As the fashion industry continues to make moves to expand “sustainable fashion,” the concept remains far from mainstream. In recent months especially, consumer reports have shown demand, and even a distaste for non-sustainable brands, though the real change has yet to be made.
For Patrick Fagan, behavioral scientist, chief scientific officer at the behavioral science agency Capuchin, and lecturer at Goldsmiths and London College of Fashion, shaking up buying behavior starts with fashion brands.
While consumers are making the “demand” for sustainability, Fagan notes they can also be “busy, distracted and apathetic, making sub-optimal decisions for their long-term wellbeing.” And knowing this, Fagan says, it behooves the institutions to “nudge the [consumer] into sustainable behavior.” Meaning, ultimately, “the move toward sustainability ought to be led from the top-down — by the big companies producing fashion products, and by the culture-makers and influencers in the industry.”
“Behavioral science tells us that behavioral change is largely the result of two systems: an implicit, evaluative system, and an explicit, reflective system,” Fagan said. “The problem to date is that sustainability has largely relied on the reflective system: rational, education messages have emphasized an abstract danger to other people in the future. This is necessary but probably not sufficient.”
“People say they care about sustainability, but their behavior rarely follows suit,” Fagan said. “It’s too much effort to shop elsewhere, and emotional, concrete, present-focused concerns are weighted more heavily. People care more about looking attractive and cool than they do about pesticides, say.”
According to Fagan, messaging and interventions need to tap into the emotional brain. He notes that research has also shown that people will be more environmentally friendly when shown an identifiable victim, over statistics. “There is a large attitude-behavior gap identified in social psychology, particularly with respect to the environment,” Fagan said.
Many argue that a circular economy is the key to moving forward for fashion, where non-consumable goods would stay inside the economy rather than being discarded. “We ought to circularize the economy because there are only limited resources with which new products can be made,” Fagan said. “And production and distribution of new products use further non-renewable resources as well as producing pollutants.”
Fagan notes that while some things are much more important than profits, “a circularized economy can be good for the bottom line [too] by reducing material and production costs.”
“Brands and retailers are responding appropriately, by hiring data scientists to better predict and reduce resource usage and waste, for example, and by reducing carbon emissions,” Fagan said. “However, a lot of social justice by brands is quite surface level — more about ads than systemic change — and for consumers, it’s the same — more about Instagram posts than behaving differently.”
“There may be an interesting point about how superficial versus meaningful signaling and can influence consumer behavior. For example, in food, where “sugar-free” was a thing for a while: it then became “fat-free,” where they just pump it full of sugar instead, and people respond to that because it’s easier to understand compared to more accurate — but complex and detailed — indicators of food healthiness.”
From a behavioral science stance, what is holding brands back from adjusting for lasting sustainability is people’s natural aversion to risk and loss, noted Fagan. “This is a hardwired principle, which has kept us alive in our evolutionary history, but which may be maladaptive today,” Fagan said. “Another hardwired principle is our urge to conserve cognitive and physical resources — that is, to be lazy. Thus, we tend to stick with the status quo rather than putting effort into doing new things.”
“Change may come if acting unsustainably is made to be seen as uncool or shameful,” Fagan said. “I wonder whether sustainability can ever be cool while it’s so fully embraced — and enforced — by the establishment.”
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