Why the ethical fashion sector in the UK struggles to grow

A recently published article in the Guardian celebrates ethical spending in the UK hitting a record high, swelling to reach over £41 billion. Consumables take the largest portion, with energy, home and personal products scooping up significant portions of the rest.

The industry that has had the most tussles with ethical issues however, the one that taught us terms like “greenwashing” and “slow fashion”, remains stagnant with “ an annual spend of just £49.9m,  less than the weekly spend on women’s shoes, which is £62m”.

That’s big.

Or well, little, really, in monetary terms. But is it surprising?

Part of living more ethically and sustainably has been a push towards purchasing less, considering provenance, repairing before disposal and spending money on experiences rather than objects.

According to a report by Experian on Millenial Growth, retail spending will have seen three consecutive years of slowing growth, while holiday spending will have grown 3% per year at the same time. More interestingly, while this trend is the most marked for families with high incomes it isn’t a millennial thing. Everyone is doing it.

The ethical fashion industry has attempted to encourage a lifestyle shift where consumers make more considered purchases when necessary.

The popular 30 wears challenge attempts to highlight the fact that most of us wear a single item of clothing a lot less than we think we do, and to consider purchasing a new item only if we think we will wear it 30+ times.

Then there is also the encouragement to shop pre-loved and reduce fashion waste.

Documentaries such as The True Cost have tried to spotlight some of the worst offences of the fashion industry in an attempt to explain who truly pays the real price for fast fashion and persuade people to justify spending several times the price for a similar item of new clothing.

Fast fashion retailers have responded by creating lines that they claim are “conscious” and still cheaper than offerings from a small independent fashion brand.

However, through all this, the law of unintended consequences means that the people who switch to ethical fashion spend the same amount of money on one item rather than five, even when fast fashion devotees keep up their frenetic, seasonal pace.

Ethical fashion consumers make repeat purchases much slower. They snap up pre-loved bargains. They wear out their much-loved garments. Then they mend and repair.

It’s better for the planet, but not as good for ethical fashion brands, many of whom are struggling to survive.

As a result of this, the ethical fashion sector stays stagnant.

What does this mean for ethical fashion brands?

In 2018, we wrote a blog for The RSA about the future of shopping and the need for a new retail experience. Shops need to evolve to become spaces that are both dynamic and inviting, adding an entrepreneurial and creative flair to what is traditionally a marketplace.

Ethical fashion brands however, need to focus on their target audience.

Knowing your customer has never been more important

Gen Z, who doesn’t know the meaning of life without a smartphone shops in a very different way to Boomers, for whom computers may still be slightly magical.

One of them strongly prefers an in-store experience while the other is best friends with the thing otherwise known as 1-click purchase. Snapping up their favourite influencer’s latest find is a religious experience for one. The other has a very healthy fear of being under any sort of influence, online or otherwise.

Jokes aside, there are some very real characteristics displayed by your target customer including what, where, how and why they purchase.

Have a long, hard think about customer experience

What do customers experience when they buy from you? Will they remember the process? Will they remember you?Will they remember your story? Do they like the story that you’re telling them, and do they see themselves as part of your story?

Never turn down an opportunity for PR or to reach new markets

Take advantage of all the opportunities that you possibly can. Yes, sometimes you will have to shell out money to be showcased in another part of the country or the world. Do it.

Do it, but make a calculated assessment about the return. Shameless plug: We offer a variety of opportunities to be showcased. To take a look at our 2020 opportunities for Blue Patch members, click here.

Remember to breed loyalty

Find your tribe and keep them coming back for more.

Invest time in customers who will make repeat purchases and talk about you to their friends. Make it easy for them to buy from you, and for goodness sake, make it easy for them to return purchases (unworn and undamaged, of course) too. 

After all, “Does it spark joy?” may have been a question that was so two years ago, but subconsciously we still ask it every single time we shop.

A dog in a yellow hat, sparking joy.


Preeti is the Marketing Manager at Blue Patch. Born and raised in India, she spent some time in the US, completing a degree in Psychology and Biology, after which she moved to the UK in 2010 to study an MSc in Finance and Management. She can often be found obsessing over her plants, trying to clamp down on an ever-increasing collection of nail polish or exploring and taking photos of random corners of London. Her own personal fashion obsession is dresses. It used to be scarves, but she prefers sourcing those from India.

Related blogs:

What does it mean to be an ethical business in 2019?

What we learned from asking our fashion brands about sustainability

Beyond Fashion Revolution week: Practical actions for consumers and brands