Initiatives promoting sustainable consumption have been rapidly growing in China over the last decade. Unlike western economies, where many of the sustainable trends have been promoted by organizations and pushed by consumers, in China, these initiatives have been driven by governmental programs, more than by consumer demand.
As Chinese consumption power and education levels increase, will Chinese consumers adopt sustainable consumption preferences that have been growing in North America and Europe? How will this impact the fashion industry and fashion brands that are looking to engage with this target audience? Will the need to own the latest cool style on social media be influenced by sustainable trends? How important will “looking responsible” be on social media in China compared to other trends?
Understanding the green consumption pattern in China.
According to a 2017 China Sustainable Consumption Research Program Reportsustainable consumption was largely accepted by 70% of Chinese consumers, however sustainable fashion was not considered a main point of interest. Data from an Alibaba Research Institute 2017 study indicated that clothing was only the second to last category when words related to sustainability were searched for by its consumers online. Food was the most important sustainable category. Even though sustainability is generally well-understood by Chinese consumers, fashion does not appear as a priority when choosing sustainable orientated consumption patterns. While a considerable portion of customers are willing to switch to electric cars or purchase organic food, fashion seems to follow a different trend. Considering that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world and a huge pollution problem in China, it is relevant to try to understand how this trend will develop in the Chinese apparel industry.
SOURCE: CHINA SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION RESEARCH PROGRAM REPORT (2017)
Even though the global market for eco-friendly apparel represents only 1% of the total worldwide apparel market, the market is predicted to double over the next ten years. Trend forecast for mid-2020 from Alibaba’s Tmall Trend Center places sustainability as a key point for Chinese consumers when purchasing from a seller, brand or retailer. As the share of customers willing to align with these new environmental standards increases, it is important for companies to add sustainability to their marketing campaigns and strategies.
Consumers’ green awareness in China is stimulating interest and action by local brands, and research on this subject shows a clear growth pattern for these responsible consumers. These conscientious consumers are usually younger generations especially millennials or Gen Z. In general, they are from cities with higher levels of economic development. These consumers are often willing to pay premium prices for transparent, sustainable and qualitative fashion products. A 2019 study led by the market research firm Mintel, reported that 58% of Chinese consumers are ready to pay for ethically-produced fashion products.
It seems logical for fashion brands to start integrating sustainability into their marketing programs and brand messaging.As interest grows spending can increase. But is addressing sustainable issues this simple? How can Chinese brands successfully support complicated environment issues in a way that create brand value? How can companies that produce products that damage the environment develop a sustainable brand image?
In China, the satisfaction generated by actively contributing to and sharing pictures/videos about environmental conservation on social media platforms will support a long term willingness to buy and use eco-friendly products. This aspect of sustainable consumption is closely linked to a need for self-image enhancement and social status. Chinese consumers are attracted by engaging story-telling about “green fashion products” that they can effectively share with their digital communities and sustainable fashion items that make them look good in digital posts.
500 million Chinese Alipay users have used Ant Forest to plant 100 million trees in China. The success of this social reward based eco-friendly digital experience has helped connect sustainable behavior with responsible consumption. / SOURCE: ALIBABA
Purchasing clothing products from eco-friendly brands should provide ways to boost Chinese consumers’ social status. It is not enough to do good, you need to provide digital opportunities to document and share that good act. Although selfless green behavior does exist in China, consumers’ preoccupation with their social position seems important to take into account when launching green marketing programs.
Eco-friendly fashion brands have been lacking visibility in the Chinese market. Contrary to other industries that have been successful in exploiting the tension between personal branding and social responsibility in their Chinese campaigns, local fashion brands have rarely addressed this opportunity. For example, electric car manufacturer Tesla, while not being the first electric car manufacturer on the Chinese market, was the first one to manage to give its consumers the ability to access a particular social status while also promoting an eco-friendly lifestyle. This strategy seems to have been relatively successful since Tesla revenues in China rose by 64% to $669 million in the third quarter of 2019.
Sustainable brands should also be careful to be coherent with cultural and conceptual barriers and adopt a clear China narrative for their campaign. Despite the fact that Chinese consumers are increasingly aware of the impacts of their consumption patterns on the environment, some conceptual gaps remain. For example, Gucci’s decision to go fur-free in Spring 2018 was misinterpreted by some of its Chinese consumers. Since Gucci is not well-known for its fur products, consumers have questioned the brand’s motives and considered it a superficial gesture. The reaction from Chinese consumers could also be explained by the acceptance of fur as a legitimate fashion choice. The fact that in China fur is often associated with luxury, wealth and social status is often preventing Chinese consumers from associating fur with sustainable fashion causes.
SOURCE: JING DAILY (2017)
Connecting sustainability to social status is therefore a must in order to engage successfully with Chinese consumers. However, brands should connect with Chinese consumers based on believable and China-specific sustainable narratives.
Managing your sustainable brand like a luxury brand.
Sustainable fashion initiatives in China mainly emerged from luxury brands. These luxury brands are using visible green branding and eco advertisements that is easy to identify as sustainable and highest quality. These campaigns attempt to mobilize consumers’ green consciousness and willingness to pay more for eco-friendly branded products.
Prada has developed product-driven sustainable campaigns that have been well received on Chinese social media. The Re-nylon initiative launched in 2019 is a re-edition of the classic Prada backpack redesigned with recycled sea waste. The bag is 20% more expensive than the non-eco-friendly bag and it carries a «continental badge » that allows consumers to be part of a private brand community contributing to the health of the environment.
SOURCE: PRADA (2019)
Sustainable campaigns have also been relatively successful by working closely with famous personalities. The Prada Re-Nylon initiative made a big impact on the awareness of Chinese consumers for environmental issues. To achieve this result, the Italian brand has been working with actor Wei Daxun to promote its backpack re-edition. The campaign has been positively received by the actor’s Chinese fans who immediately recognized the importance to raise awareness for eco-friendly initiatives in the fashion industry. The Re-Nylon post on Weibo was liked by more than 80,000 users and commented on more than 24,000 times.
SOURCE: WEI DAXUN’S WEIBO ACCOUNT (2019)
Interacting with digital native generations such as Millennials and Gen Z is also a determinant of success for brands wishing to take advantage of the sustainable awareness consumption patterns. According to the global luxury conglomerate Kering, sustainability appears as a business opportunity that has to be conveyed through digital channels used daily by younger generations. By using social media campaigns to promote a particular sustainability digital experience, brands have more opportunity to take advantage of this emotionally engaged new consumer category.
Taking into account communication strategies from luxury brands, some non-luxury brands are relatively successful in China. The environmentally responsible footwear brand Allbirds that established its first store in China on April 2019 is an example of this success.
It has a Tmall store and a Weibo account followed by more than 91,000 users. The brand has managed to capture significant attention by understanding Chinese consumption patterns and focusing on detailed product descriptions which are appreciated by local green shoppers. The success of the Chinese campaign is supported by their use of actor Leonardo DiCaprio as a KOL. He invested in the company in August 2018 and often promotes its products. The Oscar-winning actor’s publication last October of a short video for the brand on its Weibo account has been very popular among Chinese consumers. The post, designed to question consumers’ materialistic habits, was liked more than 32,000 times, received 21,000 comments on Weibo and was also popular on Youku and QQ. More impressively, the hashtag #areyoumaterialistic (#你追求物质吗?), initiated by the video has been read more than 4,865,000 times.
SOURCE: LEONARDO DICAPRIO’S WEIBO ACCOUNT (2019)
The eco-friendly fashion phenomenon is becoming a pivotal element for the fashion industry. Sustainable fashion is especially important for younger consumers who are not only looking for eco-friendly alternatives but also want a way to elevate their social status in front of their friends, families and co-workers. China-specific narratives via digital channels have been proven to be important for sustainable campaign success. Fashion brands with sustainable prospects should thus take advantage of this new opportunity with consistency.
Chinese Consumers and Sustainable Fashion Brands statistics and informations :