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Sustainability Is No Longer Just An Afterthought In The Fashion Industry

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Sustainability has risen to be the new sexy in the fashion industry. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Meeting the demands of increasingly environmentally-conscious shoppers, against the backdrop of studies having shown it as one of the worst polluters, the fashion industry is embracing sustainability as its new sexy fashion.

In a sign that the issue is no longer just an afterthought, the topic was a key theme at this year’s WWD Apparel + Retail CEO Summit that concluded Wednesday in New York. The two-day event gathered some 300 top industry executives from CEOs of Macy’s and Kohl’s to luxury brands Paul Smith and Ermenegildo Zegna.

“Five years ago customers only care about if they like the product,” said designer Eileen Fisher of her namesake company. “Now they care about whether (their purchase) makes a difference….We need to move the flow of money to sustainable business….We are thinking about ‘what are the other ways we can make money that don’t require making new stuff.”

The brand, certified as B-Corp. since 2015, last year opened its first company-owned factory in Irvington, NY to give new life to its old and damaged clothes it takes back from customers and turns some into new limited edition pieces for sale.

“Our customers have an appetite to engage with the brand outside shopping,” said Libby Wadle, president of J. Crew-owned hip sister brand Madewell. “Our customers have an appetite to engage with the brand outside shopping.”

About 10% of Madewell’s jeans sales are now tied to its denim recycling program, which involving Madewell taking used denim and recycle it into house installation, she said.

Yael Aflalo, ceo and founder of Reformation, known for its sustainably-sourced apparel and business operation, said the brand has seen increased social-media “engagement on sustainability.” The company’s pitch on sustainability also has helped it attract talent, she said.

“A good 50% or more coming to work for us because they like our mission,” she said.

According to this year’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report published by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, 52% of fashion industry executives polled in its study said “sustainability targets acted as a guiding principle for nearly every strategic decision they made,” up 18 percentage points from last year. The study also showed an increased sustainability focus does translate to a positive impact on profit.

Besides the discussion on sustainability, not surprisingly, attracting traffic and new customers was also a key topic at the WWD event as many traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and brands seek new partnerships and other reinventions.

In an initiative that first began last year, Kohl’s, for instance, has expanded to about 100 stores where Amazon customers can return their Amazon-bought items to Kohl’s to be shipped back for free.

“Customers love the experience,” said Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass. “It’s an opportunity to show we are willing to take a risk and make a bet.”

Still, she acknowledged while the move is driving traffic, “it has to convert enough into sales” for Kohl’s, adding this holiday will serve as a good barometer of that. Kohl’s is also looking at downsizing its store size of an average of about 90,000 square feet to about 60,000 with the remaining space to be leased to fitness centers or other retailers.

 “We want to bring a neighbor to help us bring traffic,” Gass said.

For its part, Macy’s will be “much more aggressive” in its lease models and feature restaurants and other categories that “revolve around the way customers live and shop” to drive traffic, Chairman and CEO Jeff Gennette said.

Macy’s has also taken a stake in Silicon Valley tech-retailer startup b8ta, which features different online upstart brands as well as major labels Sony in out-of-box and interactive settings for consumers to see and try. Macy’s this year also bought Story, famous for its New York shop that regularly features different brands and themes that attract shoppers. Story’s founder Rachel Shechtman has been named Macy’s “brand experience officer” and is tasked with helping to replicate at Macy’s relevant Story-like in-store experience.

The point of moves behind the likes of Story or b8ta “is to acquire new customers,” Gennette said.

Related on Forbes: AT&T to open over 1,000 stores, but that’s not even the real surprise

Related on Forbes:  The restaurant industry should give this new Shake Shack a closer look

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