From Self-Care to Smart Backpacks: This is the third post in a five-part series where we’ll highlight product categories with global demand and the regulations and challenges to keep top of mind.

When consumers start browsing online, it’s often clothing that inspires them to hit “purchase.” Between 2018 and 2023, revenue is expected to show an annual growth rate of just over 10.1% in the worldwide apparel segment, which is by a wide margin the most popular global e-commerce category. As of 2018, 57 percent of internet users had purchased clothing online in the last 12 months, compared to 47 percent who bought shoes and 40 percent who bought consumer electronics. More than 27 percent of apparel sales in the U.S. took place online in 2017. Emerging markets in Asia–Pacific, Latin America and other regions are also an important source of global growth: more than half of apparel and footwear sales were projected to take place outside Europe and North America in 2018.

Within the global e-commerce apparel sector there are a few niche categories that are showing robust growth. We’ll highlight a few of them and discuss what to keep in mind when venturing into the space. The regulations for cross border e-commerce are not as onerous in the apparel category as they are in the vitamins or beauty products space, for example, but there are still certainly challenges to keep in mind.

Green is the new black.

Consumers are increasingly interested in ethical and sustainable clothing. Recent studies have shown that ethical factors influence consumer behavior: according to a survey in the United Kingdom by Morgan Stanley Research, for example, 58% of consumers aged 16-24 believe that ethics are very or somewhat important when shopping. Brands as eclectic as Walmart and Stella McCartney now offer sustainable fashion. As a global e-commerce vendor, however, it’s important to ascertain what, exactly, ethical fashion means to consumers around the world. There is no legal definition of “ethical” and “sustainable” as they pertain to fashion and human rights, and environmental regulations vary across the globe. For example, the Grenelle II regulation stipulates that clothing sold in France must have a label detailing its carbon footprint. The Transparency in Supply Chain Act requires vendors selling in California to guarantee that (to their knowledge) there is no human trafficking or other human rights violations in supply chains.

Expecting moms want comfortable and fashionable clothes.

Global birth rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades, including in China, where the end of the one-child policy in 2016 was deemed a potential catalyst to increase the birthrate. But more disposable income in emerging markets such as India, the influence of celebrity mothers and mommy bloggers on social media, and a workforce of pregnant women who need comfortable and fashionable maternity apparel has rendered maternity wear a fertile space. Maternity support wear is an emerging segment of the global market, expected to grow at a CAGR of over 9 percent between 2018 -2022, with online retailing a key driver. Maternity activewear is another promising opportunity for cross border commerce.

At the gym and on the streets: athletic wear is hitting its stride.

Activewear now represents 24 percent of total apparel sales in the United States. The global trend towards more informal, relaxed clothing, with yoga pants and hoodies worn as street wear and business people sporting trendy sneakers with their suits, has led to the growth of the athleisure market. The sportswear market grew 12 percent in China in 2017, driven by factors such as increasing public involvement with sports and a pro-sports government. China has become the largest market for athletic wear after the United States. Sportswear is also a growth market in Europe, where the sector is expected to grow exponentially between 2018 and 2024. In India sales of athleisure wear are outpacing other apparel categories.

Modest fashion is now mainstream.

Many women want to dress modestly, but they don’t want to look frumpy. The internet gave traction to modest fashion and retailers saw the business potential of catering to women who don’t wear revealing clothes for religious or cultural reasons. Christian and Jewish women and the growing Muslim middle class are major markets, in addition to non-religious consumers who simply prefer to dress conservatively. E-commerce is a driver of growth in this space, with potential consumers in many different markets including the Middle East. It is of course important to be culturally sensitive and consult with fashion connoisseurs in these markets before launching any new cross-border ventures.  

Buying clothes online is unlikely to go out of fashion anytime soon, especially with a proliferation of global icons and influencers whose Instagram posts inspire consumers to purchase. Before selling in the cross-border apparel space, however, pay close attention to what consumers in your target markets are wearing and what they need, follow leading fashion influencers on social media, take a careful look at your supply chains to avoid ethical complications, and make sure that your product is culturally appropriate for the target market.