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What drives consumers to want sustainable fashion?

I will admit that while sustainable fashion is of interest to me in the general sense of sustainability, especially given that the fashion industry contributes about 10% of global carbon emissions and contributes significantly to the creation of waste water, but its not an area I spend a lot of time thinking about. I try to buy clothing items from local or sustainable suppliers with more ethical manufacturing. And I buy things that I intend to have last. But that’s as far as I go.

However, I’m doing some research for a resource I’m working on for the sustainability courses I teach and it has sent me down a fashion rabbit hole. For one small part of that hole, I looked at Dabas and Whang (2022) review of research regarding what drives sustainable fashion consumption. First, let’s look at what sustainable fashion actually is.

There are many terms that might come up including ethical fashion, eco-fashion, organic fashion, and green fashion (Mukendi as cited by Dabas and Whang, 2022). These terms overlap but some are more focused on social justice aspects such as the use or not of sweat-shop labour, while others focus on environmentally friendly processes. This is part of the challenge I see to even getting into the conversation: how do I know if the company I choose does both or only one? There’s a lot of research to be done before I can make some decisions. Add to that, that services, behaviours, and ideas are increasingly part of the conversation, not just the tangible products (Dabas and Whang, 2022).

Research into sustainable fashion has been growing since 1995. But, even with significant growth there are some distinct biases in the research with most studies including majority female or even all female participants, youth and college students, and primarily American based with high percentages of Caucasian participants. While this is expanding, the bias is still heavily prevalent. So what drives the consumption decisions for this population? Values such as altruism, openness to change, and pro-environmental beliefs are prominent and often related to intended purchases but the direction isn’t consistent across countries. Highlighting the need for more diverse studies, altruism was negatively associated with sustainable consumption behaviour in Ecuador (Cruz-Cardenas et al as cited in Dabas and Whang, 2022). Other values such as quality also impacted purchase decisions but social value only predicted intentions and not actual behaviours.

Fashion orientation, which I do not have, relates to interest and knowledge, awareness, innovativeness, and use of fashion for interpersonal communication was connected with some purchase decisions like upcycled products but not others like second hand clothing. And it was negatively associated with purchasing slow fashion products.

What about knowledge, if I know more about the environmental and social issues will I be more likely to make sustainable fashion purchases? The research here is pretty inconclusive. Some say it has no impact, while others say it does and still others say that it is a negative relationship. More research is definitely needed here.

Everyone else is doing it? Yes, that is likely to have an impact, but personal norms may be more effective. I think about the food I buy, so I also think about the clothes I buy may have a bigger impact than what others are doing, or I think they’re doing. But culture does have an impact such as opinions about secondhand clothing.

Like so many things within sustainability, we need more research and more diverse perspectives not just culturally but also age and gender identity. The review didn’t get into how participants were recruited in each study but I would guess that I would get missed a lot because I’m not going to be drawn to participate in a study about fashion. And yet, my decisions still have an impact.

Pressure from consumers and change from retailers and manufacturers go hand-in-hand. We need to develop better understanding on all sides if we will stem the significant and often devastating impacts of fashion.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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