Changing consumer behavior: Advocating for sustainable fashion

by Julia Hoy

In part one of our blog series on the fast fashion problem and how to counter it, Account Director Katie Shuff talked about fast fashion’s growth and the challenges clothing brands face when communicating about sustainability. In this article, part two, we look at the other side of the story: shifting consumer demand for more sustainable or circular fashion.

“Today, buying a dress is like buying a Big Mac; cheap, fast and, judging by the poorer quality seen in fast fashion clothes, not very healthy” – Christina Dean, Redress founder, and Chief Executive Officer.

The rise of disposable fashion

You can tell a lot about a person from how they dress. Outfit choices give us clues about personality, character, social tribe, and even mood. Fashion helps us convey an image to the world we want others to see. Creating and curating that image has never been easier, with endless choices available at a low cost and at the click of a button.

Every year, up to 52 micro-trends influence outfit decisions and make people feel that what they own is no longer fashionable. Combine this with a culture of shaming people for outfit repeating, and we end up with an unquenchable hunger for new – as well as cheap and disposable – clothing.

This culture of constant change means the average item is only worn seven times before people discard it.

Momentum in sustainable fashion

The good news is we have seen incredible momentum towards demand for sustainable clothing, resale, and slow fashion more generally. Online second-hand platform Thredup says the resale market will be worth $350 billion by 2027. Nearly new and pre-loved boutiques are everywhere; charity and thrift shops have lost their stigma; and every retailer is now under pressure to integrate resale into their business model.

But we’re far from solving the problem. Garment production levels haven’t slowed down, and despite young people leading the way on sustainable fashion, they’re still driving demand as the number on buyers of fast fashion.

EU speeding up regulation 

With brand ‘self-regulation’ leading to cases of greenwashing and general confusion among consumers, the EU is tightening laws on transparency and traceability. New rules are likely to enforce more resilient, reusable and recyclable clothes that consider human and labor rights in production as well as environmental and animal welfare.

This push has been led by France. The fashion-forward country has released legislation putting clothing brands to the test around how they communicate about their products’ sustainability. This new wave of legislation will push brands to do better to reduce the negative social and environmental impacts prevalent within supply chains, while rewarding the early movers who are better prepared for this call for increased transparency.

The consumer’s critical role

As consumers, we have a responsibility to recognize that where there is demand, there will usually be supply. We need to curb, and reset, our fashion habits.

According to Harriet Vocking, Chief Executive of Eco-Age, we need to rethink how we market clothing to consumers to encourage new sustainable behaviors that slow down the rate of consumption. This in turn will slow down the rate of production.

We need a new narrative on fashion that is centered on value. Valuing what we own and the resources that have gone into producing it, as well as the people who have helped manufacture it. We need to see our clothes as assets, as opposed to something we throw away and replace. The answer to this may lie in the subtle but important difference between style and fashion.

Expression through style, not fashion 

When we dress to impress, is our goal to be fashionable or stylish? The distinction is important according to advocates for circular fashion. Fashion restricts us to a ‘look’ that’s en vogue, while style is timeless. Fashion is about conforming to a social norm, while style is about expressing yourself. Fashion drives people to buy and throw away, while style encourages people to value what they wear.

On top of this, a study from EY and Monash University’s Consumer and Retail Studies unit found that consumers in Australia, where Sefiani is based, are prepared to pay more for recycled and ethically produced products. This suggests they expect to keep these garments for longer too.

While fashion will continue to influence society for years to come, the idea of style helps to move the conversation away from fast moving trends to celebrating clothing that reflects you, not society.

Shift social norms

How do we recreate a culture where we buy what we love, and love what we own? Talking about the problem is important but has only got us so far. We need to address entrenched norms that encourage us to continuously buy and throw away.

Here, celebrities and influencers can help play an important role, using their social power and voice to reset norms around fashion. For years now, celebrities like Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, and Tiffany Haddish have proudly re-worn outfits to break the taboo around outfit repeating. Celebrities and influencers who are genuine in their commitment to sustainable fashion can create a new narrative that builds value around what we own and helps to slow shopping purchases of clothes both new and second hand.

Appealing to everyone 

To encourage a new behavior, it’s important to understand that different people shop in different ways. Sustainable shopping needs to be made easy for everyone, removing friction, additional steps and actions that people are unlikely to adopt. Some people love finding a bargain in a thrift shop, others don’t. People will not change their behavior if we’re asking them to adopt new traits that they won’t follow through with.

The opportunity is to highlight how circular fashion can slot into any lifestyle. Gen Z may be more ready to hit the thrift shop or go to resale websites, while Gen X might choose ‘nearly new’ boutiques or simply buy fewer, more sustainable, enduring items. The choice is now there, not only with brighter, more appealing sustainable clothing ranges, but also ways to buy them which allow consumers to keep their rituals while buying more sustainably.

Creating savvy consumers

Once brands recognize the sustainable needs of their consumers, they can help make their customers’ journeys toward more positive habits as simple as possible.

Responsible brands go beyond their products to support their communities to make positive change. Many brands including Perwoll and Thredup have developed creative platforms to lean into the evergreen content opportunity and help consumers navigate the world of conscious fashion. They are removing the barriers to sustainable fashion providing motivation, education, and ideas to help consumers better understand what sustainable fashion means, alongside making it appealing.

Inspiration from Henkel

FMCG brand Henkel (which owns the likes of Schwarzkopf amongst other hair, beauty and homecare brands) is an example from outside the fashion industry of how brands can use behavior change theory to influence consumers to make more sustainable decisions.

Henkel has been a sustainability leader for 30 years, and knows its consumers care about the planet. But customer data found that while people want to be more sustainable, this doesn’t necessarily translate to their behaviors – reflecting the insight above about Gen Z being the biggest purchasers of fast fashion. Henkel understood its responsibility as an influential brand to empower consumers to change this behavior. It also understood that it had to engender a sense of belonging to bring consumers along the journey with them.

Led by Sefiani, the response is a multi-brand, multi-channel, and multi-country campaign, It Starts With Us. The campaign centers around building a sense of community, showing to consumers that by working together they can achieve greater success for the benefit of the planet. This is a great example how brands can take responsibility for helping consumers make small changes to everyday habits that encourage and promote more sustainable decisions and behaviors.

Alongside improving supply chains and creating more sustainable garments, behavior change will need to be a key focus for the fashion industry. Brands, marketers, communicators and influencers all have a role to play in helping to change consumer behavior. As CEO of the Australian Fashion Council, Leila Naja Hibri said recently, “There needs to be a systematic change in the way we think about clothes,” and this will take regulators, industry and consumers working hand in hand to reshape the ‘value’ of fashion.

Originally published on Clarity Global: