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Meet the Subscription Fashion Brands Putting Sustainability Front and Center

The fashion industry has been wrestling with its sustainability issues for years, from labor practices to environmental impact. In fact, the energy the industry uses to produce, manufacture and transport clothing accounts for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. And, yes, consumers are also guilty of overconsumption and an addiction to cheap clothing. But both the industry and consumers are evolving. In fact, according to McKinsey, two-thirds of apparel shoppers say that minimizing impact on climate change is more important to them now than ever.

For years, fast fashion brick-and-mortar retailers like H&M have been criticized for overproduction and waste—in 2019, for example, H&M was left with $4.1 billion worth of unsold clothes. Meanwhile, the next wave of fast fashion is online, with hot social-seller Shein leading the charge and skyrocketing in growth. Shein uses data to follow the trends and only produces small numbers of extremely inexpensive clothing (like $6 dresses) before moving on to the next cycle. But not all fashion brands embracing eCommerce need follow Shein’s lead, which has been criticized for lack of transparency around its labor practices and encouraging overconsumption.

Though seemingly counterintuitive, a subscription model is a viable option for eCommerce fashion brands prioritizing both growth and sustainability. For one, subscriptions create an opportunity for brands to move from a transactional to a trusting relationship with consumers through surveys, feedback and regular communication. And for the retailer, recurring subscription revenue takes pressure off of producing and selling cheaply made clothes that will soon end up in a landfill. To bring a successful fashion subscription offering to life, there are a few options to consider (or combine): the circular fashion movement, a rental model, and a focus on flexibility and personalization.

Making Progress with the R’s: Circularity in Fashion

According to The Business of Fashion, in order to begin grappling with the amount of clothing already on the planet, the fashion industry needs to get serious about circularity, where a single item can create value repeatedly through reducing, recycling, refurbishing, reselling, renting and repairing. But there are multiple challenges to achieving circularity—from the durability of stained or stretched clothing to customer education around the benefits of secondhand fashion. For shoppers curious about vintage or recycled clothes, subscription services often offer them bespoke styling services aimed at finding items that they will fall in love with and that will become closet staples.

Number46 is a fashion brand founded by Josette Kouyomjian, a fashion veteran who grew disillusioned with corporate retail and, at the age of 46 (hence the name), decided to start her own sustainable fashion company. Number46’s style box subscription starts with a direct line to a stylist, who selects five to 10 vintage or secondhand items, which are then shipped to the customer either once, monthly, every three months or twice a year.

Style Alert by Material World takes another approach to reselling vintage fashion. For a $9 per month stylist fee,stylists scour vintage shops and text their customers with finds that they think are a good match based on a style quiz and subsequent text exchanges. Customers respond with buy or pass, and can also share feedback and requests. It’s a much higher-touch subscription model than is common, but customers can set the frequency of styling days, and the $9 fee is waived if they purchase at least one item.

For some fashion brands, a low cost to the actual subscription, like that $9 fee, is a gateway for consumers who might not be sure they want to subscribe and receive a box of clothes and accessories every month.

Renting More Than the Runway

More and more, rentals are entering the conversation around sustainable fashion subscriptions—and for good reasons. “Of the 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalents generated by the apparel industry every year, the majority are emitted while making more clothes. Reducing the impact of industry is the most challenging part of tackling climate change; sharing clothes through rental platforms presents a simple and obvious solution,” sustainable fashion expert Elizabeth Cline wrote in Elle.

What was once thought to be a model best suited for renting fancy dresses for special occasions has become more focused on sustainability and consumer preferences. As a result, rental subscriptions are increasingly popping up in a number of different retail categories, tackling particularly wasteful segments of the industry where clothing is often worn for short periods and then disposed of.

One of those areas is maternity and childhood. Circo’s rental subscription targets those two life stages when clothing is worn for short periods of time. Shoppers rent clothes for their little ones (from newborn to the age of 4) or throughout pregnancy, for a month by month fee. Understanding that kids’ clothes experience a high level of wear and tear, Circo allows eight to 10 families to rent the clothes before the products are recycled.

With trend-based fast fashion, consumers often purchase inexpensive clothes that are worn for a season before being tossed aside. To address this issue, By Rotation, a UK-based brand, combines secondhand clothing with a peer-to-peer rental model that encourages shoppers to build a following a la social media and rent items from each other. “[Consumers have] become more aware of how fast-fashion is produced,” By Rotation’s founder Eshita Kabra-Davies told The Guardian.  “I think people have realized there’s something wrong with the way that they are consuming. They’re beginning to look for ways they can replace fast fashion.”

Prioritizing Personalization 

One of the benefits of introducing a subscription model across many different industries is the ability to offer flexibility and personalization to members. For the fashion industry, delighting customers with clothing and accessories that are matched to their personal style can lead to higher rates of satisfaction and lower returns (packaging and shipping also have a negative environmental impact).

Using a blend of data and human touch, StitchFix has been perfecting the art of personalization since it launched in 2011. Customer data can give them intel into what colors or styles are more or less popular, which allows them to be much more flexible with their vendors so that they’re not overbuying. And while answering a style quiz has become the de facto standard for eCommerce fashion subscriptions, StitchFix marries the quiz with the option to upgrade to a personal stylist and a personalized shopping homepage experience that only includes items matched to your style.

“If people are less likely to be buying things just because it’s on a steep discount or buying something to wear once, this is actually how we win, when people are really looking for the one thing that fits or the one thing they’re going to really love,” Founder and CEO Katrina Lake told Marketplace. “And that’s where I think our capabilities around personalization are really showcased.”

Fashion’s Way Forward

There is no question that the fashion industry has a steep hill to climb in reducing its environmental impact. But the twin objectives of growth and sustainability don’t need to be at odds.

McKinsey’s research pointed to record low profits in 2020 as a catalyst for change in the industry—with creative approaches to business models and operations emerging as a result.  Finding new ways to stand out, build customer loyalty and put sustainability front and center will be the key to the industry’s future success. Subscriptions can play a pivotal role in this evolution.