Fashion and environmental damage: how can we help consumers become more aware? #778


The production of textiles, whose primary use is in the fashion industry, has been rising steadily since the turn of the century. From nearly 60 million tonnes a year in 2000, this has risen to nearly 110 million tonnes in 2020, with forecasts estimating volumes at nearly 130 million tonnes a year in 2025 and nearly 150 million tonnes in 2030.

This exponential growth is deeply worrying because the production of textiles has multiple impacts: on the climate, with a proven contribution to global warming; on biodiversity, due to deforestation practices, overexploitation of the soil and pollution of the air, soil and water; and on the well-being and health of people working in the industry, with risks relating to health and safety in the workplace, job insecurity and even proven cases of non-compliance with labour law, human rights and children’s rights.

To remedy these impacts of textile production, some brands in the fashion industry are seeking to respect the principles of sustainable development. They use production methods that are less harmful to the environment, animals and people.

In concrete terms, these commitments lead brands to favour natural textile materials that are less polluting (organic cotton) and require less water (linen, hemp), recycled textile materials (although their production has its limits), materials that respect animal welfare – for example, those labelled responsible wool standard (RWS) – or even alternatives to animal materials (for example, Piñatex made from pineapple to avoid the use of leather).

Across the board, these commitments also lead brands to favour materials produced in Europe or abroad in compliance with ethical charters. For example, the Loom brand mainly offers cotton clothing, but also linen and wool. The cotton and linen are certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), while the wool is certified “mulesing-free” (i.e. without the surgical practice of removing the skin around the tail of sheep, which is a form of animal abuse). The linen is grown in France, the cotton in India, the materials are woven in Italy and the clothes are made in Portugal.

Between lack of knowledge and guilt

As far as consumers are concerned, a growing interest in these brands and products is reflected in their purchasing intentions. For example, 64% of French people say they are ready to buy clothes containing natural, recycled or labelled fibres, and 65% say that brands’ commitment to sustainable development is an important criterion when it comes to buying clothes.

At the same time, however, it is clear that consumers lack knowledge about textile materials and their impacts, or are even unaware of them, although a number do feel negative or even guilty about their clothing purchases, particularly for fast fashion.

In a recent study, we set out to understand how people can become more aware of the impact of textiles on living things. Based on 21 interviews conducted in consumers’ homes in France, in two stages and 6 months apart, we identified two levels of awareness and explained how consumers can move from one to the other.

At the first level, known as access awareness, or phenomenal awareness, consumers ‘know’ what cotton is: they know the sensations associated with this material, they can talk about it, but this is not necessarily accompanied by a conceptualisation of the impact of this material on living beings.

At the second, higher level, known as reflexive awareness, consumers make judgements, often of a moral nature, about their own actions. In the case of textiles, this means taking into account the ethical issues associated with the materials, in two ways:

The durability of the garment, in other words the extent to which the textile materials help to “make the garment last”. For example, someone who buys cotton because they think it holds up well over time.
The impact on the living world, in other words the consequences of the production of textile materials on the environment, animals and people. For example, someone who buys organic cotton because they know it requires fewer pesticides than conventional cotton, or who prefers linen because it requires less irrigation than cotton.

To move from the first level to the second, and from the second level from the first dimension (sustainability of clothing) to the second (impact of textile materials on the living world), certain events will play a key role.

The key role of events triggering maladaptation

These events can be a conversation with someone close to you, listening to a podcast, reading an explanatory post on social networks, reading a clothing label, the experience of a garment becoming misshapen in the wash, and so on. They will create a maladjustment, a gap with reality as it was previously experienced.

This maladjustment, if it is then verbalised for others, enables conceptualisation and then reflexivity. In other words, an event that triggers maladaptation can lead to reflection on what that event has revealed and brought to light for the consumer. The result is learning that is the fruit of moving from one level to another.

When materials become objects of reflection following a maladaptation, some consumers first realise that they had no knowledge of the impact of textile materials on the living world, or that their knowledge was erroneous.

Not all consumers are ready

As a result, some consumers will try to find out more: by looking at labels more often, doing research on the Internet, asking shop assistants questions, talking to friends and family, and so on. This may then result in the purchase of clothes containing materials considered to be more respectful of the environment, people and animals, or in the identification of brands offering products containing this type of material, which the people we met would like to favour in the future.

However, not all consumers are willing or ready to conceptualise the impact of textiles on living things. Among the people we met, this was due to a lack of interest in the clothing category, a lack of concern for the environment, human well-being or animal welfare, or a feeling of powerlessness regarding the impact of textile production on living things.

The need to put things into words

This research enables us to formulate recommendations aimed at fashion brands wishing to help consumers become more aware of the impact of textiles on living things. We have shown that information alone can create maladaptation, but it is not enough to conceptualise it and thus raise awareness.

Verbalisation is necessary. In this respect, sales assistants have a key role to play in the shop, helping consumers to understand the information available to them (labels identifying the type of textile material, labels, display elements highlighting the brand’s commitment to reducing the impact of its clothing on the environment).

Finally, in order to raise awareness by making it possible for others to speak out, organisations such as Ademe (the French Environment and Energy Management Agency) or Re_Fashion (an eco-organisation for the textile, clothing, household linen and footwear industries) could organise workshops with consumers to discuss the fashion industry and raise awareness of the need to “consume better” clothing as lifestyles move towards sobriety.

By Edith Lamballerie and Valerie Guillard

Read more – The Conversation