The rise of ethical fashion: conscious clothing.

Posted by Joe Leeder on the 12th September, 2019
Those who buy clothes frequently are significantly more likely to be in favour of a penny tax than those who don’t buy as frequently. There is clearly a desire amongst these buyers to help promote ethical fashion; the penny tax is perhaps appealing as it offers an easier way for frequent buyers to feel better about spending their money.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in 2019. So far this year, we have already seen Glastonbury lead the way as a plastic-free festival, beach clean-ups have filled our social media feeds, and sustainability-led movements such as Extinction Rebellion have made headlines globally. As we wrote back in January , the ‘conscious consumer’ is on the rise. As a result of these widely documented issues, consumers are becoming more and more aware of sustainability and how damaging certain industries are to the environment.

We are increasingly seeing the effects of this in the fashion industry. With growing awareness amongst the average consumer about how ‘fast fashion’ is harmful to workers and the environment, fashion retailers are starting to take action. Back in April, ASOS amended its returns policy, which now threatens to ‘take action’ if they spot an ‘unusual pattern’ – clamping down on serial returners. While the move was partially motivated by business performance, they also noted that it was a step towards ensuring that their ‘returns remain sustainable for us and for the environment’.

To explore consumers’ attitudes towards sustainability and ethics within the clothing industry further, we partnered with Retail Week using our data from the Walnut Omnibus to survey 2000 GB adults. We looked to understand what consumers are most concerned by in fashion and which brands are leading the way in becoming more ethical.

Which brands are ethical?
With the sustainability movement going from strength to strength, brands are striving to alleviate their perceived negative impact on society in an attempt to get ahead of the curve. Certain brands have already engrained ethical practices at the heart of their strategy, and our results show that this has had a positive impact on their perception.

Given that the M&S and John Lewis brands both have a heavy focus on ethical production, it comes as no surprise that these came out as the front-runners when we asked consumers which retailers they found to be the most ethical. This is especially true amongst older audiences.

Primark, in third place, may come as a surprise to some. However, we know that Primark has tried to reposition itself as an ethical retailer over the past 2 years by releasing factory statistics in a bid to promote transparency. Meanwhile, they have also introduced sustainable clothing ranges. This appears to have had a big impact amongst the 18-24 year old audience, 33% of which claim that Primark are ethical. That said, there is still work to be done amongst other age groups.



Brands such as ASOS, Zara, Boohoo and H&M may have to work harder to create a better ethical perception. Despite the fact that they have already introduced ethical clothing ranges to promote sustainability, these brands don’t feature highly in the list of ethical retailers. We asked consumers if they’d heard of any of these brands having ethical ranges – awareness of these ranges is low with 78% not knowing any of the ethical ranges these brands offer. With 56% of people saying they are likely to buy from an ethical clothing range within a shop that they currently shop in, there is a consideration-awareness gap that needs to be explored.

The data suggests that this is largely driven by a lack of awareness of these ethical clothing ranges. When asked, three quarters (78%) of consumers were unaware of any of the ethical ranges presented to them. With 56% of people saying they are likely to buy from an ethical clothing range from a retailer that they currently shop with, there is a good opportunity for brands to capitalise on if they can reach out to the conscious consumer.

What are consumers concerned about?
Nevertheless, sustainability in fashion is very complex. Our research also highlighted that while it is one thing to introduce an ethical clothing range or amend a returns policy, it is another to ensure that the entire production process is sustainable and ethical.

Clothes going to landfill, overconsumption of clothing, and the carbon footprint of the fashion industry came out as key themes amongst consumers, with around a third saying that they are concerned about these issues.

However, perhaps most pressingly for brands is the fact that consumers’ biggest concern with the fashion industry is the factory conditions for workers (55%). Environmental concerns may well be the most documented in the media of late, but this does not detract from our innate human concern for other people.

These findings serve as a reminder that there is a lot to be done for a brand wishing to be perceived as being more ethical and sustainable.

Penny tax – making things easier for consumers?
Despite voiced concerns from consumers when it comes to ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry, we know that this isn’t always reflected in their shopping behaviour. Behavioural economics can help us to explain some of the reasoning for this.

As humans we feel social pressure to conform to attitudes that are widely held by society, often outwardly claiming we support these causes, even if we do not behave in-line with these views. This is called the social desirability effect. It would appear that this is at play in the clothing industry, with big brands such as Topshop and Boohoo continuing to perform well despite a relatively low ethical perception.

We also know that while ethical initiatives are important to consumers in principle, people don’t often easily deviate from their personal default behaviour. This is known as status quo bias.

Behavioural economics tells us that in order to start something new and to overcome the preference for entrenched habits, we should start with the simplest form of desired new behaviour. The penny tax proposed by a group of MPs earlier, which would add a penny to the cost of each new garment to fund recycling and discourage ‘fast fashion’, is one way which this could work in practice.

Instead of asking consumers to rethink their entire ethical approach to shopping, getting people to pay a penny tax on clothing reduces the cognitive and behavioural demand on customers, making it easy for them to engage in ethical clothing as a first small step.

In fact, our research found that almost two thirds of people would pay a penny tax, 5% higher than those claiming they would buy from ethical clothing ranges. Those who buy clothes frequently are significantly more likely to be in favour of a penny tax than those who don’t buy as frequently. Since there is clearly a desire amongst these buyers to help promote ethical fashion, the penny tax is perhaps appealing as it offers an easier way for frequent buyers to feel better about spending their money.

The need for human understanding in the fashion industry.
It is clear to see that there is growing concern around sustainability and ethical production. This is perhaps especially the case in the fashion industry, where concerns around ‘fast fashion’ are gaining traction. That said, there is work to be done on two fronts for this concern to pay dividends.

Firstly, consumers are saying that they are interested in ethical production, but often they are unaware of clothing ranges that are already available. There is untapped potential here for brands to capitalise on, whilst increasing their sustainable credentials at the same time.

Secondly, as humans we are reluctant to change our behaviour. There is clearly concern towards the impacts of the fashion industry, but we find it difficult to translate this into action. Small steps are necessary, and the reception to the proposed penny tax indicates that these would be better received than wholesale change.

At Walnut Unlimited, our Retail team can help to gauge how consumers perceive your brand, and to uncover how best to influence human behaviour. In the changing landscape of the fashion industry, a little human understanding can go a long way.

Meet the Author: Joe Leeder
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