About the project
Over the past year for my senior thesis and with a grant from Syracuse University's Research office, SOURCE, I have been conducting research on how consumers are engaging with sustainable fashion.
The current linear economy of garment production driven by fashion trends is harming human and environmental health. While ‘sustainable’ fashion is on the rise, there are no clear standards or definitions as to what ‘sustainable’ really means.
Global supply chain
Fashion can be harmful.
(Hover for more info).
Cultivating 1kg of cotton takes 3,800 L of water, (Fletcher, 2008, p.11). The fashion industry accounts for 20% of global waste water, (Ro, 2020). The “dyes pollute water bodies, with devastating effects on aquatic life and drinking water,” (Ro, 2020).
Cotton makes up 11% of global pesticide use and 25% of insecticides. Continued pesticide use builds pesticide resistance in plants and increased pest susceptibility and can result in severe health problems. (Fletcher, 2008; p. 12).
Cotton output has tripled yet the area of land has stayed the same. (Fletcher, 2008; p.12). This results in reduced soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, and water pollution. “In 2010 cotton and polyester together accounted for almost 85 percent of world fiber production,” (Fletcher 2008).
In 2017, 8% of municipal solid waste, or 11.2 million tons, in landfills was textiles (EPA, 2020). This number increses with the rise of fast fashion (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).
“The fashion industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions,” (Ro, 2020). “In 2015, GHG emissions from textiles production totaled 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined,” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).
Workers facing “dangerous working environments due to hazardous processes, substances of concern used during production, unsafe buildings, or lack of safety equipment,” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).
Interviews with experts to discuss how they are tackling sustainability in the industry.
With 111 participants, to better understand consumer behavior surrounding fashion.
Conduct market research, interview experts and survey consumers.
Fashion’s supply chain has a host of social and economic externalities.
Identify consumer values and the impact experts are seeing in sustainable fashion.
Consumers say they care about sustainability but it is not reflected in their buying behaviors.
I conducted a survey to identify consumer behavior surrounding fashion.
42.2% over $100,000
Summary of Findings:
Majority of respondents want to know more about the supply chain and material sourcing in garment production.
81.7% of people said sustainability is important to them when shopping, however, this was not reflected in many of their buying behaviors, favorite brands, or knowledge of the supply chain.
Respondents indicated consistent concern for the planet and people and desire brands that make alike commitments.
Many respondents felt that cost is a barrier to accessing sustainable fashion.
There is a correlation between sustainability and quality. Respondents identified that they are willing to pay more for sustainable clothing because it lasts longer.
8 out of 10
of respondents value sustainability in fashion brands.
care about brand ethics when buying clothing.
“Sustainable options and clothing needs to be more widely accessible and affordable. It is a privilege to be able to afford sustainable options and the fashion industry needs to advance more to the point where sustainable clothing is more affordable.”
“I am absolutely willing to pay more for sustainable clothing because it’s something little that I can do to help brands that are working towards a better future for our earth and all that live here. This small choice today plays a part in big change tomorrow.”
Respondents demonstrated minimal to no understanding of clothing production.
Respondents indicated a desire to have fully transparent companies.
But if consumers value sustainability, why aren’t their buying behaviors changing?
“Our research shows that a lack of clarity and awareness, as well as perceived higher price points, are the main factors preventing consumers from purchasing sustainable goods. Other barriers include a lack of availability of preferred styles and brands, perceived inconvenience and the belief that a product isn’t truly sustainable,” (Hahn-Petersen, 2018).
“Sustainability remains a nebulous concept that means different things to different people and continues to shift as a priority over time. Many consumers struggle to identify what makes a brand or product sustainable to begin with,” (Willersdorf & Mitchell 2020).
This market research and the survey respondents highlights a link between the want to support sustainable brands and brands with purpose, however, due to the lack of education and clear definitions on sustainability in the garment supply chain, consumer behavior is not reflecting their values.
Sustainable fashion feels unattainable or affordable to some, while others prefer investing in it for good quality.
Respondents say they care about sustainability and ethics, but it is not reflected in their buying behaviors.
Some are hesitant to trust that something really is “sustainable” or that their money is going to proper practices.
Respondents pointed to their lack of clarity in the garment manufacturing supply chain.
“The lesson for brands is clear: sustainability matters to consumers, but not at a premium, and certainly less than other functional, immediately felt concerns”
Lack of Industry Standardization
Who: Remake’s Senior Contributor & Content Manager, Rebecca Blake Thompson
“…Making this more transparent and then digesting it for people is so huge because the reality is with no legislation whatsoever, any fashion brand could call their brand ethical can call their brand sustainable... Like there’s zero regulation, literally anyone can say that, you know, on their website and in their marketing messages… that’s been in response to these brands understanding that there’s a need for sustainable fashion. And you know that this is such a big moment. And this is the things that customers are asking for.”
[Remake is an organization aims to end fast fashion through empowerment and education of individuals, to make conscious buying choices and demand change from brands. They give “approval” of specific brands based on their research and advocate for garment workers].
From Remake's #PayUp campaign.
Brands with Purpose Sell
Who: Maya Krysicki, Unilver Brand Manager for Love, Beauty, and Planet
“We see that overall brands with purpose grow. So if same thing like you say, a brand like Love, Beauty and Planet, having purpose, in this case being sustainability, small acts of love for the planet, those PCR (post consumer recycled) bottles like packaging that’s recyclable having those things and lots of innovation down the pipeline of how we reinvent personal care in general and beauty and waste in the bathroom comes with a huge benefit. I mean, we were able to grow that brand to 100 million dollars, across all of our platforms in 2019, which is a huge success….So we attribute that whole brand success to the fact that it is true and purposeful.”
Unilever owns brands such as Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Hellman’s, Q-Tips, and Marmite. As a parent company, they have made strong sustainable commitments to reduce their virgin plastic in packaging and cut their environmental impact by 50% by 2030. Maya emphasized that sustainability is ingrained in their mission and being such a prominent company, by setting such strong commitments, they are leading the standard. This is important to note because it demonstrates their success in setting precedent and their success in selling brand purpose.
From Love, Beauty, & Planet's webpage.
From Levi's WaterLess webpage.
Sustainable production can have economic benefits
Who: Michael Millstein, Manager of Global Policy and Advocacy at Levi’s
“One of the key sources of this co benefits has been through our water work and our WaterLess program. So the WaterLess program is based on a series of techniques in the garment finishing phases and fabric production which are essentially means to create the same product or fabric, while using less water. And what we found is that when you save water in manufacturing, you also save energy. If you save energy manufacturing, you save money. And so by applying these techniques and recycling water we’ve been able to help our suppliers to reduce their operational expenditures, pretty significantly.”
Levi’s produces denim, which is a heavy user of water in the growth of cotton, production of fiber, and dyeing of materials. Their WaterLess program aims to reduce the water required in making denim to address water scarcity and shift the industry to make a positive imapct.
Michael emphasized that Levi’s is a brand who’s internal messaging and committments align with their advocacy. He emphasized not only the economic and environmental benefits of sustainability in fashion, but also that consumers that pay more for quality denim, will get a better return on their investment.
Know your customer
Who: Talia Daly, LL Bean Designer
While Levi’s is more upfront with their sustainability efforts and consumer education, LL Bean is not. This is not to say that LL Bean does not have sustainable initiatives, it is simply that their consumers do not value sustainability. In my interview with Talia Daly, a designer for LL Bean, she said, “quality is really where our customer base loyalty lays.” Rather than elevating or highlighting sustainability as a trend, the brand has quietly shifted their practices, deliberately not labelling everything as “sustainable” until the entire specific line as shifted, because they do not want to cause confusion within their consumers. For example, Talia spoke of their responsible down line, “we didn’t roll out, responsible down as a marketing initiative until 100% of our down was responsible.”
Although sustainability is a growing trend, it does not meet the desires of all consumers. LL Bean knew their customers well enough to make the decisions to continue to market quality and product at the forefront rather than sustainability.
From LLBeans webpage.
Replace consumer doubt and confusion surrounding ‘sustainable’ fashion with a product or system that builds consumer trust while incentivizing brands to pay living wages and create traceable and environmentally conscious products.
To start of my ideation phase, I began by interviewing 9 young creative professionals about their views on sustainability in the creative industries.
To identify how they define “success” in sustainability, their values, and goals for their professional field to create a clearer vision of who and what the future of the industry will be driven by.
Majority of creatives identified the power and importance of creative fields in influencing consumers and the world. Majority cited that either social or environmental causes motivate their work.
"Hopefully, we’re moving towards ads actually aimed to educate, inform and help the consumer… creating consumers who are curious, who think for themselves who do their own research, who don’t trust everything they read... And I think that the creative fields are the ones who can do that...I hope the future of creativity will be a source of information that a consumer can trust and a consumer can go to and lean on."
- Cam Lavoie
Market research demonstrates that consumers value brands that have ethics. By utilizing a solution that creates trust with the consumer that said brand is abiding by ‘sustainable’ guidelines, it will attract more consumers.
Companies, like Inditex who own the brand Zara, would benefit from associating with the potential solution. By gaining more consumer support, the demand for those type of brands and clothing will grow, and in doing so grow their revenue.
While consumers value brands that have purpose, my initial research highlights their lack of understanding of apparel production. This lack of understanding is transferring in the lack of change in their buying behavior, because it’s difficult for individuals to have empathy, when they do not fully understand the process. By creating a solution that builds trust between the “right” process and the brand, the consumer only has to trust one organization, rather than researching each individual brand.
By making a solution that is mutually beneficial to consumer wants and financially beneficial to brands, more companies will participate. By setting a desirable solution, it will raise the standard of production, and in turn benefit surrounding environments.
All governing bodies, particularly capitalist societies, aim to raise their overall GDP. With the current mode of production, it would not be beneficial to the economy to limit production methods. However, if companies began to make changes on their own, based on consumer demand, it would then be easier to set legislation that protects environmental and human health, while still raising the GDP.
Improving the overall quality of production not only means creating better garments and better environmental practices, but also raising the standard of work. More money and more legislation means that more workers can be ensured living wages and access to safe working conditions.
Beneficiaries of a Solution
(Hover for more info)
As this project is still in progress, here are some guiding questions as I move into the design phase of my thesis.
How do we impact consumer behavior by helping them to trust their purchases are sustainable?
What does it mean to impact consumer behavior?
What does 'sustainable' mean?
What does trust mean to a consumer of fashion?
Abelvik-Lawson, H. (2019, November 29). 9 Reasons to Quit Fast Fashion. Green Peace. Retrieved from: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/9-reasons-to-quit-fast-fashion-this-black-friday/
Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. Retrieved from: http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications).
EPA. (2019, October 30). Textiles: Material-Specific Data. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/textiles-material-specific-data
Fashion Revolution. (2018). Fashion Revolution Consumer Survey 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.fashionrevolution.org/resources/consumer-survey/
Fletcher, K. (2008). Sustainable Fashions and Textiles: Design Journeys. Earthscan
Global Fashion Agenda & The Boston Consulting Group. (2017). Pulse on the Fashion Industry. Retrieved from: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5810348d59cc68e529b7d9ba/t/596454f715d5db35061ea63e/1499747644232/Pulse-of-the-Fashion-Industry_2017.pdf.
Global Fashion Agenda. (2019, May 17). Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update Released. Retrieved from: https://www.globalfashionagenda.com/pulse-of-fashion-industry-2019-update-released/#
Hahn-Petersen, L. A. (2018, April 21). Millennials Say They Care About Sustainability. So, Why Don’t They Shop This Way? Business of Fashion. Retrieved from: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/op-ed-millennials-say-they-care-about-sustainability-so-why-dont-they-dont-shop-this-way
Ro, C. (2020, March 10). Can Fashion Ever Be Sustainable? BBC. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200310-sustainable-fashion-how-to-buy-clothes-good-for-the-climate#:~:text=The%20fashion%20industry%20accounts%20for,both%20aviation%20and%20shipping%20combined
(2013, January 16). The Impact of a Cotton Tshirt. World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved from: https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-impact-of-a-cotton-t-shirt
Townsend, S. (2018, November 21). 88% of Consumers Want you to Help Them Make a Difference. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/solitairetownsend/2018/11/21/consumers-want-you-to-help-them-make-a-difference/#292483196954
Willersdorf, S. & Mitchell, R. (2020, September 22). What Consumers Really Think About Sustainability. Business of Fashion. Retrieved from: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/sustainability-consumer-spending-environment-social-impact-allbirds-patago