The 2008 Presidential Election is still months away, but consumers are already casting their votes on a wealth of quasi-political issues. Take the collective ecoconsciousness, recently raised to new heights by a high volume of green marketing messages. The importance of individual contributions to the environment is clear, but the nomenclature used to rate a garment’s green-ness remains murky to most consumers. These term limits have resulted in shoppers electing to buy based on price and natural instinct.

Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a Miami-based retail consulting firm, says, “The number one trend in 2007 was ‘green is good.’ People are interested in green, sustainable products.” Brands and retailers are interested, too. From big box to boutique, apparel retailers are all increasing their eco-friendly inventories.

Gap Inc., for example, employs a lot of cotton in its product offering, which is why the company joined the Better Cotton Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort started by the World Wildlife Fund and the International Finance Corporation to promote environmentally, socially and economically sustainable cotton cultivation practices, globally.

“Gap Inc., is always exploring innovative, socially responsible ways to make our products,” says Erica Archambault, spokesperson. “We’re exploring the use of sustainable fibers and products — whether that means new fabrics for our products, unusual materials for our packaging and store display fixtures, or new approaches to building construction.”

The fact that retailers large and small are taking environmental issues so seriously is a good thing. The marketing associated with these laudable initiatives, however, is proving too much of a good thing for many shoppers, who are faced with a litany of often bewildering terms. Stores have become classrooms of sorts, especially where eco-friendly fashion is concerned. Monitor data indicate that nearly two-thirds of consumers identify the retail environment as the source of information related to a garment’s environmental impact.

The lesson that consumers have learned is that there is a lot of terminology out there. In the recent Cotton Incorporated’s Consumer Environmental Survey, American men and women were presented with a series of widely-used green marketing terms. Four out of ten respondents freely admitted to having no idea what the terms “sustainable agriculture” and “renewable” meant. While these two terms were the most confounding, respondents demonstrated uncertainty about all descriptive words and phrases.

With a high degree of corporate commitment to the environmental cause, the unexpected effect has been a sharp decline in consumers seeking out green garments. The Monitor finds that since 2000, there has actually been a 4 percent point drop (from 34 percent to 22 percent) in the number of consumers who find environmental friendliness an important aspect of an apparel purchase decision. When asked how they would feel if they purchased a product they thought to be organic and then later discovered it was not, 60 percent of respondents said they “might be bothered, but would do nothing,” 21 percent said they “would not be bothered,” and just 19 percent said “they’d be bothered enough to complain about it,” according to the survey.

Amount of Effort Spent Looking for Environmentally-Friendly Clothing
  Male Female
10 – A Lot of Effort 2% 4%
9 1% 2%
8 3% 3%
7 5% 6%
6 7% 4%
5 10% 15%
4 6% 5%
3 7% 6%
2 10% 7%
1 6% 6%
0 – None 44% 43%

Men expended the least energy in finding eco-friendly apparel. According to the Monitor, only 2 percent of male respondents admitted to spending a lot of time on the quest, while 44 percent said they spent no time at all on the effort.

What is motivating today’s consumer is price. Eighty-one percent of respondents to the Monitor cite price as the key motivating factor to apparel purchasing decisions; a 13-year high. These results echo another conducted jointly by Cotton Incorporated and the Organic Trade Association in 2003. Then, as now, the key factors influencing purchase are price, fit, style and color. Consumers’ natural instincts are guiding them not only to good deals, but to a very natural fiber — cotton.

According to the Monitor, more than two-thirds of consumers surveyed perceive cotton as natural; and, whether opting for organic or conventionally-grown cotton, the consumer is right. A fiber made from organic cotton and one of cotton grown using modern agricultural developments are essentially the same. What differs is the way they are cultivated, and both methods have environmental plus sides.

“Cotton remains a natural choice for apparel and home textiles,” says Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive officer of Cotton Incorporated. “Today, organic and conventionally- grown cotton provide consumers with two environmentally-sound alternatives to products made from chemical fibers.”

Organic cotton is grown under strict United States Department of Agriculture guidelines concerning land preparation and allows for few, if any, applications of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers. This method tends to use more land and water, and the crop yields account for a scant 0.1 percent of global production. This scarcity may also account for a higher cost at retail, as much as 50 percent more, in fact.

On the other hand, more mainstream cotton cultivation methods have significantly reduced their environmental impact in recent years. The advent of insect-resistant strains of cotton and high-tech pesticide monitoring systems have made applications fewer and more precise. Drought-resistant cotton strains and advanced irrigation monitoring have dramatically decreased the amount of water the industry uses to grow cotton. These reductions have also contributed to lower greenhouse emissions from farm machinery, according to a recent peerreviewed study by PG Economics Ltd. And, as a bonus, there is a lot more conventionally-grown cotton available, which makes it both environmentally- and consumer-friendly.

At this stage in green marketing history, mainstream consumers are voters trying to understand the issues presented by the range of fiber candidates. As marketing messages and terms become clearer to consumers, so too will their choices for apparel that is sustainable not only to the environment, but to their own, personal economies.

This story is one in a series of articles based on findings from Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitortracking research. Appearing monthly in these pages, each story will focus on a specific topic as it relates to the American men’s wear consumer and his attitudes and behavior regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, fiber selection and many other timely, relevant subjects.

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