Ask a group of people if they'd like to shop more ethically and sustainably, and few would say "no". But ask those same people how much they're prepared to pay extra for their clothing and the answers would vary widely.
This was the experience of an e-commerce personalisation service, Nosto, which surveyed 2000 consumers in the UK and US about their attitudes to sustainable fashion. While more than 50 per cent said they want more brands to act sustainably, only one-third of respondents said they were prepared to pay more to do so.
How much more would you pay for the ethical dress?Credit:Shutterstock
An earlier survey of more than 7000 people aged 16-75 commissioned jointly by the Changing Markets Foundation and the Clean Clothes Campaign found consumers were prepared to pay up to 5 per cent more for ethical fashion.
Curiously, 62 per cent of respondents to the latest survey said they'd actually like a discount for buying ethical goods.
Perhaps it's a symptom of the "Keep Cup culture", where some cafes offer discounts to customers who bring their own cup, that consumers feel they ought to be rewarded for doing good.
If you are paying the same price for your T-shirt as your sandwich, someone or the planet is being exploited for that.
But while bringing your own cup technically reduces the cost to the cafe, thereby making the discount more plausible, the manufacture of ethical fashion is typically more expensive than its conventional counterparts.
'It just costs more to do the right thing'
Along every step of the supply chain there are added costs, from sustainably-sourced yarns to one of the biggest if not the biggest cost: fair wages.
All of this adds up, says Courtney Sanders, co-founder of ethical fashion e-tailer Well Made Clothes.
"Globalisation and fast fashion has created an unrealistic and unsustainable price point for product," Ms Sanders says. "If you are paying the same price for your T-shirt as your sandwich, someone or the planet is being exploited for that. It simply costs more money than that to make a product responsibly."
But shopping ethically needn't be prohibitively expensive if you do your homework, Ms Sanders says, pointing to ethically-made T-shirts available on her website for $40.
And while that may seem expensive to people hooked on $5 T-shirts, it's highly likely the $40 T-shirt will outlast eight $5 ones, so it's a matter of short-term "pain" for long-term gain.
"It’s a difficult message, people are on a budget, and there has been decades of price conditioning that that’s what fashion costs, when really it is not," Ms Sanders says.
Kelly Elkin (left) and Courtney Sanders are the co-founders of Well Made Clothes.
She adds years of "soft" messaging about buying ethically has only yielded mediocre results.
"The best thing we can do is to get very bold and on point with our messaging. For a long time in the ethical fashion world the messaging has been quite soft and wishy-washy because the issues are so complex."
Retail comes to the party
For one of Australia's biggest mainstream retailers, The Iconic, softly is still the preferred approach, says head of sustainability Jaana Quaintance-James.
In April, the site introduced Considered, a portal that allows customers to search for products according a set of ethical and sustainable criteria, including animal welfare and fair labour practices.
It's early days but the signs are promising, says Ms Quaintance-James.
"We’re trying to weave [sustainability] more subtly into what we do on a day-to-day basis, we think that’s a better way of bringing people along on the journey."
She says the target is to convert shoppers who think about shopping sustainably into those who do.
Fast-fashion brand H&M is offering customers vouchers if they return textiles for recycling.Credit:Bloomberg
"It’s the next group along [from the early adopters] who care about these issues but are not acting. Maybe they will see two T-shirts, one is in [sustainable] and they will choose that."
Other retailers rewarding customers for adopting more ethical practices include H&M, which offers customers vouchers for returning old clothes for recycling, while Country Road offers similar incentives for customers who donate goods to the Red Cross.
Ethics … but make it fashion
Ultimately, more people will shop ethically if brands and taste-makers, such as social media influencers, make it cool, says University of Melbourne consumer psychologist Brent Coker.
He explains that fashion is about building "social capital", so people want to know their buying decisions will earn the respect and admiration of their peers.
Dr Coker thinks brands wanting to encourage more customers to shop sustainably should appeal to people's "positive" emotions such as empathy rather than negative feelings such as guilt.
Ms Sanders says the relatively small percentage of people willing to pay more for ethical fashion "is problematic but hopeful. I imagine 29 per cent is a lot higher than it was two years ago … It’s not great but it also indicates a decent percentage of people are starting to actively pay more."
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