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Attitudes matter when it comes to sustainable fashion

Wednesday, 13 May 2015 4:27pm

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Otago research examines people's attitudes when buying clothes.

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Associate Professor Lisa McNeill.

New research from the Department of Marketing could have you thinking twice about how you buy your clothes.

In exploratory research recently published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, Associate Professor Lisa McNeill, along with co-author Rebecca Moore, examined consumer attitudes toward sustainable fashion products, ethical fashion purchasing and how those attitudes translate into behaviour when it comes to buying fashion.

“Essentially, the research suggests that where most people are aware of some of the ethical and environmental dilemmas in fashion production and consumption, a desire for new fashion products often has a greater influence on the choice to purchase than sustainability concerns,” she says.

Based on in-depth interviews with a small group of male and female participants, Ms Moore identified three groups of fashion consumer.

Those whose primary fashion concerns centred on newness and rapid turnover of items – ‘self’ consumers – tended to be younger and used fashion to reinforce a particular social identity, according to Associate Professor McNeill.

The second group – ‘social consumers’ – were those who had an awareness of fashion in relation to their social image (what was ‘appropriate’ for their life stage, job, etc.), but were also aware of a strong social drive towards more ethical consumption behaviours, such as reducing, reusing or recycling goods.

The third type of consumers – ‘sacrifice’ consumers – were a small group for whom ethical and environmental concerns drove almost all of their consumption decisions.

"...a desire for new fashion products often has a greater influence on the choice to purchase than sustainability concerns."

“These consumers were heavily involved with researching and considering production practices and brand principles before making fashion purchases. Fashion was treated in the same way that they would treat other consumables.”

The groups revealed distinct and conflicting views toward fast fashion and the subsequent implications for marketing sustainably produced fashion products to each group are, thus, significantly different, says Associate Professor McNeill.

To overcome these barriers and convince consumers to opt for sustainable fashions instead of low-cost, fast fashion, she suggests the fashion industry adopt a new production model which marries the ethics of sustainable production with the benefits of fast fashion.

“These models, centred on developing profitable guidelines for sustainability in mass fashion, may reduce some production costs of sustainable goods whilst maintaining the ‘newness’ principles of fast fashion – the ultimate solution to targeting the bulk of fashion consumers.”

Associate Professor McNeill says the research at this stage is exploratory only and she plans to delve further into the topic to examine self-perception and ethical purchasing behaviours in a fashion context.

Already, though, her findings have caused her to see her own shopping habits in a new light.

“Part of this research involved becoming more familiar with statistics around the disposal of apparel products – understanding the volume of textile waste around the world and how it is dealt with. When you look at these figures, it is certainly a motivation to consider your own consumption from a volume/waste perspective.”


Find out more:

For those looking to better inform themselves about sustainable fashion options, Associate Professor McNeill offers the following resources:

The Ethical Fashion Source Database
A worldwide directory of sustainably produced fashion. It includes sub directories featuring leading sustainable designers and brands, shops and buyers of ethical products, experts, and Global Sourcing Directory of ethical suppliers and manufacturers.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition
A website that provides access to the Higg Index – a suite of assessment tools that standardizes the measurement of the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products across the product lifecycle and throughout the value chain.