Originally published in June, here Susanna Koelblin shares her thoughts on why successful sustainable fashion isn’t as ‘cut and dry’ as we may think. Susanna’s career spans leadership roles in competitive markets, broad business acumen and organizational astuteness. She is a Global Apparel Commercialization & Sourcing Leader.
Consumers say they are becoming more concerned about the impact fashion brands have on the planet. However, there is a huge gap between what consumers are saying and how they are behaving. Consumers say they want sustainable products, but they are buying, mostly, not-so-green products. If sustainability is so in, why aren’t more people buying ethically made clothes?
Consumer surveys about fashion and sustainability are misleading, because consumers answer to meet social desirability; they want to appear green even if their main criteria are price, status and look. Fashion is an emotional decision, not a rational one. Where aspects of sustainability and look are weighted consciously against each other, ethical aspects usually come last. An astonishing number of people are not interested in taking ethics into consideration when making fashion purchases. There is simply no data showing that consumers put their money where their mouth is. For instance, data shows that millennials (widely acknowledged to be born between 1980 and 2000) rank everything else over sustainability, such as ease of purchase, price, uniqueness and brand name. While 60 percent of millennials are interested in sustainable clothing, only 30 percent say they have actually purchased it – and how many really did so is dubious. A disconnect exists between what clothing consumers want and what clothing they actually buy.
Money is also a deciding factor. Studies show that consumers are not willing to pay more for sustainable fashion and would rather pay more for style, quality and fashion that gives them value for money. If conventional products are being deeply discounted, it interferes with people’s desire to do the right thing.
Are fashion and sustainability contradictory?
Fashion is generally considered to drive consumption and is defined in terms of continuous change and novelty, while sustainability involves re-use and continuation. This also explains why fashion renting services haven’t picked up pace and still remain niche.
Sustainable production is happening today and brands try to communicate the benefits of sustainable fashion. The real challenge is how to convince consumers to make sustainable choices. The fashion system encourages and rewards consumption, persuades and enables associated lifestyles, choices and opportunities. The fashion system is a product of the global economic system, based on constant growth and consumption. To ask for systemic change becomes too abstract for consumers. Ask yourself how you buy apparel: do you reflect about ethical aspects when you buy a new pair of trousers, such as how much water has been used or how much carbon dioxide has been released in the production, how your purchase affects landfill, or whether the brand is linked with a collapsed garment factory or whether harmful chemicals have been used? Most probably not.
What gets in the way of us putting our money where our mouth is?
Fashion plays into our neurological pathways by giving us not only the pleasure from the act of looking for clothes but also the pleasure of getting a good bargain. A study showed that the price of an item, or how much a person liked it, didn’t alone explain the amount of pleasure experienced during shopping. It was how much the person liked it and what she paid for it. If this item is from a questionably responsible company she faces the decision: do I buy this item or do I keep looking for an option that matches my values? Most people get lost at this point, even if they claim to be sustainability conscious, because it takes too much effort to change how to shop and to find another option that matches the budget and/or style. Furthermore, we are exposed to peer-to-peer pressure. If our peers are not paying for ethically sourced clothes, we are likely to do the same and we won’t change our behavior. Peer-to-peer pressure – or control – is nowadays omni-present due to social media, which nobody can evade.
Brands need to tell better stories during the shopping experience to get consumers to make more ethical decisions. This question isn’t really answered by the marketing departments of fashion brands, at both small and global companies. The majority of consumers are not interested in wanting to understand the brand’s supply chain. They just want to have a nice product at the end of the day. Studies show that if you list all the ways a product is sustainable you will fail. The more data given, the more the consumer is overwhelmed. Few consumers will actually take the time to visit a brand’s sustainability page or read a sustainability report. Sustainability information needs to be clear, visible and easily accessible, both in-store and online.
One of the few successful sustainable marketing campaigns, in my opinion, was the 2011 “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad from Patagonia, which urged consumers to buy less and keep it for longer. It implies that consumers wanted to invest in something high quality that lasts a long time. Some indicators point into the direction that a sustainability claim works in combination with a high quality message. The messaging that work for one brand won’t work for every brand; for example the Patagonia claim won’t work for a fast fashion brand. What all successful sustainability programs and brands have in common is that they had built-up the consumers’ trust long before they went to the stores.
Ethical production is in place, but sustainable fashion still remains a paradox until new business models are in place, which convince consumers to buy less and choose better quality items that are made as ethically as possible. Today, fashion companies rather react to media pressure and use sustainability as a marketing buzz. Of course, many companies do things in the production of fashion that point in the right direction, the outstanding issue remains how conscious consumers will buy more ethical fashion products. And on the other hand, the solution cannot be to dump a huge volume of eco and fair textiles into the market instead of the non-sustainable ones. For instance, in many countries you have to pay a pre-paid disposal fee for electronic products. The EU is currently exploring how extended producer responsibility could be used in the fashion industry, which could mean that brands are responsible for their products even after ownership of the product has been transferred to the consumer.
Buying for quality and longevity is key
The immediate action we all can take is buying less and resisting the social media addiction, where everything is only a click away, to buy things we don’t need. Every fifth garment is never worn, which adds up to 1 billion items of clothing lying unused in our wardrobes. If we don’t buy, we don’t have to make ethical decisions over emotional ones. It’s not just a matter of what we consume, but also of how much. The best way to be a more sustainable shopper is to buy less and less cheap items; to buy more items of quality and things that are timeless and made for longevity.
“Fashion was more sustainable in the past because fewer people could afford large wardrobes.”
– Edwina Ehrman, curator of the V&A exhibition “Fashioned From Nature”