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By Melanie DiSalvo
It seems ethical fashion lovers are all around: brands are talking about changes they are making to their supply chain, woke consumers want to tell you about working conditions in third world countries, and every day, major news sources are publishing pieces about sustainable and ethical fashion. The question is: why aren’t we actually buying it?
Despite the noise about ethical fashion, it hasn’t been met with the same consumer demand as ethical food, electric cars, and clean beauty products. For example, 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%.
While the reasons why ethical fashion isn’t selling well are not clear, consumers cited high prices as one reason they avoided buying it. 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.
So, why isn’t ethical fashion selling, and how can we increase its sales? 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, which 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 as information about the toxic ingredient lists of mainstream cosmetic brands became 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, largely due to the fact that there is more infrastructure for charging them, but also because driving one (especially Tesla, still the leading brand of ethical cars) is perceived as a virtue-signalling status symbol.
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 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?
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?
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?
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 are not 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 – and branding needs to be stronger, more overt. This is slowly beginning to happen as consumers learn that Health is the New Wealth, as the Huff Post and Business of Fashion have pointed out. But again, the health benefits of ethical fashion would have to be more clearly presented and emphasised.
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.
Ethical fashion, on the other hand, has more disparate issues: sure, sweatshops are bad, but would it be worse if clothing manufacturers decided to use robots instead of people? Moreover, clothes may be ethically made, but if they’re constructed from toxic dyes and fabrics, well, that’s another problem to contend with. Which one gets priority, and how do we convey that message? Perhaps it’s just better to demonise fast fashion, as PETA did with fur.
To start making a change in the sustainable fashion world, we first need to get real and 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, and 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? It 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