? How difficult can making a white T-shirt be?

I second the call for perfection, especially when the T-shirt in question is manufactured by a sustainable, transparent system that pays workers a decent wage, curbs water waste and limits toxicity and greenhouse gases (GHGs).

However, the truth is that the knowledge necessary to produce such a T-shirt requires a great deal of experience, without which significant problems are often overlooked. Most new retailers cannot maintain their own standards because they do not grasp the vast and complex processes involved in product development, material sourcing and production. In their ignorance they reject the traditional system entirely and opt instead to reinvent a wheel they do not understand.

Not only will this ignorance inhibit growth, it will also force their inherent value system off course. History has seen this so many times that the common vernacular has the maxim:

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

  • In current events, social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter were launched to promote free speech and democratise news. The result: less than 15 years later the Russians have rigged the US elections and a degenerate lout is gorging himself on Big Macs in the Oval Office.
  • In the 1990s, the US federal government and advocacy groups began pressuring doctors to treat pain as a serious medical issue; in response, doctors began the mass prescription of drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin. The result: the opioid epidemic, estimated by the CDC to have resulted in over 183,000 deaths, all caused by legal prescription medication.

Great motivation. Disastrous outcome. The same pattern of events occurred in the garment industry not so long ago. For example, on 31 December 2004 the quota was phased out. It is speculated that advocacy groups and NGOs pushed for the phase-out in hope that manufacturing would shift to smaller, undeveloped countries, thus creating economic growth. These groups could not have been more wrong. Any keen industry professional would have said so, and many did.

We have seen what happens when ignorance and inexperience take the reins. Today the apparel industry is on the cusp of facing another such problem. The beautiful and elevated ideals on which the new industry is constructed are in danger of devolving into a dogmatic ideology.

Ideals vs Ideology

Cultivating ideals and an ethos is to establish a collection of values that inform the decision-making process and construct an identity, which can be both wonderful and advantageous. However, unlike ideals, ideology is absolute and leaves no room for new concepts, knowledge, compromise, negotiation, strategic development or simply changing one's mind.

To bring this abstraction down to reality, if a company is founded on sustainability it recognises that there are many different roots to reaching this goal, two of which may be organic cotton and "Made in USA". On the other hand, ideology dictates the ignorant assertion that organic cotton is always more sustainable than its non-organic counterpart and "Made in USA" is the only ethical manufacturing location.

Not only do these beliefs stifle industrial growth – but retailers of this mentality would be short-changing their consumers by limiting other potentially more valid methods of sourcing, product development and manufacturing.

I do not want to negate the great efforts these new companies are making. I personally agree with their underlying sentiment, I share their values and most of all, I genuinely think that their mentality is what all future industries will be founded on.

But values are not enough to make great clothes. Without an in-depth, concrete understanding of the product, methods and systems of sourcing and manufacturing, and the prerequisite tools that facilitate the processes, these new retailers will never survive.

We are under the impression that when the traditional industry finally succumbs to history, something new and fully formed will be there to take its place. I personally do not believe in the ubiquitous future of fast fashion and so am left with 'The New Industry,' incapable of getting off the ground because it cannot make its own product.

That being said there is a solution

Sourcing experts, factories and suppliers are adaptable, innovative and understand the fundamentals of anticipating and providing what their customer wants. These are the same characteristics that fuel the new industry and its consumers.

Like the traditional customer, the new customer has specific needs and demands and, like the traditional customer, the new customer has no idea what actually goes into fulfilling said needs and demands.

However, unlike the traditional industry based on hierarchy and lowest common denominator products, the new industry values all individuals who share its ideals and espouse its value system.

Any supplier or factory capable of authentically embracing the ethos of the new industry will not only secure their place in the future but will have the capacity to design their own unique role.