By Matthew Porter
Amidst growing concerns about climate change, there have been numerous calls for more sustainable and socially responsible fashion on a global scale (Brooks et al., 2017). Despite both industry efforts and increased consumer awareness on this matter, there has yet to be significant action undertaken that successfully influences consumers to shop more sustainably. While the production end of industry plays a large role in this dynamic, simply offering sustainable merchandise options is of little consequence if firms are unable to influence consumers to purchase these items over more environmentally damaging alternatives. As such, marketing and advertising provide a vital role in inspiring consumers to act in accordance with their environmentally conscious sentiment (Song & Kim, 2019). A review of current literature suggests that points for potential remedy can be located in pricing, marketing verbiage, and the articulation of impact.
Scope of the Problem
As consumption has increased throughout the years, low-cost products have become manufactured at staggering speeds and volumes. Resultantly, contemporary consumption annually generates approximately 13 billion tons of waste (van Ewijk & Stegemann, 2020). Textile goods alone account for approximately 8% of landfill usage (Lascity & Cairns, 2020) while the fashion industry yields 4% of the global total of greenhouse emissions (Berg et al., 2020). Due to a relative lack in governance within the fashion industry, such overproduction models have contributed to vast environmental affronts such as toxic chemical/dye dumping—accounting for 20% of water pollution— and microplastics in waterways (Fletcher & Tham, 2019) and potentially harmful atmospheric impacts as a result of burning deadstock. The production of environmentally friendly fashion options is in fact occurring and one crucial piece in solving this dilemma, but motivating consumers—even environmentally conscious ones—to purchase them is more difficult than it may seem.
Speaking the Same Language
In the fashion industry there is no standardization in vocabulary nor as to what sustainable fashion is which often leads to product illegibility (Mortimer, 2020). Even amongst the ranks of fashion professionals within firms there is rarely consistency in how designers and managerial staff define sustainability (Thomas, 2020). Typically, these forms of environmentally or socially responsible fashions are interchangeably referred to as “sustainable”, “green”, “eco-friendly”, or “ethical”. Not only do different countries have their preferred terms that consumers in that region respond to (Lyst, 2020), locale and educational attainment vary how consumers come to talk about sustainable fashion (Park & Lin, 2018). Compounded with a general ignorance of the nuances of fashion supply chains, the lack of consistent messaging at times contributes to uncertainty about product quality or specification and inhibits consumers to trust advertising claims and make informed decisions on sustainable purchases. To combat this, many corporations have turned to certifying agencies which provide a more standardized definition of terms (Mortimer, 2020a); however, that does not address the variation in standards of these certifying agencies nor does it address firms’ choice in which agencies to seek certification from therefore leaving the waters still murky.
Producing fashion with more oversight and concern for environmental protection unfortunately costs more (Mortimer, 2020b). This perception that sustainable fashion options will cost more is one of largest deterrents for consumers to buy sustainable—especially for younger demographics (Park & Lin, 2017). Despite there being a variety of elements that influence their purchase behavior, consumers tend to cite cost as the raison d’être not to buy sustainable (Kristensson et al., 2017). While this is typically the case, brands such as Everlane have prioritized graphics that their products cost less than ‘non ethically’ sourced/produced goods.. When possible to showcase, this has the potential to alleviate the price concern.
Stroking the Ego
While sustainable/ethical fashion is normally painted as helping the planet or empowering workers in developing countries, the reality is that in order to change purchase behavior the consumer him/herself usually needs to be provided with an incentive. Often, fashion brands will offer a next-purchase discount in order to motivate consumers to take part in recycling or other sustainability activities. However, this simply contributes to the consumption model (Hepburn, 2013). An alternative incentive is “feel good marketing”. Song and Kim (2019) suggest that advertising that appeals to the personal benefits of sustainable apparel play is crucial to consumer purchase behavior. While demonstrating that the purchase of a particular product incurs some net environmental or social benefit leads to consumers having positive perceptions about the global and social impacts and even better perceptions about the quality of the product, having a garment that is ‘cool’, of better quality, or perhaps something that is one-of-a-kind intensifies the desirability of the product. Practically, consumers need functional garments but also use fashion to express their individuality or to gain social clout. Whether through signage or sales-associate validation of environmentally friendly attitudes encourages consumers to buy sustainably (Song & Kim, 2019; Kristensson et al., 2017), but this does not offset the self-interested aspects of product selection.
In addition to exploring new business models, the invention of better recycling/production technologies to create a more consistent offering of sustainable fashion, and promotion of less-consumption in general (Mistra Future Fashion, 2015), motivating consumers to act according to their already held sentiments of eco-consciousness is crucial step in building towards a fashion industry that is more responsible. As these developments are made, fashion brands should consider the following strategies:
Identify a sustainable vocabulary and keep it consistent in branding and media: Precision in sustainable vocabulary not only makes brand messaging more direct and easy to digest, it minimizes the extent of research that consumers will need to do in order to understand a brand’s commitments. Also, this allows for information on brand informational media to remain concise and targeted. Additionally, legibility of sustainable commitments have the potential to ease the translation that ethical and environmentally conscious practices equate to value. The honing of sustainable messaging also allows for more specificity which dampens the necessity of qualifications or disclaimers thus lessening inadvertent deceptive advertising claims (see FTC Green Guides, 2012).
Integrate sustainable elements into your products’ core features rather than as a point of promotion: In order to be impactful on a large scale, sustainable features must become the norm. Integration of sustainable features into a breadth of products decreases the distance between ‘sustainable’ and ‘non-sustainable’ products potentially lessening elements such as the differential in cost or perception of utility.
Incentivize conscious customers through non-consumptive rewards such as services or content: Waste is built into the current fashion market (McQuillan, 2021). Sales tactics that market as sustainable while incentivizing additional product purchasing contributes to environmental impact (Raworth, 2017). The implementation of product care or other services may be viable alternative strategies. Environmental impact is often scrutinized from the corporate end, but a product’s impact on the environment does not cease at the point of sale (Deeley, 2021). As such, services such as mending or product care tips foster corporate/consumer collaborations that begin to address products’ impact once it is in the hands of the consumer.
Introduce customization options or challenge models to increase commitment to maintain garment upkeep: Community is a key component to brand loyalty but also social dynamics. The establishment of shared goals facilitates group ties. Because purchase behavior is often mediated by ‘looking glass’ expectations (Kristensson et al., 2017) amplifying ethical or environmental purchase expectations may aid closure in the attitude-behavior gap. Additionally, upkeep challenges or promotions can readily be paired with service model incentive structures.
Adoption of one or more of these strategies will encourage consumers to shop for fashion more responsibly and assist in the consolidation of fashion brands’ sustainable identities.
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Brooks, A., Fletcher, K., Francis, R. A., Rigby, E. D., & Roberts, T. (2017). Fashion, Sustainability, and the Anthropocene. Utopia, 28(3), 482-504.
Deeley, R. (2021). The Challenges of Labelling Sustainability. Retrieved from https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/sustainability/the-challenges-of-labelling-sustainability
Federal Trade Commission: Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing; 77 Fed. Reg. § 62122 (final rule Oct. 11, 2012)(to be codified at 16 CFR pt. 260).
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About Matthew Porter, Sustainability Research Intern
Matt Porter, is an educator, design researcher, and sociocultural anthropologist with an emphasis on fashion theory, epistemologies of dominance, and the US military. His approach maps critical theory onto strategies of design and material production. Currently, his works-in-progress include inquiry into the socio-legal implications of political fashion and prototyping models aimed at reconstituting US garment manufacturing. At Unbuilt Labs, Matt will be investigating consumer sentiment and receptivity to sustainable business schemas and how fashion brands can meet consumer demands with ethical yet effective business models.
- Parsons School of Design, MA in Fashion Studies, 2019
- University of North Texas, BA in Fashion Design, 2016