Has our appetite for sustainable fashion survived the pandemic?

Despite the pandemic, UK shoppers still bought over 2.6 billion fashion items during 2020. How is sustainability factoring into these purchases?
08 April 2021
Gold hangers with clothing items hanging in wardrobe
Anna Lowe

Client Executive, Fashion, Worldpanel Division

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The events of 2020 presented many challenges for fashion retailers, and while sales ultimately declined 23.4% over the course of the year, shoppers still bought over 2.6 billion new items, showing a resilient level of demand in the industry. And with each unit sold, there is an opportunity for both shoppers and brands to engage with sustainable options. 

The UK government is certainly keeping up the pressure on the industry to act, unveiling in March a new wide-ranging waste prevention programme that aims to support sustainable fashion and hold manufacturers accountable for textile waste.

But after a year of limited need for new outfits for work or socialising, and with the financial strain that has already been placed on a large part of the population by the pandemic, just how high is sustainability on shoppers’ agendas? Our Fashion Sustainability survey of 11,000 fashion shoppers – conducted in September 2020 – uncovers how their appetite for sustainable options has fared during a year like no other.

Different facets of sustainability

When it comes to fashion, sustainability is a broad and diverse topic, which can mean different things to different people. For some shoppers, sustainability means cutting back on purchasing altogether, with the number of shoppers saying they are doing this up 14.4 percentage points year on year. For others, the focus is on how they shop, whether that’s avoiding fast fashion retailers (up 10.3 percentage points year on year), focusing on buying recyclable and sustainable materials, or even prioritising aftercare of fashion products such as repairing, passing down or donating items – another behaviour that has grown over the past year (up 7.5% percentage points). 

Although shoppers’ expectations can vary greatly, it’s clear the appetite for more sustainable choices has not waned, despite sales declining over the past year. In fact, it has grown in importance for shoppers. In our survey, 24.2% of consumers stated that fashion is one of the most concerning industries when it comes to its impact on the environment – up 3.5 percentage points on last year.

Taking accountability

The findings give a strong indication about how much focus fashion retailers should put on sustainability going forward. But when it comes to who is responsible for reducing the environmental impact of the fashion industry, who do shoppers hold accountable? 46.1% of our respondents feel retailers and manufacturers are those most responsible for reducing fashion’s impact: not only should fashion brands be taking action, but over three quarters of respondents think actions should be committed to in the long term, not just as a short-term trend. 

For fashion retailers, having positive brand association at a time when shoppers are cutting back on spend will be crucial to success. And with sustainability meaning different things to different shoppers, it’s important to understand the motivations of the shoppers which buy that specific brand, in order to create a sustainability strategy which stands out as a positive force for change.  

Get in touch to understand what shoppers are expecting when it comes to sustainability. View the infographic for more findings from the study.


All figures quoted are from Kantar’s Fashion Sustainability Survey, 11,248 fashion shoppers, September 2020

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