The State of Fashion 2023


This week we’re talking greenwashing—and not the kind that involves sweeping endless pine needles out of your living room.  

Our State of Fashion 2023 report, from McKinsey senior partners Anita Balchandani and Achim Berg and coauthors in partnership with the Business of Fashion, notes that addressing greenwashing is a major priority in the upcoming fashion landscape.What exactly is greenwashing? It’s reaping the benefits of hooking sustainably minded consumers without doing the real work—for example, by producing “sustainable” clothing that might not actually be built to last or replacing a traditionally frowned-upon fashion industry practice for one that’s no better for the planet.Greenwashing relies heavily on companies trying to convince consumers that their products are sustainable. Gen Z cares the most about the planet of any generation but is also most on guard for inconsistency in messaging—in a 2021 survey, 88 percent of American Gen Zers said they don’t trust brands’ environment, social, and governance (ESG) claims. 

(Need a briefer on ESG factors? This article, from Robin Nuttall, Lucy Pérez, Hamid Samandari, and coauthors asks why ESG really matters.)

While Gen Zers can be quick to cancel a brand they see as performative, or take their business elsewhere, the billion-dollar question for the retail industry now is how and when these sustainability claims can be regulated. Questions of just what sustainable fashion is and who can claim to sell it are still being wrung out; 42 percent of American Gen Zers in a 2021 survey said they didn’t even know what makes clothes sustainable.

In the meantime, fast-fashion brands that use green language are facing more scrutiny, with half of Chinese Gen Z consumers saying they’re cutting back on their fast-fashion purchases for environmental reasons. Other brands are veering away from the sustainable label altogether to avoid kickback as they work out their eco-friendly futures.

If you’re a brand (or reading the label of one), here are some suggestions:

Make sure sustainability claims are backed up by data and evidence and shared transparently.

Be upfront and communicate your goals across your platforms.

Avoid terms like “green” or “eco-friendly”—brands that put their money where their mouths are have the information to be specific, not vague.

But if you find you can’t distinguish between a sustainable and a greenwashed product on the shelf, it might not be your fault—senior partners Michael Birshan, Stefan Helmcke, Tomas Nauclér, and coauthors write that consumers often struggle to tell the difference.

Many brands are still working on the best way to present their sustainability bona fides, and some have toyed with digital passports or ways for consumers to track a product’s impact across its life cycle.

These environmental considerations are even more salient during the high-spend holiday season. What’s not so evergreen: Americans throw away 25 percent more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s period than in any other season, and festive sweaters are among fast fashion’s worst offenders when it comes to dumped goods.

Next time you’re at the rack, especially if what you’re staring at is covered in tinsel, maybe take a breath and choose the planet instead (your wallet will thank you too).

For more—including Gen Z’s love of gender-fluid fashion, how to take a multichannel approach to fashion, and the future of formalwear—download the full State of Fashion 2023 report here.