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Behavior Change
Validating Sustainable Consumption Research:
We Don't Know What We Don't Know

Research on sustainable consumption has boomed since the mid 2000s. The rise of social media as a tool for interaction with, and scrutiny of, brands has increased consumer interest in sustainability, alternative products and lifestyle.

Research on sustainable consumption has boomed since the mid 2000s. The rise of social media as a tool for interaction with, and scrutiny of, brands has increased consumer interest in sustainability, alternative products and lifestyle. It is therefore logical that marketing research has also progressively focused on understanding and characterising these new purchasing and consumption patterns.

In sight of eight years' worth of sometimes contradictory reports, papers and research, the key questions though are: Which among these results are accurate and confirmed? Which ones are but accidental or one-off?

As these results are assumed to be a reflection of the markets and eventually influence a corporation's strategic and operational business decisions to a critical degree, it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between validated, confirmed research and incidental results.

Validating available research on sustainable consumption, assessing results and finding commonalities among them is a recognised academic method to ascertain which of the results can be accepted as proven, and hence a valid characterisation of these consumers.

For this purpose, the recently released Better Consumer in Europe report, by fashion industry think tank Texsture, consolidated, analysed and assessed the results of nearly 60 studies and papers on sustainable consumption, particularly in textile and fashion.

The relevance of the report's outcome is therefore twofold: First, it identifies research results across some 60 studies that can be considered proven and valid; and second, it identifies results that could not be validated and must therefore be considered anecdotal outcomes and of little strategic use to companies.

The validation shows that the following statements can be considered proven and accurate. The Better Consumer:

  • Is neither purposely ethical nor unethical. Purchasing decisions are made as a response to very particular needs and choices related to the range of products available, and therefore purchasing decisions are not based on a premeditated ethical intent.
  • Relies on, and generally trusts, product labels, as well as certification and accreditation labels for better products. The level of knowledge about a specific label and certification correlates with the level of trust consumers have in a specific label.
  • Finds that sufficient information and comparable price/quality ratios of products are still not available to them. Further, the product label jungle, particularly in fashion, does not help to remedy this situation, and none give sufficient support to consumers in their purchasing decisions.
  • Values convenience and pragmatism as key factors when shopping, therefore consumers would like to see more sustainable products in mainstream retail.
  • Believes that buying locally equals buying more sustainably, for 2 reasons: One, because they can give back to their national economies; and two, because they assume that national regulation enforces social and environmental responsibility.

However, more important and relevant are without doubt the presumably proven insights of past research, which could not be validated:

  • Consumers ignore 'green claims' of corporations. Quite to the contrary, the vast majority is conscious of companies' claims. But they feel that green-washing is prolific. They hence require tangible proofs for any claims to influence their purchasing behaviour.
  • Consumers ignore the problems inherent in global 'fast fashion' supply chains. This is an impression that many global brands have but which is distinctly incorrect. Consumers are aware of the in-transparency and challenges. They however feel powerless to address these issues in their role as consumers.
  • Consumers do not demand and do not care about 'better products.' This is simply inaccurate. Consumers are on the look out for better products but feel that producers are inattentive to either their specific needs or demands.
  • For consumers, price is all that counts. In the discussion about better products, far too long the balance between quality, credentials and their proofs and price has been ignored. Often either quality or proof of credentials was lacking, leading to consumers unwilling to even consider price variations.
  • Consumers are unwilling to collaborate with companies. To the contrary, many consumers are quite keen to engage with companies and share their insights and knowledge with them. The motivation exists to an extent that as far as consumers are interested in a product and trust a brand, no further incentives are needed.

Finally, for some areas the results of the Better Consumer report's meta-analysis did not allow for a definite conclusion. Knowledge gaps where further methodical research is required are:

  • Are consumers really willing to pay a premium for better products? Existing research disagrees on this aspect. There exist two primary and equally probably outcomes:

◦ Consumers would be happy to pay between 10% and 20% more if products carried proof of either social and/or environmental credentials.

◦ Consumers are not ready to pay a premium as they expect companies to produce responsibly in first place.

  • Do consumers really boycott the products of unethical corporations? Word of mouth is the single most powerful information channel consumers rely on. It is the source of consumers' critical stance with regards to green claims, as it provides them with proofs and information that such claims are untrue, and that companies purposely act contradictorily to claims. It is also known that negative information about a company influences consumer behaviour more than positive information, and attachment to a brand attenuates judgements of unethical behaviour.

But would consumers go as far as boycott products of unethical corporations? If so, what would be the ultimate trigger of a boycott?

  • Do consumers really want to be informed about corporations’ sustainability strategies and programmes? Existing studies result in opposite claims: Consumers requesting such information in some cases and rejecting it in others.

  • Do European consumers really care to buy 'Made in Europe'? The answer here is incoherent, and depends on the type of product and country. For example: Italy seems generally be less inclined to buy Made in Italy than the UK. However, when it comes to leather goods and fashion, Italians have a higher preference for products made within in their own country than the British.

Among the validated research outcomes, the fact that consumers are looking at locally made products as more sustainable is one of the most interesting — not only because locally made products are not necessarily ethical by default but also because this triggers a whole world of opportunities not only for national but also regional economies. Ultimately, not only the usual “made in Italy” or “made in France” fashion will be appealing. Certainly, a trend worth watching.

Ilaria Pasquinelli will be speaking on the risks and opportunities that sustainability presents for the fashion industry at Sustainable Brands Istanbul — May 16-17, 2013.