Gen Z’s Passion for Sustainable Products Is Fueling the Shift Toward Streetwear

Niche companies are making environmentally friendly products more mainstream

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As Gen Z defines the types of products that resonate with them, brands like Allbirds and S’well have stood out for their sustainable sneakers and water bottles. Those products partially derive their value from sustainability and eco-friendly materials, which young individuals have increasingly favored.

A 2017 study from NDP Group found that Gen Z is willing to spend as much as 10 to 15 percent more on sustainably produced clothing. Meanwhile, a Nielsen study from 2015 found nearly three-quarters of 15- to 20-year-olds would pay more for a sustainable product, compared to just 51 percent of Baby Boomers.

And as brands look for new ways to cater to Gen Z’s love for sustainability, they’ve begun to tap into streetwear, which has a reputation for sustainability thanks to its drop model, second-hand reselling and gender neutral looks.

“Sustainability is an important principle for members of Gen Z. This is a group of people who lives life out loud; they like to value signal,” said Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at Landor. “Sustainability is a value members of Gen Z hold dear and they want to project that through what they wear.”

If you’ve ever walked past a long line of kids standing outside a clothing store, you’ve most likely witnessed a manifestation of the “drop” sales model—a method popular among streetwear brands like Supreme and KITH, which announced Thursday a collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger. Because the model of the “drop” produces a limited amount of product, whose resale potential imbues it with an evergreen quality, the buying of streetwear should, in theory, be considered a sustainable practice.

KITH is the latest streetwear brand to colloborate with a legacy brand by creating a collection with Tommy Hilfiger.
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As the “drop” continues to generate hype, and streetwear further infiltrates the world of luxury, more established fashion brands are beginning to adopt this practice. Burberry, for example, will be releasing a series of “drops” in September, under the direction of its new streetwear designer hire, Ricardo Tisci.

This transition, however, comes at a time when fashion houses are simultaneously facing criticism for sustainability claims that feel like greenwashing. It was also Burberry that recently came under fire for burning $36.5 million of unsold clothes last year, after touting a passionate drive toward sustainability on its website.

Sustainability, like streetwear, signifies status. “Knowing how and where something is made gives it social currency,” said John Matthews, strategy director at Siegel+Gale London

The shift toward streetwear is already an attempt to cater to the desires of younger shoppers, and its sustainable potential might provide an additional way by which these labels can market new collections.

According to Zalla, a streetwear piece can be new more than once: “There are multiple first wearers and first uses. It’s all about trading hands.”

“I might buy a streetwear item and I might pay a premium for it,” Zalla explained. “Eventually if it’s not going to be a part of my capsule wardrobe, I may let it go, but it will still hold its value. It’ll be new to someone else. It’s not going to end up in a trash heap.”

A ThredUp study from earlier this year found that the resale market accounts for 5 percent of current apparel sales, and by 2022, projects resale apparel will capture about 10 percent of marketshare.

Streetwear also tends to advocate gender neutral looks, which can further minimize production. Zalla said, “A lot of streetwear, if not most of it, is manufactured for men—men’s sizes, men’s type of clothing—but women are buying it and wearing it. And so I think that’s sustainable too.”

All of Chnge's products are gender neutral.
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A.C.F. says its clothing is designed for "guys and girls."
A.C.F.

But for Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, the sustainable potential of streetwear is not as convincing. “If you just talk through the logic, you have less waste, you have fewer markdowns, you have reselling, you have products getting significant use beyond their life cycle. Theoretically, it sounds great,” she continued, “But I don’t know that the impact of these drops is big enough to make a substantial impact.” Because the percent of total is so small, the effects are hard to scale.

Kodali also notes that sneakers, which are a huge component of streetwear, contain rubber soles, which are made from petroleum—not very biodegradable.

“I think these fashion brands would probably get as much bang for their buck by just contributing to environmental funds, as they would by trying to market themselves as sustainable,” she said.

According to Matthews, the “drop” can never exist in the same way with larger fashion brands: “The big companies want to say they’re agile but they are almost institutionally unwilling to play in such a spontaneous way.”

But whether the larger fashion brands manage to adopt this sustainable angle, the last decade has seen a number of more niche, eco-friendly streetwear brands that have certainly found success marketing themselves as such.

NOAH uses its platform to support and discuss environmental causes.
NOAH

For example, streetwear brand NOAH, which was founded by the former creative director of Supreme, Brendon Babenzien, uses its platform to support and discuss environmental causes. Designer Heron Preston, who has collaborated with Kanye West and Virgil Abloh, incorporates upcycling into his design process. French footwear brand Veja sells sneakers made out of raw materials sourced from organic farming and ecological agriculture. The list goes on.

These smaller brands have managed to take the quality of exclusivity that makes streetwear so special and use it to make participation in such a wide-scale, global movement seem that much more enticing. Now, sustainable clothes don’t have to be made out of hemp. Sustainable clothes are just as, if not more, cool.

“The thing that makes sustainability cool is its intersection with authenticity. Noah tells the stories of the materials and makers they use while Veja takes its ethical commitment right through the supply chain and demonstrates a transparency I suspect a lot of big brands would be scared of,” said Matthews. “Are you going to believe it when the flagship of conspicuous consumption, Louis Vuitton, comes over all sustainable? I doubt it; they already bend the truth about where their bags are made.”

“Millenials and young people tend to be more friendly to the environment and more conscious about sustainability issues. So it’s a message that should resonate, conceptually,” said Kodali. “But they’re not stupid either, and they have to see an impact.”

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