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In recent years, functionality has become a new trend in fashion. Apparel is not only expected to look good but should also deliver specific functional benefits to the wearer and provide pleasant wearing comfort. Clothing that started as functional accessories for sporting activities has quickly become staple features in everyday wardrobes. Take athleisure as an example– yoga pants are now essentials for many ladies.
As part of the “TENCEL™ Insights” series, we spoke to Birgit Schnetzlinger, Head of Global Business Development Functional Wear at Lenzing, on the impact of COVID-19 on the functional wear segment and outlined some of the key observations and learnings from the global pandemic.
Q: When it comes to functional wear, what special features are consumers looking into and how does sustainability play a role in this?
Birgit: When we talk about functional wear, the scope ranges from athleisure to outdoor to high-performance sportswear for apparel and shoes. Consumers are looking for different features in different areas. If we want to put them under one umbrella, respect for nature and environmental sustainability is important, People love to do sports in nature, and they also now have higher awareness to combat climate change and lower CO2 emissions.
Secondly, it comes as a “feel good feature” because consumers who purchase sportswear want to feel good in their bodies. Since skin is the largest organ in the body, they want to wear clothes that feel comfortable and that allow their skin to breathe through their clothes.
These key features are now especially important when it comes to COVID-19, as we see more people working from home and working out from home. More consumers are looking for comfortable, high-quality and sustainable clothes.
Q: Do you notice any differences in consumer preference or interest regarding functional wear products’ performance, quality or sustainability during COVID-19?
Birgit: A general observation is that many brands have good online platforms that can capture a lot of user data. With many purchases being made online during the pandemic, the typical buying criteria, such as touch and feel cannot be evaluated easily. Since such information is important, it is vital for brands to have adequate product descriptions on their website. This now provides brands with the opportunity to highlight features of quality products, such as those made with TENCEL™ branded fibers, which are credible for its environmental benefits. For example, brands can communicate more on comparison testing. because functional buyers like to analyse and compare different products. Transparency is important to young consumers as they are eager to understand where the product is coming from. This is also something easier to achieve through online selling channels, where information can be displayed more systematically.
Q: How do you think consumers are responding to the sustainability efforts adopted by the functional wear industry?
Birgit: What we can see in today's consumers is that they want more concrete benefits and reassurances. Greenwashing has been around for years so there is definitely a greater demand for transparency. Consumers believe that it is the responsibility of brands to uphold transparency and improve the practices of their suppliers. This will be a long journey, and for the textile industry, we are just at the beginning.
If we look at the food industry, for instance, it has become a norm for supermarkets to offer organic foods when this was not the common practice a few years ago. Food labelling has become a norm and I believe it will be the same for the textile industry with sustainability being a part of every collection.
It will take some time, but I believe this is the direction we are heading now, as there are more consumers demanding for sustainable clothing and there are also many brands who want to make an impact. The demand for testing and transparency has come from consumers, particularly consumers that advocate for nature. We also noticed the younger generation is already more sustainability-oriented.
Q: In light of COVID-19, have you noticed changes in preference among manufacturers or brands?
Birgit: Absolutely. What I see is a growing interest in sustainability and an increasing number of inquiries for sustainable and circular solutions. With the intense development and progress made in sustainable innovation, I believe within the next few years there will be a noticeable increase in sustainable products, partly due to people having more time during COVID-19 to observe the changes within the environment and educate themselves on raw materials.
We have seen upsurge discussion and interaction on this trend during COVID-19, so we believe sustainability will continue to gain more awareness. People are now looking for brands with local and flexible supply chain partners, as this has been highlighted as an important consideration during COVID-19 given dependency from other countries can affect logistics. Also, people now began looking more towards the functional elements of clothing, rather than getting rid of them.
Q: Do you see any challenges for brands or manufacturers for incorporating sustainability into their daily operations? What actions do you recommend for them to drive sustainability?
Birgit: As many brands are now suffering economic difficulties due to the pandemic, some may delay their sustainability innovations.
To incorporate sustainability into daily operations, overall reduction is always the main goal. Brands or manufacturer should first look to reduce the waste problem, review product design and push to eliminate overproduction. They should also lower energy usage by minimising logistics. What we can already see today is an increasing interest in local sourcing, using supply chain partners in the same region to reduce carbon footprint and shorten time-to-market. The ultimate goal for everyone is to reduce the environmental impact, including pollution and water usage.