The Chinese luxury market has been noticeably slow-moving on sustainable fashion, with consumers often treating luxury as a separate sphere to other sustainable sectors. Recently, however, marketers are claiming that sustainability will play a key role in purchasing decisions in 2020 and beyond. But how much do Chinese consumers really care about ethically-sourced or sustainable goods? Or are they simply looking for the best deals on designer brands?
“There might be a future for sustainable fashion in China, but right now nobody cares,” says Andy Zhang, a millennial fashionista living in Shanghai. Zhang’s candid view sharply contradicts Tmall’s recent report from its fashion forecasting division Trend Center, which predicts Chinese consumers will be avidly searching out sustainable products when making purchasing decisions in 2020. According to the data, sustainability will be a key motivator for Chinese shoppers when choosing a seller, brand, or retailer.
According to Nick Cakebread, Managing Partner at Reuter Communications, a luxury integrated marketing agency based in Shanghai, this is not the only research suggesting that Chinese consumers do, in fact, care about sustainability. “Our travel report, published last year in partnership with ILTM, revealed that a hotel's sustainability program was a key part of the decision-making for affluent Chinese families,” says Cakebread. “Across social media, you can also see consumers' interest. On RED, for example, the phrase ‘shopping lasts bag after bag’ has been tagged in over 6,000 user posts.”
So why are young Chinese consumers like Zhang under the impression that his countrymen don’t care? As Alizila reports, the Tmall data showed that “recycled materials, sustainable-fashion concepts, and vintage candy colors are key to drawing the eye” of shoppers. However, when examined more closely, this might suggest that it is the aesthetic of sustainability as a style trend that’s enticing to Chinese shoppers and not the product’s environmental impact. Recycled materials are not necessarily ethically sourced, and it remains unclear whether shoppers care about this. Miranda Yuan, a Marketing Executive from Qumin, a Chinese creative digital agency based in London and Shanghai, echoes this belief. “Young Chinese consumers care more about the style, the price of clothes, and the brand reputation when it comes to fashion,” she says.
On top of that, the demand for discounts in the luxury-clothing sector has led to the creation of sustainable clothing apps that allow consumers to rent clothes. These apps, though eco-friendly, are primarily popular because of the designer deals they provide. “YCloset and MSParis have become the most popular Chinese platforms for renting premium fashion,” explains Marie Tulloch, Senior Client Services Manager at Chinese marketing consultancy Emerging Communications. “While the use of such services is not driven by ethical concerns, some consumers do opt to use them for a combination of factors, including sustainability.”
In addition, Chinese consumers often face barriers when they attempt to purchase sustainable products. Consumer research from the Chinese fashion media Luxe.co found that 21 percent of shoppers don’t know where to find sustainable fashion, and another 19 percent “do not understand what sustainability means.” Founder of the research platform ChoZan.co, Ashley Galina Dudarenok, explains that “sustainable fashion faces a lot of problems in the Chinese market. It is simply not the first concern when consumers make a purchase.”
“To stand out with eco-friendly messages,” says Yuan, “brands must either be well respected in China or work with popular influencers who can teach their followers a thing or two about how to be model citizens by protecting their country’s environment. At present, netizens often ignore sustainable messaging and purely comment on the style, but we all know how quickly new trends can spread in China.”
As international luxury brands face global pressure to demonstrate sustainable practices and fulfill CSR commitments, these respected brands may be among the first to successfully implement real sustainability strategies in China. Such initiatives are slowly beginning to gain traction in the market. In beauty, for example, La Mer and Tencent QQ partnered on an oceans clean-up program, which engaged with close to five million consumers. Elsewhere, Nike collaborated with Reclothing Bank, a Chinese independent designer brand focused on upcycling old garments, to launch the Recreate Old Jersey program, and Adidas launched a campaign raising awareness of marine protection.
Other research suggests that there is a demand for sustainability in China, but there’s still a long way to go toward changing many consumer attitudes. That being said, much younger consumers may be able to encourage a more environmentally friendly fashion agenda. The 2018 China Sustainable Consumption Report by Yili Group found that those under the age of 20 years old currently have the highest level of concern for sustainable consumption in China, accounting for a massive 81.8 percent of those respondents answering favorably.
As Cakebread mentions, Swarovski's Waterschool environmental stewardship initiative has reached over 100 schools and 350,000 students across China, smartly targeting the next generation of China’s young and sustainably-savvy consumer. And according to the experts, it is this generation of young advocates who will be demanding more from brands in the future while also expecting proof of ethical sourcing and manufacturing standards. Galina Dudarenok explains that these consumers will expect sustainability to be a standard feature of brands' product offerings in the future, claiming that “sustainable luxury does have a future in the Chinese market, and it is with post-90s consumers." Far from being a passing trend, smart brands ought to be preparing for the eventual emergence of China’s environmentally conscious consumers now rather than when it’s too late.