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Sustainable Fashion in China: What Are the Challenges and Opportunities for Brands?

Last modified: July 23, 2021

Sustainability is no longer a trend in the West, but a new way of thinking about your business, your consumption, and your lifestyle. Launching sustainable fashion brands or additional clothing lines in Europe or in the US is highly common. But, what about China? Every week, we receive several fashion projects for China with a sustainable purpose. The insights we are sharing with them are food for thought for any eco-friendly brand looking for entering the Chinese market.

Is it an important criterion in today’s world? Yes. Is it your unique selling point in China? No. Here is the first disclaimer before reading this article, sustainable fashion in China is not a mature market yet. In a country of 1.4 billion people, changing long-term habits and consumption preferences takes more time. But as you will discover, China is taking many actions and the country should soon become one of the leading actors in terms of sustainability.

China is Expanding its Sustainability Efforts

Chinese consumers are more exposed to environmental issues than their Western counterparts. What’s the reason? Well, first of all, China has developed a higher rate in pollution-generating industries such as steel production or automobile manufacturing compared to other countries like Japan who took early steps towards reducing its reliance on these dirty sources of power decades ago.

Consumers now feel they lack resources. Clean air to breathe, water from which to drink, and any resources that are considered necessary for everyone. On the other hand, China is the world’s largest populous country. With 1.4 billion inhabitants, it greatly contributes to more waste and pollution.

China: A Country Trying to Reduce its CO2 Emissions

Pollution in Shanghai (© The Guardian)

In the news, China is often depicted with its high pollution rates and grey skies. You have probably seen these pictures showing the sky of big cities in China such as Beijing or Shanghai. Chinese citizens are now more aware than before that pollution can have a disastrous impact not only on the environment but also on their health. Thus, this situation could change quicker than expected. With increasing awareness among Chinese citizens, they are ready to reduce their consumption of polluting goods and shift toward more eco-friendly products. Today, China is taking concrete measures to preserve the environment and fight against climate change. Such evolution is a combination of personal lifestyle switch from the population and concrete actions taken by the government.

The Sustainable Fashion Market in China: A Promising Industry for a Society Shifting Toward Eco-Friendly Products

Secondhand apparel in China (© Redress)

China’s vast population and rapid economic growth have resulted in significant environmental impacts. As a result, China needs to change its unsustainable habits. Public interest is on the rise for sustainable lifestyles and people are receptive to sustainability initiatives. But it seems that fashion hasn’t caught up with western countries yet since these trends seem new in Chinese culture.

Nevertheless, we should underline the fact that Chinese consumers are conscious of their environmental footprint. And especially the disasters that are linked to it. Following several natural disasters, such as the recent floods in Henan province (July 2021), preserving the environment has become one of China’s top priorities. This is why this relatively new market is extremely promising for brands that are ready to take risks. If you try to convince Chinese consumers of the benefits of purchasing sustainable apparel, you may find people who listen. Brands are thus encouraged to follow this path, giving the opportunity to consumers to purchase eco-friendly, recycled, and sustainable products. The famous chain stores H&M and Zara have already started to implement their green strategy in China.

H&M #Conscious campaign on WeChat

“We are working together with our colleagues in China to do everything we can to manage the current challenges and find a way forward. We want to be a responsible buyer, in China and elsewhere, and are now building forward-looking strategies and actively working on next steps with regards to material sourcing. Together with all relevant stakeholders, we want to collaborate to be part of the solution and jointly build a more sustainable fashion industry. As a global company, we comply with local laws and regulatory frameworks in all the markets where we operate. Our company values are built on trust, respect, integrity, and dialogue. We wish to focus on our core business and on what we do best – bringing fashion and design to our customers all around the world.”

H&M Group Statement

The following statistic shows how well the sustainable development sector is doing in China. In 2015, it had reached a worth of about 14.9 billion yuan which represents a significant success for such as young field given its brief history (less than 5 years). It was predicted to reach up 21.8 billion yuan by 2020 and even more by the end of 2021 if current trends persist. Needless to say, there are many reasons these numbers should be taken into account when exporting goods to China.

The market for sustainability and environmental consultancy in China has a bright future. It should account for 21 billion yuan as of 2020. Sustainability consulting can be seen as an optimal solution to many of the world’s climate, food, energy, or resource problems that are related to water consumption and pollution. The statistic shows that there is currently major growth happening within the Chinese environment sector. Indeed, sustainable solutions are required by business leaders all over Asia. They want their supply chains free from negative impacts such as contamination or waste generation on natural resources.

Chinese consumers are more aware of their environmental footprint

Due to rising awareness among the Chinese population as well as several submit about climate change worldwide, Chinese consumers are more aware than before of their environmental footprint.

When we look at this 2017 chart from Statista, we can see that China is the second country after India for which sustainability matters. In fact, 60% of Chinese respondents considered that sustainability was somewhat important. While only 26% considered that it was very important. Back in 2017, sustainable fashion was only starting to emerge in China. It explains why Chinese consumers were not quite aware of it. Nevertheless, before launching your brand in China, you should take into account that sustainability is not common yet. Especially in rural cities where people are far from being preoccupied with that.

Now if we look at this data based on Ipsos’ survey, we can see that Chinese consumers have changed their habits due to climate change, with around 51% of Chinese respondents stating that they had changed the way they traveled and go to work, out of climate change concerns. 51% have reduced the amount of water they were using, and 42% of respondents claimed that they reused products. On the other hand, 29% of them claimed that it has impacted their purchasing habits in terms of clothes.

Impact of Covid-19 on Eco-Friendly Consumption

The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly contributed to making us realize that our over-consumption was nefast for our society. In major parts of China, Covid-19 was a sign of mother nature to operate a complete U-turn. Indeed, the pandemic increased the interest in health and wellness consumption. Chinese medicine has always been about preventing the body and health from any disease. With this unexpected virus, it was time to care about our lifestyle to avoid any negative outcome. In brief, Covid-19 could be a major turning point in the success of sustainable consumption in China.

According to Statista’s 2020 survey in China, around 56% of respondents confirmed that they were more inclined to buy sustainably sourced products after the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, around 55% of respondents said they were also more likely to buy local products since the coronavirus outbreak. With this shift in consumption, it is easy to realize that the Covid-19 pandemic has really changed Chinese consumers’ perceptions. They are shifting toward more eco-friendly and sustainable products than before.

New Policy Shifts from the Chinese Government

The Chinese government has recognized the need to pivot toward more sustainable economic growth and consumption habits. China’s rapid population growth, coupled with the over-consumption of resources within its borders has created a toxic environment for future generations. The public interest in sustainability obviously increased combined with positive attitudes among consumers. Especially towards clothing that is environmentally friendly, there are some signs of change happening – even though sustainable fashion is not widespread across China yet.

The fast-paced economy nationwide has caused environmental damage throughout China. This situation requires a drastic shift in consumer behavior now before things get worse. Many members of society agree on the key operations to reverse climate change. A notable example being citizens looking at fashion produced sustainably. Chinaʼs government has continued its sustainability drive throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, with new green policies issued by 2020. These include tight regulations on waste management and ruling out investments in coal projects as well as publishing guidelines for prioritizing green investment within China’s financial sector.

The country also experienced a rise in consumer interest in environmental products. This major shift has led to accelerating sustainable consumption and production patterns. One of the first major acts going toward this was in 2017 when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced goals of driving green development to restore a “Beautiful China” (美丽中国). The objective? For China to be clean, prosperous, and developed by 2035.

The aim is to keep the environment clean by ensuring blue skies, clean rivers, and lakes. The initiative is based on providing people with more green spaces in urban areas and restoring wetlands near major city centers such as Beijing. This long-term vision hopes for an environmentally friendly future where there are fewer pollutants making their way into our water sources. Through initiatives like improving wastewater treatment plants so they can work at optimum capacity. While also working towards using renewable energy resources instead of fossil fuels which contribute heavily to air quality issues.

Another goal is to reach the peak carbon before 2030, and the carbon-neutral before 2060. After this, China became one of the world’s 10 nations to outright ban plastic straws and is expected to ban all plastic bags by 2022.

Optimism for a Positive Impact on the Environment

As part of several regulations in China, Chinese people are very optimistic about the outcome of eco-friendly and sustainable products. It is indeed part of their culture to believe in a positive evolution of their society. This can also be linked to the fact that China has economic growth and a low unemployment rate, which is positive for China’s fashion market.

For example, around 73% of Chinaʼs population support a post-covid green recovery, compared to 49% in America and 57% in Europe, according to the European Investment Bank (EIB) Climate Survey 2020. The report also stated that 80% of Chinaʼs population felt that climate change is reversible, pointing to sustainability as a key consumer consideration.

A recent survey showed that 55% of Chinese consumers purchased sustainable products to reap the benefits, like better quality. Approximately 35% of respondents stated that they decided to purchase sustainable products because it’s trendy.

On the other hand, according to Ipsos‘ data, about 71% of Chinese respondents intended to avoid purchasing overpacked products in order to limit their own contribution to climate change. About 64% of respondents said they were willing to walk, cycle, or take public transport instead of driving to protect the environment. Meanwhile, 59% said that they were avoiding buying new goods but used one instead, which is extremely promising for the sustainable fashion industry in China.

What is the Main Segment to Target for Sustainable Fashion Brands?

China is an interesting place to observe the ever-changing fashion market as it develops. There are many challenges and opportunities for brands working with China, which will be covered in this article; one of these being that Chinese consumers want sustainable clothing but they also like flashy designs.

© Hootsuite

China has been a hotbed for evolving markets since before its time because there’s always something new happening here. One thing you might have noticed about how people dress in China is their affinity toward having clothes made up from organic materials. They favor bamboo fiber or hemp. They are both very eco-friendly choices when compared to cotton, polyester, nylon, and other synthetics used today by most big-name fast-fashion retailers worldwide.

Millennials: The Not-To-Be-Missed Consumer Group in China

It is estimated that 80% of Chinaʼs population felt climate change was reversible, which points to sustainability as a key consumer consideration. Eco-consciousness has quickly emerged among all consumer groups largely due to governmental regulatory efforts and social media campaigns. The pandemic has increased the awareness and demand for green solutions from all demographic groups. In particular, younger demographics are more likely than their elders to believe it’s up to one person at a time to make changes happen on an individual level rather than wait for governments or corporations to react.

On top of that, is even more important as millennials are extremely active on social media, and are more aware of international news than elderly people. The majority of them also had the opportunity to study overseas. This change has contributed to shaping their mindset and perception of what an eco-responsible society should look like. Including the key actions to achieve this. Therefore, if you want to sell sustainable fashion in China, you should target millennials. They are the younger generation of Chinese consumers and the key to future sustainable consumption in China.

Vegans: The Niche Consumer Segment to Know

The Chinese society is building an eco-wellbeing by multiplying small daily actions. For the population, a clean environment contributes to an increased quality of life and a healthy body. For instance, more and more Chinese people are becoming vegetarians reaching over 50 million people. The country is no exception to the worldwide vegan movement since it is led by young people, including the Millennials and Generation Z. International brands are entering the market to meet this new need and Chinese people favor meat alternatives with the same purpose to preserve their health and the environment. In the meantime, the local population is looking for plastic alternatives, eco-friendly activities… and sustainable fashion lines.

Challenges & Opportunities

Many people do not realize how important China’s fashion industry is. There are international companies that have been there for more than 30 years. Meanwhile, we witnessed remarkable progress within the country’s textile industry over the years. As they continue to be at the forefront of innovation with technology in order to further develop this entire market, it has become even clearer that brands have to seize the opportunity of entering the Chinese market and grasp the opportunities sustainable fashion represents.

Not all countries are able to guarantee a level playing field when it comes to trade agreements or production regulations. But China continues its commitment towards being an integral part of driving global development. Other nations should recognize China as a promising market in terms of green products.

Successful Marketing Strategies to Launch Your Sustainable Brand in China

What are the most effective ways to promote sustainable fashion consumption in China?

Chinese citizens are quite cautious about online news and things they have heard. It is thus essential for brands looking to enter the Chinese market to understand Chinese consumers’ habits as well as how to promote effectively a more sustainable consumption in China.

The survey conducted in December 2020 revealed that many Chinese respondents seem to believe exposure to negative environmental news is the most effective way for promoting sustainable consumption. In addition, around 40% of those surveyed believed family and friends are best at persuading people into sustainable shopping.

Social Media: The best way to promote your brand and increase your visibility in China

Bvlgari on Weibo

The dynamic market for sustainable fashion in China continues to present challenges and opportunities for international brands. If you’re a global brand, one of the most important things is understanding your target audience’s culture and lifestyle. For some companies, this may be easier than others as they have done marketing research on their customers’ needs beforehand. But even then it can take time before certain products are accepted by consumers there. If these items were successful elsewhere then that means another round of heavy promotion work has been needed – which isn’t always easy or cost-effective when investing overseas. But what about those companies who don’t know how to tailor their product? Fortunately, many people engage on social media after seeing an advertisement. If you want to know how to successfully use Chinese social media, you can contact us directly and our experts will get back to you.

Prada on Wechat
Prada on Wechat

You can also read our article about The Best Social Media to Market your Fashion Brand in China

Influencers & KOLs campaign: Communicate about your sustainable fashion brands in China

After China’s rapid digitalization, Chinese consumers are now more than ever connected online. Social media is an integral part of their daily lives. It has changed not only the way they consume but also how brands advertise to them. 989 million internet users in 2021 mean that there are many potential customers waiting out there. For marketers who want to attract this tech-savvy population with traditional advertising on TV or subway stations seems inadequate. The reason is simple. You cannot reach all these new shoppers easily anymore since most people spend time surfing social networks instead of watching commercials.

Zhan Xiao Milan Fashion Week

Thus it is highly recommended for fashion brands to partner either with celebrities (but it can be expensive) or with KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) to promote your brand and wear your apparel.

PR: Determing tools that you must not neglect

One of the most important aspects for any company wishing to expand into China is having a firm grasp on how Public Relations are seen in this society. They’re not only used as tools towards increasing your brand awareness and reputation. They are mandatory to develop an image that will resonate with Chinese consumers.
Nowadays it has become increasingly more difficult in trying to maintain control over public opinion. Why? Because it often means taking part when you can’t stop things from happening or being said about your company online. Given all these new challenges, there’s no better tool than strong PR skills. It will allow you to get ahead faster while maintaining authenticity too by knowing what people want before they do themselves. Reasons why you should use PR in China:

  • Chinese press releases are an excellent way to increase your visibility and reach a wider audience.
  • News outlets love publishing stories, that’s why the majority of them accept Chinese PRs nowadays
  • Developping your SEO: Press releases can be a great way to increase traffic for websites by showing off what makes you unique – especially on social media platforms
  • Brand awareness and reputation: Informative news releases build up business trust because they show off who you are as company which helps create connections between companies, partners etc

E-commerce: The way to go if you want to sell sustainable apparel in China

Gucci Store on Tmall

With the rise in disposable income and the prevalence of technology, shopping habits have changed dramatically for Chinese consumers. They are now using virtual shopping services to make purchases rather than going into brick-and-mortar stores. The surge of digital payment options has freed them from having cash or credit cards on hand when they shop both online and offline as well. Over the years, the surge of e-commerce platforms is undeniable, attracting millions of netizens every day. With this tech-savvy population, it is thus crucial and essential to sell your products online. Using the most popular Chinese e-commerce platforms such as Tmall, JD.com, Taobao, Pinduoduo, Vip.com, Kaola, etc is key.

Moreover, you should also take into account that the Covid-19 has increased online shopping, with consumers that were shifting from brick-and-mortar stores to online platforms.

According to iResearch‘s post-Covid-19 survey among Chinese consumers in 2020, more than 67% of respondents said that they had increased their online shopping frequency after the coronavirus outbreak. In the meanwhile, around 65% of respondents decreased the frequency of their in-store shopping.

Distribution / Retail: The go-to channel for sustainable fashion brands in China

Even though e-commerce is now predominant in China, offline stores can also be extremely popular in China. Each day, these sales channels attract thousands of fashionistas. Indeed, many chain stores like Zara or Louis Vuitton were able to open their physical stores. They attract consumers that are looking for a better experience, receiving some tips to harmonize their clothes for example, or to get to know more about sustainable fashion by talking with sellers rather than looking on the internet.

Events: The Best Interactive Way to Attract Chinese Fashionistas

Events are particularly important when planning to enter the Chinese market and promote sustainable fashion in China. For example, Shanghai’s Fashion Week is looking to make eco-friendly clothes more accessible. Shanghai’s vice secretary-general, Lv Xiaolei has partnered with the founder of Green Code showroom Candy Li for several seasons. The objective was to provide a place where people can find sustainable clothing that fits their lifestyle needs.

Read: Fashion brands should organize sustainable Events in China

“The reason we’re looking to Shanghai Fashion Week is because those designers are the designers of tomorrow. Maybe some of them are designers of today, but they will be the big names of tomorrow and it’s important to infuse as much of the knowledge that we have right now, helping shape the industry to create a sustainable way of thinking,” 

Beutler, Shanghai Fashion Week

Find the right partner to market your sustainable fashion brand in China…

In China, you cannot assume your sustainable brand will meet the same target and consumers’ expectations. The efforts made by the country for sustainable development are recent. It is fundamental to understand your Chinese clients will not look after the same products as their Western counterparts. If you want to perform well in the Chinese market, you need to adapt your brand, products, and communication.

At Gentlemen Marketing Agency (GMA), we gather 75+ digital experts in our Shanghai headquarters. We are always in quest of new brands looking for entering the most promising market in the world, China. If you want to expand your business or receive strategic recommendations to boost your brand in China, you can contact us.

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