If sustainability is so “in,” why aren’t more people buying ethically made clothes? The past few decades have changed the shape of the apparel industry. A few iconic media scandals over child labor and sweatshop labor have made Western shoppers sensitive to certain social responsibility topics. People are willing to pay 5 percent more for a product to ensure that it was made under ethical working conditions. The rise of conscious consumption has created new consumer markets in which labels such as fair trade, organic and “made in USA” comingle and overlap.
But Americans are buying and throwing away 80 pounds of clothes per person per year, contributing to a massive global textile waste problem. Fast-fashion brands’ attractive prices have changed how we shop and value our clothes.
Factories, pressured to produce goods quickly, neglect worker safety and the impacts of dyeing, cutting and sewing the next batch of trendy clothes. The Rana Plaza factory collapse left 1,137 people dead because garment workers were working overtime in a building that hadn’t passed structural inspections. For months, nonprofit groups and consumers protested outside stores, and culpable and non-culpable brands that did and did not source from that factory formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to ensure this wouldn’t happen again.
You would think that consumers would react by avoiding brands such as Primark and Joe Fresh, which were linked to the accident and admonished by the media. However, only three months after the incident, Primark reported a 20 percent increase in sales.
A disconnect exists between how people want to buy their clothes—in a manner that reflects their values—and how they actually buy their clothes. And this isn’t new. More than 20 years of polling has shown that a large majority of Americans say that they would gladly buy a sustainable or ethical product, but less than 10 percent of them actually do.
What gets in the way of us putting our money where our mouth is?
Science can explain why: Shopping makes us feel good enough to ignore our ethics, and it’s hard to turn down a good deal. The pleasure areas of the brain light up when we’re pursuing something we want, and once we’ve invested time, energy and money, sunk cost bias makes it hard for us to let go of the item we’ve grown attached to during the search.
Fast fashion plays into our neurological pathways by giving us not only the pleasure from the act of looking for clothes but also the pleasure of getting a good bargain. A University of Michigan study found that the price of an item or how much a person liked it didn’t alone explain the amount of pleasure experienced during shopping. It was how much the person liked it and what he or she paid for it. So when a shopper finds a top at Zara that fits well, sees that it only costs $19.99, and remembers the news story of a Zara customer finding a note from an unpaid factory worker sewed into the clothes, he or she faces a decision: Do I buy this shirt from a questionably responsible company, or do I keep looking for an option that matches my values?
We lose most people at this point—even if they claim to be sustainability oriented—because it takes too much effort to change how we shop and to find another option that matches our budget, style and body type. So we just ignore or forget about the news of human rights violations and carry on with our lives.
We also tend not to feel pressure to change our behavior if it is culturally appropriate. If our peers are paying for ethically sourced clothes, we’re more likely to do the same. If they’re not, we are unlikely to change our behavior, because the risk of not changing is minimal. This suggests that until the majority of people pay a premium for ethically sourced clothing, most people will not change how they shop.
Also, we’re not really telling the whole truth when we answer pollsters. Our need to present ourselves in the best possible light causes us to respond inaccurately to sensitive-topic questions. It’s a response bias referred to as the social desirability bias.
How can we do better?
Brands need to tell better stories during the shopping experience to get consumers to make more ethical decisions. The group Fashion Revolution ran a social experiment to test the effect of information at the point of purchase of cheap, unethically made clothes. They installed a vending machine that sold t-shirts for 2 euros. Before the t-shirt was dispensed, the customers learned how that low-price point came to be: Garment workers in developing countries spent up to 16 hours a day in the factory and earned as little as 13 cents per hour. After receiving this information, the customers could opt to continue with the purchase or donate the 2 euros. Nobody in the experiment followed through with the purchase. Honest but emotional information presented at the point of purchase could influence consumer behavior.
We could create more conscious shoppers if we educate them about what to ask for specifically. On average, prices need to increase by 1 to 3 percent on individual garments to provide a living wage and safer working conditions, and consumers can pressure their favorite brands to make those changes.
Consumers who want businesses to act responsibly need to communicate their expectations to their favorite brands. Brands can better tell stories that support consumers’ willingness to pay fair prices for goods. A little nudging both ways will help build a more sustainable fashion system that doesn’t degrade our environment and upholds everyone in it, from garment worker to consumer.