Why you should care
Clothing shoppers are waking up to the fact that their buying power could influence the industry.
“I feel like I can’t even make eye contact with you guys,” Sarah Hawkinson says into the camera, the popular fashion YouTuber’s eyes darting from her lap to the wall. She goes on to tell her 350,000 subscribers that she’s done turning a blind eye to fast fashion and will now be mindful of how her consumer choices support big corporations.
Turns out, she’s not alone.
Back in 2015, a British study by the Open University suggested that while consumers were likely aware of the perils of “cheap chic” or fast fashion, it didn’t impact their purchasing behavior. But more recent studies point out that …
Roughly half of consumers would consider paying more for sustainable products.
Last year, a report by sustainable clothing company Mamoq and Cambridge University found that 57 percent ranked sustainability among their top three factors in purchase decisions. In the U.S., meanwhile, a 2019 survey by CGS, a business applications firm, indicates that of the 1,000 U.S. adults questioned, a whopping 70 percent said sustainability is at least “somewhat important” to them for purchases, and nearly half — 47 percent — said they would pay more for products in the name of sustainability.
On top of that, more than 80 percent of Europeans told Fashion Revolution last year that they think it’s important for fashion brands to do something to address global poverty and climate change.
The majority of the 5,000 surveyed also thought it was important for companies to make public how and where their clothes are manufactured and said they believed fashion brands should explain how they apply socially and environmentally responsible practices.
For context, the textile, clothing, leather and footwear industry is estimated to be the second most polluting in the world. Cotton production alone takes up more than 350,000 square kilometers of land — roughly the size of Germany — and the industry uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water every year, which is enough for 5 million people. Meanwhile, half a million tons of microfiber are dumped in the ocean every year.
With so many consumers using sustainability as a benchmark in their purchase decisions and considering how many want brands to act responsibly, Sarah Ditty, policy director at Fashion Revolution, predicts a shift in firm transparency. It’s becoming “increasingly untenable,” she says, “for companies not to be measuring their impacts and taking concrete action.”
Madeline Petrow, co-founder and CEO of Mamoq, meanwhile, says honesty will give brands the impression of authenticity while they each address their own weaknesses. “Every business will have different areas to improve upon, whether it be enhancing workers’ rights and accountability from manufacturing partners, [and] sourcing more sustainable materials,” she says.
A complete shift away from fast fashion, of course, won’t be easy or quick. Nearly 70 percent, according to the Mamoq report, still say that fit, price and style all trump sustainability when it comes to making decisions. And while sales of sustainable products have increased over the years, the market is still tiny compared to that of conventional fast-fashion products. “We have to admit how difficult it is for consumers to do the right thing,” Ditty says, when they don’t have enough credible, comparable and accessible information about clothes.
She believes increased regulation can help, especially when it comes to requirements of transparency. But another tactic is to “tax bad practices and give tax breaks for good practices,” she says.
To that end, the World Fair Trade Organization is calling on governments to shape such rules and ensure that no company is able to profit based on the exploitation of workers or the environment.
And it needn’t stop with companies. Sweden applies such thinking to consumer incentives, for example, offering tax breaks to Swedes who mend and repair clothes rather than throwing them out. Anyone want a needle and thread?