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The dilemma of buying ethical clothes

By Simone Preuss


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Business |STUDY

Who would not like to opt for environmentally friendly and sustainable products when buying clothes? But despite these kind of products being quite abundantly available by now, the desire is not reflected in actual consumer behaviour. This is due to the discrepancy of ethical awareness - which is there - and ethical action - which is still lacking. The study of the German Fashion Institute (DMI) "The problem with ethical consumption" has examined this dilemma further.

Ulla Ertelt, DMI president and partner and managing director, HML-Modemarketing, presented sobering numbers at the DMI Fashion Day for summer 2019: While the claim to value environmentally friendly, sustainable products was 40 percent more common among the 14- to 19-year-old girls surveyed than among the overall average, this same group buys twice as many new clothes as the average consumer.

Wanting to - yes; doing - no

This discrepancy between the desired consumption behaviour of a concerned citizen and the practical price calculations of a consumer are generally evident, for example when buying organic food: It is available now even in discount supermarkets, but accounted for a market share of only 5.7 percent of all food purchased in Germany in 2017. When it comes to apparel, the results look even bleaker: GOTS-certified textiles - also available at discount stores - accounted for only 0.05 percent of all clothes purchased in Germany in 2017.

Professor of business administration Timo Busch mentions four phenomena that explain this discrepancy: „[It’s] habituation – everyone drives a car or goes on an international holiday so the individual person does not challenge this behaviour. [There is also] decoupling – we know what science has to say about global problems but we suppress it in our everyday actions. [Then there is] powerlessness – believing that the individual can do nothing anyway in this global world by changing his/her behaviour. [Finally,] detachment – we realise that something has to change urgently but we do not want that change in our own vicinity, for example no wind park in our neighbourhood. Together, these phenomena cause us as individuals to continue living our daily lives as before and to not actively contribute to a better world,” he said in an interview with German news daily Hamburger Abendblatt.

According to a survey by Greenpeace conducted in January 2015, the following criteria are taken into account when purchasing clothes: design (81 percent), price (49 percent) and quality, brand and recommendations (around 35 percent each). Textile labels (13 percent) or country of production (11 percent) are not very important when buying clothes.

Buying clothes often overwhelms consumers

One important reason for this is that buying clothes is stressful enough as it is, as questions about "function, design, fit, combinability, comfort, durability, care, etc.” have to be taken into account, and “inevitably the confrontation with one’s own complex identity as well and one’s own complex physicality," according to the DMI study.

Additional global questions such as where a garment was made, who made it, how sustainable and socially responsible the brand is, and what materials it was made of, often overwhelm consumers. "If deciding for or against a single T-shirt requires both the question of who you want to be and the question of what the world should be, you need to answer it correctly within seconds," the study sums up potential considerations that go into buying a particular article of clothing. However, it also cautions: "One should not relieve consumers too easily of their responsibility, but one should also understand that they feel overwhelmed by it."

And this is where brands and retailers come into the picture: They should not wait for customers to demand more sustainable and ethical products and thus (perhaps grudgingly) refrain from using fur, mohair or angora, but be proactive and take a stand. Consumers as well as concerned citizens appreciate a clear line as far as ethics are concerned, not vague promises or excuses. Specialised brands like Tom Cridlands and “50 Year” products prove that. Though one could assume that with products that last so long, there are few returning customers, the British brand has many loyal customers who are so convinced by the products that they keep ordering them in a variety of colours and styles.

In summary, one can say that what applies to Germany applies to many European countries as well: ethical consumption is more of a "nice to have" than a necessity. But maybe we should not expect too much too soon and appreciate that consumers do worry about a myriad of things when buying clothes. That means, while they may buy the cheap shirt at the discount store now, this could be very different in five years - when even the income has increased. And perhaps GOTS-certified and environmentally and socially compatible products are the norm by then too.

Photo: Thommy Weiss / pixelio.de
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