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Encouraging Progress Towards Sustainable Fashion

Is guilt free, sustainable clothes shopping on the horizon?/Shutterstock

Natalie Dukes, Centre for Business in Society

It’s refreshing to hear leaders in fashion production acknowledging the need to move to a circular model of recapturing and reusing raw materials in the recent Guardian commentary on retailer reform (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/10/pressure-mounts-on-retailers-to-reform-throwaway-clothing-culture).

We have heard much about changing fashion shopping habits by educating consumers to make sustainable or ethical choices. Whilst all efforts to improve sustainability should be applauded I doubt whether initiatives relying solely on changing consumer behaviour could ever be effective.

In my doctoral research at Coventry University I am exploring consumer behaviour and the social dynamics surrounding frequent clothes shopping. I have found that whilst almost all of my interviewees are aware of ethical concerns associated with low cost clothing this had little or no influence on their buying choices. Unsurprisingly, anticipating, browsing for, choosing, buying and wearing clothes provides women with a great deal of happiness. Motivated by pleasure and variety seeking to an extent but also the desire to measure up to social expectations, frequent shopping patterns appear to be firmly entrenched with many women. Changing behaviour or attempting to rein in purchasing habits would probably be an uphill struggle requiring something akin to an almighty shove rather than a nudge approach.

Therefore, as the volume of fashion consumption continues to grow, serving shoppers who are unlikely to voluntarily change their behaviour, decoupling growth from resource use is critical for sustainability and it is exciting to hear of the technical advancements that may make this possible.

A couple of observations from my study indicate that consumers sometimes lack the information they need to help recycling initiatives to gather pace:

I found only one person who was aware of any take back scheme offering discounts on future purchases when returning worn garments for recycling and though they were aware that H&M might offer this, they had not used the scheme as they were not sure of the exact terms or process.

The good news is that I have found that frequent shoppers also tend to be frequent sorters. Many have regular ‘clear out’ routines and almost all are already in the habit of sorting and bagging their used garments then taking them to ‘charity’ collection points. However, most are unaware of what happens from there and would welcome information regarding the most sustainable choice for disposal.

Admittedly I am not without my reservations. I hope that retailers will continue to push through initiatives for change and will not revert to relying on consumers to drive improvements. Also, since we have now reached a stage where many people are of the view that change to more sustainable clothing production is essential. I trust that the fashion industry is treating the problem with the serious commitment that the planet needs and is not simply using promises of progress as a means of allaying demands for regulations to enforce more sustainable practices.

Putting any cynicism aside, these are very exciting developments and I will be watching with interest in the hope of swift progress towards guilt free, sustainable clothes shopping.

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Coventry University