Lisa White of WGSN says we mustn’t hide behind the argument that “sustainability is expensive” – Fashionnetwork USA

Lisa White, head of strategic forecasting at trend-monitoring firm WGSN, recently presented in Paris a long-term study on the market transformations expected in 2026. Speaking to, White has talked about fashion’s two-tier evolution, the role of innovation, and the growing importance of materials in long-term trends.

Lisa White – WGSN What do you think about the growing dichotomy between aspiring to sustainability and budget buying?

Lisa White: There is something we call the ‘say/buy gap’: People say they want to buy something ethical and sustainable, but they don’t necessarily have the budget for it. That’s where the main problem lies. It can often cause what we call an ethical dilemma: You’d like to do one thing, but you are forced to do another. Maybe because you don’t have the necessary education, you don’t have enough money, you have no other possibility. It’s a huge problem.

What we say to brands and companies is to be aware of this and to make sure that, when they are developing a [brand’s] range, most likely an upmarket one, that they also plan to develop a cheaper internal brand. This obviously means understanding how to create something that will also be useful for people who have smaller budgets. And we mustn’t hide behind the argument that ‘sustainability is expensive’, because it isn’t necessarily true. If you manage your resources better and produce less waste, you save money in the end, and you become both more sustainable and less expensive.  

FNW: Notably in fashion, is there a space for labels to talk more about cheaper sustainable products? 

LW: Yes, no doubt about that. I think that when it comes to sustainable fashion, labels are often a little wary because they are criticised if they don’t do everything perfectly. But many labels are making breakthroughs and introducing improvements. They are not perfect, but they try to improve year after year. That’s a fact. But certain things need to be kept in mind, and it must be made clear that any savings that ensue should benefit consumers and not just shareholders, because everyone must be regarded as a stakeholder. 

I think there are several ways of achieving this. For example, consider luxury labels, whose challenges are rather different from those of mass-market players and emerging innovative brands. This is something we closely monitor at WGSN, in order to know when a trend will affect a specific market. Because fashion is a multi-tier market. For example, when it comes to home decoration, people will always have something from Ikea at home.

The same with fashion: It’s most likely that people will end up buying a few fast-fashion items. Just as people will probably end up having something more upmarket, even a luxury product, bought new or second-hand. The point is not to tell labels “I’m sorry, remove that from your range immediately.” Some people do have to control their budget and buy everything from discounters. There is always a reason for that. But fashion, for all consumers, works on multiple tiers. 

FNW: Does a shift towards better products necessarily involve innovation?

LW: I think it depends on the label, and the material. Some innovations are already available, and labels that are very profitable and generating enough cash are investing in this area. I know many luxury brands that do so because they know what will happen in future, and how much they will be judged on everything they do, from the raw materials they choose to how they treat their employees. These brands are already interested in [innovation], they are interested in new bio-materials for a very specific reason, and I see that they are often at the cutting-edge of these domains. But this is also the case for some mass-market brands. They know that what they are doing affects a larger part of the population.

I’ll go back to the comparison with Ikea. [Ikea] knows that what it does in terms of ethics and sustainability, given its size, will affect the world so much that [Ikea] will be judged by the result. In the luxury segment, if we’re talking about fur, a brand like Furoid is currently offering fake furs that are similar to real fur at the molecular level, but without any animal getting killed, [as they’re made of compostable polymers]. The same goes for leather, with new, lab-fermented leather-like materials. People want to know what’s behind these materials. The advantage for a brand is that when they realise this, when they have researched a subject, they’ll have the knowledge to explain to consumers what they are buying, and why they are buying it.

FNW: Besides design, is it the relationship with materials that has changed?
LW: Yes, people really want to enjoy textures again. For example, all the handbags we’re seeing right now are inspired by woven tote bags. My grandmother used to pick vegetables using bags like that. This type of trend is evident at all levels, from luxury to mass market, because people are looking for something with texture, with an artisanal feel. This is linked with the aspiration for having more sustainable goods, for a simpler, more natural lifestyle. 

A few years ago, I was completely obsessed with Nid d’Abeille, which I initially knew as a childrenswear brand. But I immediately told myself that adults too would want [their products]. And Nid d’Abeille has gone from strength to strength, because people are very keen to have a connection with texture, as with velvet and other materials that we’re also finding elsewhere, in interior design for example.
FNW: Will materials’ growing importance change the way trends are developed today?

LW: I think this is a long-term shift, it’s about how we are going to produce something, and what we are going to do based on what we have. This will mostly be the case with students and emerging brands: Because they have no money, they are opting for a smarter way of going about things. In fashion, design, food or anything else, we’re going to focus more and more on ingredients. The same applies to perfumes, for which ingredients are decisive, more than anything else. As for trends themselves, there are many ways of talking about them. There are long-term trends, but current practice is to focus on very short-term trends, which are partly parroting social media in search of form and aesthetics. They’re relevant, but there are different trend levels. Longer-term forecasts put more emphasis on materials, because that’s where brands can consolidate their choices, save money, and anticipate criticism if they don’t act.
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