'Woke’ no joke to retail and fashion brands

27 February 2019 Consulting.us 5 min. read
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They are hip. They are cool. They are “woke.”They are millennials and Gen Z, and they are the future, the present, and of extreme importance to the retail and fashion worlds, where they are already causing massive disruption.

The retail division of McKinsey & Company’s “The State of Fashion 2019” report further examines the influence of “woke” — a term referring to an awareness of societal injustice, especially regarding LGBTQ and racial issues — consumers on fashion. The report was written in partnership with the Business of Fashion, a fashion industry trade publication. It lists “the rise of ‘woke’ consumers as one of the 10 trends the fashion industry should watch in 2019.”

This trend, which is relatively new, but hardly shocking — and much more pronounced in Western markets — mainly focuses on younger consumers’ concern for social and environmental causes, and their loyalty to products that project an image that is conscious of these factors. “Shoppers, particularly younger ones, have social environmental issues on their minds,” the report finds. “They increasingly back the beliefs with their shopping habits, favoring brands that are aligned with their values and avoid those that don’t.” In short, younger consumers want brands and companies to stand for something. They want these brands and companies to have a purpose. Ninety percent of Gen Z consumers, for example, expect companies to exercise responsibility towards addressing social and environmental issues.

Gen Z prioritise social responsibility

“Some companies are taking things a step further, putting purpose at the heart of their strategy and operations. There are growing numbers of B-Corporations, which are certified to have considered the impact of their decisions on people, society, and the planet,” the report finds. Companies such as ice-cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s and outdoor gear brand Patagonia are B-certified. The number of B-corporations has risen dramatically in past years, especially in the fashion, apparel, and beauty sector. B-corps numbered 200 in April 2018, compared with seven in 2010.  Athletic apparel, fitness, and lifestyle brand Athleta, a subsidiary of Gap Inc., “promises that 40% of its products are made of recycled and sustainable materials, while [fashion companies] Allbirds and Eileen Fisher have made similar commitments. The former donates returned used shoes to charity.”

The Gen Z and millennial generations, comprised of those born between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, aren’t shy about spending, either, placing even more importance on their views and beliefs. To tap into the younger generations’ hearts — and thereby their wallets — is to open the door to a vault containing extreme wealth. “Together, these cohorts represent around $350 billion of spending power in the United States alone (approximately $150 billion spent by Gen Z and around $200 billion by millennials); additionally, Gen Z will account for 40% of global consumers by 2020,” the report states.

Large retailers and companies such as Nike, which took a stand behind controversial former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kick-started the league’s anthem protests, during which several players kneeled during the traditional pre-game National Anthem. Levi Strauss called for stricter gun laws in the United States, and is setting aside $1 million in donations to groups working to end gun violence in the country. “It’s also partnering with Everytown for Gun Safety and business leaders including Michael Bloomberg to form a group of leaders that will push for change,” according to an article by CNBC. Levi employees will also be given five hours of monthly paid volunteer time to work on the issue in their own ways. Gucci has also supported gun control through a student-led march.

Gen Z’s changing channels for brand discovery

These are but a fraction of companies which are no longer afraid to dive into politicized waters, especially after it is seemingly now expected by consumers. It’s not just the young ones, either. “Some two-thirds of consumers worldwide say they would switch, avoid or boycott brands based on their stance on controversial issues. Half of these regard themselves as activists, driven by passion. The other half are less dogmatic, tailoring their decision to the situation at hand,” the report states.

Of course, this presents potential pitfalls for brands. The NFL anthem protests were a controversial issue for Nike — although the media attention composed of both backlash and applause created exposure worth more than $163 million just days after the launch. In 2018, however, fashion retailer Primark “was severely criticized and called unethical for releasing a line of Pride-themed T-shirts that were produced in Turkey, a country that is ranked the third worst in Europe for LGBTQ+ equality.”

Consumers, especially younger consumers, are also increasingly cynical. They are sharper, more adept at sniffing out gimmicks, and more demanding that the brands to which they are loyal are genuine in their efforts at societal betterment - and that those efforts are aligned with organization as a while. “Companies can expect consumers to closely examine the level of continuity across campaigns and the nature of their strategic and operational decisions, as well as their tone,” the report states.