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How to Get Consumers to Walk the Sustainability Talk When it Comes to Fashion

Raz Godelnik
| Tuesday May 13th, 2014 | 0 Comments

window shoppingMarshall McLuhan famously said: “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”  While it can be applied to every sustainable challenge, this notion is clearly reflected in business efforts to be socially responsible when it comes to the role of consumers.

The idea was and still is that companies’ increasing efforts to make their value chain more sustainable need to be complemented by a growing consumer consciousness about sustainability that will translate to a greater support of companies that move away from ‘business as usual.’ In other words: Companies can’t do it alone. They need consumers on board.

Now, if you look at studies exploring consumer attitudes, you find that consumers indeed seem to be more conscious about sustainability and are more willing to incorporate it into their decision-making process.

For example, according to a 2013 Cone Communications study, 87 percent of consumers consider a company’s social and environmental commitment before deciding what to buy or where to shop. Another study conducted by Nielsen found that 50 percent of global consumers surveyed are willing to pay more for goods and services from companies “that have implemented programs to give back to society.”

Yet, when it comes to actual behavior, (almost) all of these good intentions disappear somehow, and sustainability or corporate responsibility doesn’t seem to make much of a difference for most consumers. Hence my question is: Why is it that whenever we find ourselves at the store or the supermarket we forget all the good intentions we had back home?

And there might not be a better place to look for answers than in fashion.

After the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last year, where 1,129 garment workers were killed, there was a hope that this event will make a difference not just for apparel companies, but also for consumers. Yet, one year later, as we learn from a new BBMG report, the change in consumer behavior hasn’t been seen yet.

This report is especially interesting as it looks into the habits of ‘aspirational consumers,’ ones that were identified in a 2012 study “Re:Thinking Consumption,” published by BBMGGlobeScan and SustainAbility as the largest consumer segment seeking both sustainability and consumption. “They are materialistically oriented while at the same time aspiring to be sustainable in their purchases and beliefs. Style is important to them, and they are more likely than any other group to be influenced by brands, to try new things and they love to shop,” the reports authors said.

Based on conversations with 70 members of The Collective, BBMG’s proprietary community of aspirational consumers, BBMG’s new report was aiming to see how, if at all, their shopping habits have been affected in the last year. It found that “despite the major news coverage and industry moves since the collapse, consumers’ shopping habits haven’t shifted in any substantial way.”

According to BBMG’s research, 70 percent of consumers chose practical purchase drivers (price, design, comfort, fit, etc.) as the only considerations when buying apparel, and only 4 percent acknowledged that safe working conditions for garment workers make it into the consideration set when shopping.

Another interesting finding was that “nearly 50 percent of these shoppers chose mainstream fast fashion brands as their favorites and 91 percent had no idea where or by whom their favorite brands’ clothing is sewn.” At the same time, BBMG notes consumers are not satisfied with this lack of information and “want more information to help them make better decisions.”

So one issue is clearly the lack of information about companies’ level of corporate responsibility. For one thing, we still don’t have sufficient objective measurements or tools to help us understand which companies are more responsible than the others. What we do have are mostly companies’ own reports on their CSR efforts, which can be very subjective to put it politely.

In addition, even companies that are recognized (by other parties, not just by their own people) as sustainability leaders usually fail to effectively communicate their sustainability efforts. For example, you need to have the skills of an NYPD detective to find anything about Nike’s impressive work on its website, or any substantial reminder of the work companies like Puma, Adidas or Levi’s do on social media, not to mention their products (although Levi’s is making a greater effort with their care tags).

The issue is, however, not just the lack of information, but also the fact that sustainability is missing in the stories these brands are telling. This is not necessarily about telling a sustainability story (like Patagonia does for example), but as Henk Campher, VP of business and social purpose at Edelman, explains sustainable branding is about integrating sustainability into the brand story in a way and context that people can relate to — helping them to understand why they should give a damn about it when shopping.

Another way to look at it is that, in order to make consumers give a damn about sustainability, companies need to focus not necessarily on their products’ functional benefits (durability or design for example), but on emotional, self-expressive and social benefits – associated with consumers’ “I feel”, “I am” and “I am with” statements respectively — when buying or using the brand. In other words, customers need to identify sustainability with terms like excitement, sophistication, fun or empowerment rather than with recyclable or waterless to find it attractive.

So basically it seems that companies need to do a better job in order to get consumers walk the sustainability talk. Can it work? Probably not all the time, as we can learn from the study with the self-explanatory “Sweatshop labor is wrong unless the shoes are cute,” where researchers found that  “though consumers say they care about sweatshop labor and prefer products made without it … self-interested motivation, the availability of cognitive resources, and a flexible moral context limit their ability to turn their feelings into action.”

Still, companies should try harder.  After all, weren’t they the ones getting us to believe it’s actually act like “passengers on spaceship Earth” in the first place?

Image credit: Snapshooter46, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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