Why people 'care', but don't act.

This article, in the context of sustainable fashion, is about intentions. The reason people say they give a shit, but their actions don’t reflect their words. In academic circles, this flaky behavior is referred to as the ‘Value Action Gap’ of sustainability. 

What this article is not is a deep dive into the human psyche, or a paper on behavioral science - we are a fashion brand, after all. That being said, it is important to understand that there are numerous factors that influence the purchase behavior of someone, and whether or not that person will buy more sustainably, or won’t.

One of them is their personal values. If you are reading this then you are probably among those who will buy more sustainably because it’s the right thing to do. Because you care, and you want to stick it to fast fashion for fucking up our planet. Same. If ‘it’s the right thing to do’ doesn’t cut it for them, then maybe they’re buying more sustainably because they perceive those products to be of better quality. Also a good reason.

But if someone’s behavior is not driven by either of those values, then how do we convince them to buy more sustainably? How can we scale sustainable fashion?

Answering the question ‘what’s in it for me?’.

When we compare the sustainable fashion movement to that of sustainable/organic food, we find many similarities. For one, they both cater to fulfill basic human needs, and do so by fighting to reduce their negative impacts on the environment. This dictates which raw resources they use, as well as how humans, animals, and other organisms are treated along each step of their supply chains. 

The one thing that the organic food movement was able to figure out relatively quickly though - and sustainable fashion still hasn’t - was the answer to one very simple yet critical question: ‘What’s in it for me?’.

And the answer is.. 

Health benefits - tangible, noticeable, and directly beneficial to the person who decides to spend a little extra on food that is produced more sustainably. You are what you eat. It’s exactly this personal appeal which helped the sustainable food movement break out of this ‘conscious club’ bubble that sustainable fashion is still struggling to get out of. With that said, sustainable food and agriculture still has a looong way to go, but at least it found a way to appeal to people with more than just ‘it’s the right thing to do’.

After all, asking the average consumer to spend €40 on a more sustainably produced white T-shirt instead of €10 on a white T-shirt that was produced by a fast fashion brand under questionable labor conditions, simply ‘because it’s the right thing to do’, is not a very strong argument. Some would call it hopeful, at best. And that’s because to the average consumer, spending an additional €30 on something that looks pretty much identical will not create a noticeable difference in their lives. Yes, it will make a difference in far-away places, and to people they will never meet, but all they would get for spending that extra money is a metaphorical pat on the back and the gratification of having done something good - given that it is in line with their personal values.

So what can brands do to provide more tangible customer value in exchange for buying more sustainably?

As mentioned above, an obvious answer is backing up the higher price point with substantially better quality. High quality products last longer, and in general, people tend to take better care of things when they are more expensive. After all, the most sustainable thing one can do is to wear their clothes for as long as possible, and not to buy new clothes at all.

More specific behavior, like recycling their old clothes, can be encouraged through providing monetary incentives for certain actions. The Netherlands has been doing this via the Statiegeld (deposit) on bottles for years, and we did the same thing with Full Circle, in order to re-define the perception of value when it comes to garments and textiles. With a circular infrastructure, old garments are still a valuable resource, and by rewarding people for keeping them in circulation will make them less likely to look at old clothes as disposable; a fast fashion mentality that we have this industry’s big ass waste problem to thank for.

If it takes too much of my time, I ain’t doing it

None of this matters though, unless it is made ultra convenient for people. Nowadays we are used to fast, on-demand, low effort services and processes. Our initial research for the Full Circle SWAP model showed that even if people could get money back for returning old garments, they wouldn’t do it if it cost too much of their time.

Are these value incentives for purchasing more sustainably produced fashion equally as strong as the scientifically backed fact that eating healthier will make you live longer? Probably not. But it’s a start. A step toward getting people to consider the benefits of a much needed system change within fashion. 

Now, we are not saying that the responsibility of solving the world’s sustainability problem lies with consumers rather than with brands and governments (this debate, no doubt, deserves its own article). It is, however, fair to say that the behavior of individuals does drive societal change, whether it’s through an adoption of certain lifestyle changes, technologies, support for environmental policies, or all of the above.

So that’s why we find it important to talk about these things. And if you come up with other ways to get the masses on board, be sure to let us know. We’re in this together, after all.