Fashion, Sustainability, & The Boutique Space

On a temperate evening in Oakland, I made my way to McMullen Boutique. Upon arrival, I was greeted with a brightly lit interior showcasing racks filled with deep blues, punchy reds, and a mix of floral-- a visual cue signaling the start of a new season. I was there to preview the spring collection and take notes on emerging trends.

It’s been a decade since McMullen first opened its doors and it has steadily risen to public prominence ever since. From a little known shop in Northern California to a reputable destination for those seeking high-end clothing from Ulla Johnson and Jacquemus, the boutique serves as a meeting ground for fashion enthusiasts. That night, while sipping champagne and admiring the selection, I couldn’t help but think about the role boutique spaces could play in an industry that is working to dismantle its past association with excess and waste, in exchange for sustainability.

Surpassing the lifespan of a trendy topic, the fashion industry’s focus on sustainability reflects a pivotal transition in its trajectory. In the recent years, there has been a steady wave of brands adopting initiatives to combat the wastefulness fashion has become nearly synonymous with, in hopes to mitigate further contribution to the degradation of the environment. Whether it’s using recycled textiles, or being transparent with production and the brand’s environmental footprint so as to adequately track impact, fashion brands are taking strides to prove the industry has turned a new leaf.

Of course, this push towards sustainability is a response to both the very real dangers the environment faces if change isn’t made, as well as the shift in consumer priorities. With regards to just how much of an impact the fashion industry has on the environment, the Global Fashion Agenda reported in 2017 that it had consumed “nearly 79 billion cubic meters [of water]-- enough to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools.” And that number is expected to increase by 50% over the next decade. Heavy water consumption for the use of producing fabrics and garments can cause many communities to grapple with how to balance an industry that fuels the economy, while ensuring people have access to enough drinking water.

And then there is the consumer --these days, individuals have adopted a more research-based approach to buying, reading up on company backstories and methods of production before they even consider making a purchase. As Texas-based designer Julissa Arrington explains, “we are in a social climate of thinking before buying.” Regardless whether they personally experience or read about the industry’s impact on the environment, consumers are driven to demanding that the brands they patron actively promote sustainable solutions. Because at the end of the day, consumers are people with real human needs, and the health of the environment impacts the livelihood of us all.

The fashion industry has learned that if better-known brands aren’t demonstrating to consumers their commitment to sustainability and reducing their contributions to environmental issues, such as excessive water consumption and increased CO2 emissions, consumers will look to boutique brands that do. The popularity of niche brands like Everlane and Allbirds, the latter being one of the fastest growing shoe brands in the market, has confirmed to the industry just how much the global community desires this prioritization.

And so, the fashion industry continues to adopt sustainable measures throughout, spotlighting brands that are transparent with their production and promote a “less is more” approach, sacrificing rabid resource consumption not quality. This shift, which favors the thoughtful curation of product, seems to be ripe for the boutique space to thrive.

By now, we know that people enjoy the personalized retail experience, and we can thank online shopping for illuminating that insight. It’s fairly certain at this point, that when people are faced with the choice of filtering out their desired pieces based on size, color and price, as opposed to going into a store to sift through piles of clothing in hopes of maybe finding the one piece they actually like, many will choose the former. And that’s because consumers would rather spend less time in the depths of uncertainty and more time enjoying the product of their preference.

However retail IRL isn’t dead. While people are spending more time adding to their virtual carts, David Womack, a creative director at RG/A, shared with the Guardian that many still love to venture outside to shop “as a social occasion, family day out or even holiday.” And when they do, they’ll be looking for that same concise and cohesive approach to retail that enables them to fully immerse themselves in the rewarding experience of leaving with a piece they love.

So how does the boutique space play a part in the industry's pivot towards sustainability and align itself with consumer priorities? One way would be for boutiques to look at their foundation-- literally. Arrington thinks it starts with the owner being selective with the building they choose, and that they should consider whether the building “offers recycling services, solar panels, [and] is energy efficient.” Not only will this impact how the building contributes to waste reduction, it will also visually signal to consumers that environmentalism is fundamental to their business.

And as the boutique begins to select the brands it will house, it should place a balanced emphasis on the designs and backstories of the brands alike, noting whether they have implemented initiatives that foster conscious consumption of natural resources, like water and cotton. A plus up approach would be to hone in on brands that use innovative methods to create their garments, such as the incorporation of 3-D technology and the use of “smart” fibers in the production of their fabrics, both of which can eliminate unnecessary excess.

All in all, the boutique model has always served to provide exceptional personal attention to the consumer. In an environment where consumers are becoming increasingly vocal proponents of a sustainable fashion industry, boutiques can continue to ensure that they are catered to and heard.


Lehmann, Morten, et al. “Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2017 Report.” Global Fashion Agenda - Publications, Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, 2017,

Ojeda, Nina. “3 Ways Allbirds Became The Fastest Growing Shoe Company In The World.”, Inc., 30 Nov. 2017. 14 June 2018.

Shearman, Sarah. “Rethinking Retail: Why Brands Are Embracing the Rise of the Concept Store.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 July 2014. 20 June

This piece was written June 2018.