In the ongoing battle to try to make consumers more sustainable, statistics are often the weapon of choice. But as for what will actually make shoppers change their everyday behavior and adopt more planet-saving habits, that on-the-ground strategy encompasses more varying directives.
Globally, 73 percent of the materials used to produce clothing are landfilled or burned at the end of their lives, while less than 1 percent of old clothing goes on to be used to make new clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. As part of the group’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, the New York Department of Sanitation, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, collectors, recyclers and resale companies have teamed up for the #WearNext campaign. Their efforts include an online map detailing the NYDoS’s 1,100 drop-off locations where consumers can take clothes they no longer wear. New Yorkers are also being encouraged to repair, resell or swap their old clothes.
While 70 percent of consumers consider their impact on the environment when shopping, only 52 percent of them actually change their purchase decisions, according to A.T. Kearney’s 2019 Earth Day Consumer Sentiments Survey. Half of the 1,000 respondents – across various income levels – indicated that cost is the number-one obstacle in going green. Most consumers hold the private sector to a higher standard than the public one, according to the survey. In the past year, 38 percent of young, environmentally conscious shoppers shifted their purchases toward apparel with environmental benefits and 49 percent believe they will do so in the coming year, the research reported.
This month the Earth Day Network is organizing a 13-city clean-up of green spaces in the U.S. with the help of volunteers and sponsors Burton, Kiehl’s, Dos Gardenias, Toyota and Fetzer. That is just one of a myriad of examples of how ideas are being put into action. To get a better handle on how to execute ideas, rather than just talk about them, WWD turned to 15 resources to see what they think needs to happen for consumers to flip the switch on sustainability.
Sue Allchurch, chief of outreach and engagement for the United Nations Global Compact
This is why I feel the private sector is so fundamental to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals. We can, we do, and we should continue to advocate, to communicate, to illustrate to people and consumers the real issue. I don’t know if people really know that three-fifths of all clothing ends up in an incinerator or a landfill within a year of being bought. The consumers’ understanding and action on plastic is driven by very clear communications. If people really knew that’s what is happening with clothing, it would definitely have an impact.
The fashion industry contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions…But it’s very important, because it employs 60 million people in the supply chain. It’s very important that consumers understand their role in the issue, which is that three-fifths of clothing winds up in landfills or incinerators…Companies respond to people’s requirements but they also drive people’s behavior. The fashion industry needs to make it fashionable and desirable to hold onto your clothes longer. There’s no problem with that. It’s not like that’s business down the drain — it’s just a different business model. There are so many examples that companies that are sustainable and are looking at the long term through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals, are having higher returns; they are attracting more investment. They are outperforming in so many ways
Joel Towers, executive dean of The New School’s Parsons School of Design
I have three different answers. The Nordhaus answer — the Nobel laureate economist William Nordhaus who has been working on climate change for 30 years — would say what’s needed is a carbon tax. That’s the regulatory economic tool that would do it. What Ezio Manzini, the Italian designer from Milan Polytechnic Institute (author of “Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation”) would say is that people need to learn to live better with less. My answer is that we need better design — design that is resilient, ethical, ecological. In other words, consumers aren’t going to make this decision on their own. They’re going to make it when the products, services and systems that they choose from have taken into account the issues of sustainability, and have made the products better. I don’t think we’re going to be able to regulate our way into it the way Nordhaus says. Though I love Ezio’s definition of living better equals living with less, I also think it’s an unlikely scenario for the scale of the change.
Evie Evangelou, founder of Fashion 4 Development
First, I think the word sustainability has been overused and actually the entire subject is confusing to consumers, as well as for the industry. Many are going along with it, because it seems to be what is expected of them. But the question is, “Do they really understand the reality?” We must take action to create proper awareness and educate both the industry and consumers regarding how to live a responsible lifestyle to create a sustainable future for our planet and humanity.
Paul Dillinger, vice president of innovation for Levi’s
I want to win [consumers over based] on relevance and style, and Levi’s just looking great. I don’t necessarily like the idea of using sustainability marketing issues to guilt people into more consumption. For me, it’s just about authenticity and relevance. At this moment in time, we’re finding that the conversation about sustainability is relevant. We are in small ways and in authentic ways letting the consumer know that’s what we stand for.
Cara Smyth, founder of the Fair Fashion Center and vice president of Glasgow Caledonian New York College
If sustainability feels sad and takes the joy out of shopping, it’s more difficult to get consumers to engage. If it’s about, “I feel powerful, because I’m making a responsible choice, which is about wellness for myself and others in the supply chain,” then it feels like a feel-good decision. The more innovation that comes into sustainable materials and the more options there are will also be important. If you want to shop for sustainability, as many people say, there’s not one piece that’s actually sustainable. So, the word itself is difficult. But there are products from Levi’s Water<Less, Stella McCartney, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher. There should be a broader array of products that people can understand and are responsibly made. As information becomes made available with a positive narrative that will allow for a shift in consumer behavior. Innovation is catching up with what we want it to be.
Livia Firth, cofounder and creative director of Eco-Age and founder of the Green Carpet Challenge
Information! We are all becoming more aware of the social, environmental and economic impacts of the products that we buy — from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. By telling the stories behind the products they sell, retailers can empower their customers to make informed purchasing choices and choose pieces that align with their values. That’s why I love working with Matchesfashion.com. They have a global platform and an engaged audience with whom they can share the stories behind their pieces. Matchesfashion.com is unique as they stock such a wide range of luxury brands; from Gucci to emerging design talent like Kevin Germanier, a Swiss designer that sources most of his materials from landfills all over the world (although you would never know it to look at his beautiful pieces). We have been working closely with the buying team at Matches to engage with all of their brands (over 800) to extract stories from across their supply chains, which we hope to share with the end customer as we think true luxury is knowing the story behind what you wear.
Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good
In the Fashion for Good museum, we’re doing three things. Most importantly, we’re starting to educate visitors about what the challenges currently are in the world of fashion in a positive way. Because you can get overwhelmed and disengaged after reading all these potential negative dimensions. Secondly, we’re trying to use stories about our innovators who are providing amazing solutions and are dedicating their lives to research and change in the world of fashion on the environmental and social sides. Thirdly, we’re trying to give them some real practical advice that allows them to take action. Using a RFID-bracelet throughout the experience, they learn how to make choices, what to think about when making choices, how to use or reuse their garments. We also follow up with them on e-mail to check up on them and continue to give them advice. People need to know about the why, the what and the how…and then you need to inspire them — that could be through innovators, entrepreneurs, role models. Every player in the industry — every brand — could follow those same approaches. Think of Adidas with Parley for the Oceans. Educational institutions can play a role…People can also follow those topics online in the digital space.
Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standards Institute
While there is a lot of talk about sustainability, it’s unclear how much of those efforts are moving the needle from a science-based perspective. What we’re really looking to do is to develop networks and links to environmental groups, and ones that support women and labor to bring those folks [and others] into the fold. The strategy is to bring in the broader environmental and social movement into the fashion space, which has so far been quite siloed in its work.
Within fashion circles, we basically know what the challenges are. The average thoughtful consumer or thoughtful influencer doesn’t know these things. What we did in launching NSI was to look at other industries and how did they make strides? How did the agricultural and food industries make great movement? How has the auto industry begun to address its challenges to electric cars? There were stories that were out there about what the problems were. Then there were great companies that were helping to create a new path. The same thing has not been done in the fashion space. The stories of what the challenges are and how our clothing, and clothing purchases, connect to the problems of climate change, of water pollution and of global poverty have not been told. Part of what still needs to happen in order for consumers to be engaged is that they know there is a challenge and that they can do something through their shopping behavior by addressing it.
Mary Ping, designer
There will need to have more emotional triggers and relatable anecdotes. For example, everyone can relate to the nightmare of delayed flights and chaos at the airport, as a result of extreme weather conditions. That would be a great illustration of climate change. If you don’t want to be stuck in purgatory of long rebooking lines, take action towards healing the environmental damages of climate change.
Yeohlee Teng, designer
Cash incentives are effective, whether it’s a credit when you use your own bag shopping or bring your own container for coffee at Stumptown [Coffee Roasters]. Also, consumers can step up to the plate by looking in their own closets at what they own and what they actually need, before they make another purchase just because it is marketed as a sustainable product.
Jussara Lee, designer
Most people, who are aware of the negative impact clothes production have on the environment, are looking for options to change their consuming habits. We, as designers, business owners and trendsetters, have the responsibility to offer them some creative alternatives. Here, at Jussara Lee, we are innovating the way consumers relate to their clothes through handwork and artisanship. Patching, creative mending, hand embroidery, wood carving and natural dyes are some of the approaches used to illustrate the possibilities available to revive their existing clothes. We believe that through beauty, we can assist people to make the switch to sustainability a pleasant, luxurious and fun experience.
Julie Gilhart, industry consultant
Really, it begins with why you want to be sustainable and why you want to be better in your actions…It’s so easy to start to do small things. There are plenty of lists out there. You can start to reduce. Reduce the use of plastics, which is huge. Just get rid of the plastics in your life, which is so hard to do. Essentially, plastic is not so recyclable. Even as a recyclable they’re still giving off micro-plastics. Micro-plastics have become a huge issue in the environment. It’s going into our ocean and our food chain.
Then start to think about your purchases. Who are you buying from, who are you supporting and what is the circularity of everything? If I buy this, where is it going to go? Maybe it goes back on The RealReal. Or if I bought it at Eileen Fisher, I can take it back to Eileen Fisher and she’ll do something with it. Changing your consciousness is the real thing. And knowing this is not easy — as Al Gore said, it’s inconvenient — so start with baby steps. If you’re in a family, get your family involved. Make it a group effort.
Dosa designer Christina Kim
Consumers should look for information to see if it aligns with their philosophy.
Jeanine Ballone, managing director, Fashion 4 Development
For all students, faculty and industry participants to become the agents of change, they need to take a leadership role in their buying practices and behaviors to help create new, actionable practices that the brands and supply chain must be forced to follow due to economic pressure.
Roopa Pemmaraju, designer
Consumers need to buy the right product. It’s easy to buy fast fashion at a low rate. Obviously, it’s harming the environment and is not biodegradable. Consumers should not buy more, but buy less, which would protect the environment. Looking at the label to see where a product is made and how a product is made is important. Obviously we cannot educate everybody about how to get into this process, but it is step by step. Today’s socially conscious women are buying less and my own customers have been asking about how they might re-dye a dress into a different color or redo it in some way [to update it after years of use despite the garment being in good condition]. A product that is sustainable can be used for many years to come, by modernizing it and reusing it. When you look at the life of a fast-fashion item, it may be used five to 10 times because it becomes faded or unusable. But then what happens to that? It goes back in the trash.