Opinion: Why Ethical Fashion Isn’t Selling Well


It’s chic, it’s sustainable and it’s trendy. But it’s not in everyone’s closet, yet. Here’s why I think ethical fashion isn’t selling well

By Melanie DiSalvo

It seems ethical fashion lovers are all around. Brands are talking about changes they are making to their supply chain. Consumers want to know about working conditions in third world countries. And every day, major news sources are publishing pieces about sustainable fashion.

But the truth is – ethical fashion isn’t selling well. And the question is: why not?

Despite the noise about ethical fashion, it hasn’t been met with the same consumer demand as ethical food or clean beauty products. To illustrate, according to a 2016 report by the Ethical Consumer, whilst sales of ethical food, cars and beauty rose between 2000-2015, sales of ethical fashion actually fell by over 12%.

Moreover, one 2016 study shows that people are more likely to avoid a product because it has an unethical reputation (24%) than they are to buy a product because it has an ethical one (19%). This was interpreted to signify that peer pressure and the perception of others are leading factors in making fashion purchases.

While the reasons why ethical fashion isn’t selling well still aren’t fully clear, consumers cited high prices as one reason they avoided buying it.

So, how can we increase it sales of sustainable fashion, then? To understand this, first we need to take a look at the industries that got it right.

A quick history of the green movement

Obviously, the driving force behind the organic and clean eating movement is better health. Organic food promises a reduced risk of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. As we continue to see rates of sickness in the United States rise and our family members and friends become affected by illnesses, the decision to buy organic whole foods is becoming more and more popular.

Clean beauty products continuously gained popularity. That could be due to information about toxic ingredient lists of mainstream cosmetics becoming more accessible through websites like the EWG. Women have become increasingly concerned about the health repercussions of the beauty potions they use daily. Especially as breast cancer awareness groups started to publicise scientific articles linking cosmetics and cancers.

Electric cars have gained popularity. There are several reasons for this:

  • there is more infrastructure for charging them
  • driving one (especially Tesla, still the leading brand of ethical cars) is perceived as a virtue-signalling status symbol
  • governments give them subsidies

Lastly, the green cleaning supply crusade has been led mostly by mommy bloggers who encourage women with small children to change the way they clean their homes. They insist on this in order to reduce chemical exposure to their still-developing children. Recent research has even suggested that the eradication of all germs in the home thanks to modern chemical cleaning supplies is directly linked to increased rates of some childhood cancers. The decision to go for the eco choice is easy when your family’s health is at stake.

But…ethical fashion? Most consumers aren’t aware it positively affects their health. It doesn’t provide a status boost like driving a Tesla does. And though it’s more expensive, it doesn’t come with the ostentatious prestige associated with branded luxury labels. So, what could motivate consumers to buy it?

Why Ethical Fashion Isn't Selling Well

Cleaner food and beauty, yes. But fashion…no?

Today, when faced with the decision to buy organic vs conventionally grown produce or clean vs. toxic beauty products, our choices are based on personal needs – rarely do we consider the impact of pesticides on field workers, or toxic chemicals on those who package beauty products. In short, we change our buying patterns to mitigate our own risks.

And this is ok. After all, what’s good for us is good for everyone. By wanting better and safer products for ourselves, we indirectly reduce the risks workers face in the supply chain. Because of the growing toxin-free demand, there are now more jobs in safer factories and fields. But what personal benefits can we gain from buying ethical fashion? Another reason why ethical fashion isn’t selling well is that those benefits are not clear.

As mentioned above, peer pressure and expected feedback from others does play a strong role in fashion purchases. To translate this into sales, perhaps ethical fashion producers need to take a cue from a well-used Madison Avenue technique – fear.

Rather than emphasising the positive impact an ethical purchase makes on others’ lives in distant lands, brands could instil a dread of the potential health risks of fast fashion.

For instance, they should stress that toxic clothing does have an impact on our health. Why is fashion not leading with science that affects us directly the way other industries like food, cosmetics, and home goods have done before? My guess is that it’s because fashion is fundamentally a highly creative and visual industry.

From an artistic and business standpoint, photos models strutting in the latest collections are far more interesting to consumers than charts and graphs about how the chemicals in your t-shirt have been linked to autism. But surely there are more colourful ways to convey the ‘dirtiness’ of fast fashion?

Why Ethical Fashion Isn't Selling Well

Beautiful isn’t enough

Today, ethical fashion presents an array of stunning options, from haute couture to jeans, yet compared to mainstream fashion labels, we are not buying these.

Perhaps, as self-motivated individuals, we aren’t so fast to jump on the ethical bandwagon (which comes at a cost premium) because it doesn’t yet offer the same level of prestige as say, a pair of Louboutin shoes does. Or could it be that we prefer to buy an item that best reflects how we identify ourselves as individuals…even if it’s not ethically made?

To overcome this, ethical needs to equate luxury. After all, if consumers are paying more, they will want that premium to come with some social currency. So, another reason why why ethical fashion isn’t selling well is because its branding as being luxurious needs to be stronger.

This is slowly beginning to happen as consumers learn that Health is the New Wealth, as the HuffPost and Business of Fashion have pointed out. But again, the health benefits of ethical fashion would have to be more clearly presented and emphasised.

Shaming tactics could work

Alternatively, we could look to another trick Madison Avenue uses frequently: peer pressure. This can be done in subtle and not-so-subtle ways; for example, PETA’s highly successful ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur‘ campaign subtly shamed those who wore fur; on the other hand, their strong, vocal protests outside Calvin Klein’s offices stopped the label from using fur from 1994 until today.

Indeed, we can argue that thanks to PETA’s shaming tactics and informational campaigns, cruelty-free beauty is one of the fastest growing markets. Yet their core agenda is very black and white: animal cruelty is bad, full stop.

Maybe another reason why ethical fashion isn’t selling well is because it has more disparate issues. Sure, sweatshops are bad. But could it be worse if clothing manufacturers decided to use robots instead of people?

Moreover, clothes may be ethically made, sure. But if they’re constructed from toxic dyes and fabrics, well, that’s another problem to contend with. Which one gets priority? How do we convey that message?

Perhaps it’s just better to demonise fast fashion, as PETA did with fur?

In short, it seems another reason why ethical fashion isn’t selling well is because its message isn’t clear enough.

Why Ethical Fashion Isn't Selling Well

Summing up: Why ethical fashion isn’t selling well

To start making a change in the sustainable fashion world, we first need to get real. We have to focus more on what matters to consumers: themselves.

It’s becoming increasingly well known in the industry that organic cotton, natural fibres and naturally dyed and finished textiles are better for the health of the wearer. Greenpeace has long warned of the health impacts of toxic fashion.

So, I’d say this is important information the ethical fashion industry itself now needs to stress.

Secondly, we need to acknowledge that price is important to consumers. Ethical fashion is innately more expensive, since it pays workers a living wage. What does the buyer get for that premium, from a selfish point of view? Ethical fashion should come with prestige. And that can be granted by better marketing.

Finally, it’s a fact that we dress to impress and be accepted by others. If fast fashion is associated with social ostracisation, ethical fashion will move ahead.

In short, increasing ethical fashion sales is important: for workers, for the planet, and for our health. The vast majority of marketing for ethical fashion has focused strongly on the first two factors, but it’s time to realise that most of us put ‘us’ first. So for ethical fashion brands to improve sales, perhaps they should start talking more about how the fashion industry is affecting us right here, right now, rather than strangers halfway around the world.

Image 4: PETA

Do you agree with our reasons why ethical fashion isn’t selling well? Let us know in the comments, below!

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11 thoughts on “Opinion: Why Ethical Fashion Isn’t Selling Well”

  1. One could argue that it is more ethical from a sustainable perspective to minimise purchases of new clothing and look for hand-me-downs or buy second-hand, e.g. from a charity shop that isn’t linked to any organisation that carries out animal testing.

    With regard to PETA’s ‘Rather go naked than … ‘ campaigns, comparatively few people in Britain at any rate have ever worn fur, because we have a mild temperate climate. So fur was an easier target to shame people into not wearing than leather, which most people have for footwear. And whilst I have never found PETA’s use to nudity to be offensive, the shock value associated with it wore off a very long time ago.

    Additionally, since this article was first published in 2018, we are now in a recession with falling disposable incomes and rising prices in food and other necessary commodities. So it is plausible that has affected sales of Fair Trade coffee and chocolate etc.

  2. I think ethical fashion isn’t selling well for a few reasons. 1) the majority of people don’t know where to find it. We here in this feed might because we’re deeply interested in the topic, but most people don’t know. 2) a lot of the labels are still young and their sizing/fit isn’t yet optimised for the clientele because their know-how isn’t ‘there yet’ 3) a lot of it simply doesn’t look nice or is lacking in great design. That makes it really hard for people to rationalize buying it.

  3. I hope businesses start to promote more ethical ways of sourcing clothing. Fast fashion is a massive burden on the world and one that can be assuaged if consumers had a range of affordable options.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. When people are buying clothes they don’t think the same as buying their food that which they consider the effects on their health. We tend to buy what is the latest fashion trends without realizing what are the materials used by the designer. Lacking of information is also one thing to consider, people only see the beauty of the clothes inside without knowing what are the side effect that may cause to us. I admit that I will consider buying expensive food than clothing, so considering the price of it is also a good thing. 🙂

  5. Fast fashion really changed peoples’ ideas about the cost of clothes. I remember going shopping with my mother (I’m 37) twice a year – spring and fall – and she would buy me, what was necessary to replace because clothes were something you would spend quite an amount on. But they also lasted!
    A lot of aspects about ethical / eco / green fashion are nothing else but going “back to the roots” of our appreciation and true love for real, high quality, honest clothing. It will take time, but I’m sure we will get there!

  6. Julianna O’Neill

    I think people also don’t realize that fast fashion actually turns out to be more expensive when you look at it per wear. When I used to buy fast fashion I would get 1-5 wears of one item before it went out of style or fell apart. You can buy a 20$ jacket and wear it four times, so that would be 5$ per wear. Something ethically made might cost more, but it’s much better quality and style (also if it costs more you’re more likely to make sure you actually like it) so you can wear it multiple times and year after year, and eventually it could come out to less than a dollar per wear. Sure, you pay more initially, but in the long run you’re spending less and in the end you’ll have more clothes because you aren’t constantly getting rid of stuff. People buy fast fashion because they want to save money and have stylish clothing, but they don’t realize they’re actually getting the opposite.

  7. I like the idea of making it selfish for people – tell them why it affects them, not some unknown person across the globe. That makes the steep price more personal, literally!

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