Sustainability is Trendy, But Why Aren't Fashion Consumers Engaging With It?

Sustainability is Trendy, But Why Aren't Fashion Consumers Engaging With It?

Sustainability is at the forefront of shoppers’ and brands’ minds, with more and more consumers calling for businesses to be conscious of their environmental, social, and ethical influences on the world. A 2021 study by Vogue shows that a considerable amount of fashion consumers say, “sustainability is an important factor when making a fashion purchase, from 65 per cent in October 2020 to 69 per cent in May 2021.” More and more people — both consumers and business owners — are entertaining the idea of sustainability in the fashion industry.

Due to this rise in consumer interest, the topic of sustainability has reached mainstream status as brands add the word “sustainable” to new advertising campaigns and designers promote the raw materials their newest items are made of. However, despite its popularity both in conversation and on the sales floor, shopping sustainably can be a problem for the majority of consumers. As a result, this prevents consumers from participating in safer practices, the opposite of sustainability’s true intent.

The word “sustainable” comes with many meanings, and its ambiguity can make it hard to determine if the brand is genuinely being environmentally and socially conscious

To start, one of the biggest reasons sustainable fashion is difficult for most consumers is due to a lack of awareness. The word “sustainable” comes with many meanings, and its ambiguity can make it hard to determine if the brand is genuinely being environmentally and socially conscious. Saskia Hedrich, a Senior Expert for McKinsey & Company, makes note of sustainability’s vague standard saying, “Communication…about specific products or collections regarding sustainability, is often focused on certain very specific aspects, like…a raw material that is more sustainable compared to the (one that’s typically) used. Objective criteria for rating sustainable fashion are missing.”

Hedrich’s account is applicable, especially to big fashion brand H&M. Known for being a leader in fast fashion, H&M has recently vowed to become more environmentally, socially, and ethically conscious with how their products are made. Their push for sustainability includes their “Conscious Choice” line, which according to them, “contains at least 50% of more sustainable materials — like organic cotton or recycled polyester.” According to Hedrich, this alone is enough to satisfy customers looking to be sustainable. Just seeing this transformative effort in the materials alone is enough for some consumers to be on board; however, sustainability is beyond just the raw materials a brand uses. Sustainability also considers social and ethical issues particularly in the supply chain, which is typically overlooked by the average consumer.

Brands cherry-pick what sustainability issues they want to address, and as a result, the average consumer — who isn’t aware of the multiple ethical, environmental, and social issues of sustainability — is completely unaware of what sustainability truly is.

To make things worse, some brands aren’t willing to extend their meaning of sustainability to different parts of the business. Increasing the use of recycled cotton and polyester does not address the wage theft in the brand’s supply chain or other ethical concerns. Brands cherry-pick what sustainability issues they want to address, and as a result, the average consumer — who isn’t aware of the multiple ethical, environmental, and social issues of sustainability — is completely unaware of what sustainability truly is. If an average consumer sees a brand’s initiative to change to a more environmentally friendly fabric, they will equate only that initiative with sustainability when it encompasses so much more.

A lot of times, this change in product material leads to a price increase, which also prevents consumers from purchasing sustainable items. In a survey done by Nosto, 52% of survey respondents said they wanted more sustainability in the fashion industry. However, in the same survey, 32% of survey respondents said they actually would spend more money for those sustainable products. So, despite their wish for the fashion industry to be sustainable, most consumers are unwilling to make that financial commitment. For instance, the brand Reformation, known for their eco-friendly practices, currently sells baby tees for $48. Now, compare that with fast fashion giant, Shein, which sells multiple baby tees that are similar in color and pattern for less than $10. For the average consumer, an $8 cropped t-shirt is more convenient than a $48 one. In addition, there is also more variety. At Shein, a consumer could get four baby tees for less than that one Reformation top.

Despite brands like Reformation and Everlane being at the forefront of the sustainable fashion movement, the misrepresentation in their advertising dissuades customers. In the fashion industry, brands consistently advertise their products by using thin models, and sustainable fashion brands have adopted that same marketing practice. We are living in a more socially conscious world, which should cause brands who market themselves as sustainable to consider the average consumer, who isn’t a size two.

We are living in a more socially conscious world, which should cause brands who market themselves as sustainable to consider the average consumer, who isn’t a size two.

And it doesn’t stop at size inclusivity. Despite ethnic communities being a major part of the US economy, there is a lack of representation in advertising, ultimately communicating the message that certain products aren’t for them. As a result, ethnic communities are dissuaded from the sustainability mission, resorting to other brands where they are represented. Oftentimes, those are the brands that don’t practice sustainability, making it challenging for these communities to access sustainable fashion.

What makes this even more difficult for consumers is that there are sustainable brands whose mission is to make their products accessible to all conscious shoppers. However, it all goes back to a lack of information presented to the consumer. As stated earlier, there is no knowledge of all facets of sustainability. But there is also a lack of awareness of sustainable brands in general. Despite sustainability being a buzzword pasted all over the fashion industry, the average consumer is unaware of truly sustainable brands.

Despite sustainability being a buzzword pasted all over the fashion industry, the average consumer is unaware of truly sustainable brands.

Our society needs to fully take advantage of the rise of sustainability, and there are multiple steps to that. The first one is providing the right information to consumers. Brands need to effectively communicate their image of sustainability, and how it extends far beyond just one issue. Expand on workplace treatment, inclusion, ethical standards, and environmental practices. Until brands take that step, sustainability will continue to be an unattainable practice for the average consumer.

Feature photo by Sam Lion on Pexels