Why Shopping Sustainable Fashion Isn’t As Easy As You Think

I care about sustainability and want to make more sustainable fashion choices—but why am I not walking the walk?

I love denim. I started working in retail selling premium denim and I continue to pass that blue-hued passion onto clients when I style them.

I love the varieties of fabrics and washes available. I love the different cuts and how each one serves a different purpose depending on the occasion. I’m intrigued by how each denim brand tells a different story and has different audiences.

And, to my boyfriend’s dismay, my impressive denim collection also takes up an impressive amount of closet space.

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The True Cost of Denim

The downside to denim, however, is that the agricultural and manufacturing process pollute the environment.

Cotton, denim’s raw material, requires 1,800 gallons of water for one pair of jeans—that does not even include the amount of water that would be used throughout its life cycle to wash. Then there’s the fabric dyeing process that’s known to turn rivers blue and contaminate water with chemicals that eventually find their way into oceans.

In context to the bigger picture, denim manufacturing is only one part of the fashion industry’s unsustainable footprint. Greenpeace shared statistics from the Copenhagen Fashion Summit citing that “the fashion industry consumed nearly 80 billion cubic meters of fresh water, emitted over a million tonnes of CO2 and produced 92 million tonnes of waste [in 2015].”

It’s not only the environmental impact that matters—the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013 was a wakeup call for brands and consumers to pay more attention to how and where our clothing is made.

Since the Rana Plaza collapse, consumer movements like the Fashion Revolution advocate for fashion brands to provide more sustainable choices in product, as well as implement better labor practices throughout the supply chain to protect garment workers from abuse.

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A Shopper’s Internal Conflict

It was Presidents Day weekend. My email was flooded with sale alerts throughout the weekend, but the last-call reminders on Monday were relentless.

One specific email from “Premium Denim” brand did pique my interest—an “extra 20% off” already reduced sale items. I immediately went to their website and found a pair of jeans that I had been looking for. They were high-waisted and straight legged with a gentle light wash for spring—an elevated aesthetic of Levi’s 501 Wedgie silhouette.

I rarely shop unless it’s from where I work or it’s a low-cost, high-value purchase. The “extra 20% off” sale, especially with this brand, met my criteria and gave myself the green light to purchase.

Within 2 minutes, I added it to the shopping cart, filled out my billing and shipping information, then almost clicked “submit” to finalize my purchase.

Almost.

All of a sudden I remembered that I had seen a pair of jeans on Everlane that also fit the description I was looking for. Before I bought the jeans by Premium Denim, I compared them to the Everlane pair.

It turns out that the $48 sale pair at Everlane cost less than the $78 that I was willing to pay for Premium Denim. The styles had some slight differences but in the end, I purchased from Everlane because I know that the brand believes in partnering with ethical factories and fair pricing for their products.

Moreover, I recently learned how incredible Everlane’s denim factory is, according to Bloomberg.

… So what prevented me from buying the Everlane jeans earlier and why was I so willing to buy Premium Denim?

I was already familiar with Premium Denim’s level of quality because I’ve tried on them on and own several pairs. The downside to direct-to-consumer retail models like Everlane is that it eliminates the first physical interaction to touch, see, and try on the product before purchasing. Without a brick and mortar store or other interpersonal interaction (consignment, personal stylists, pop-up stores, etc.), clients heavily rely on the information provided on the product web pages, social media campaigns, and customer service channels. DTC brands must ensure that their marketing and communication strategies are clear, as well as find ways for consumers to interact with their brand in the absence of physical stores. I had known about Everlane since the brand was founded in 2010, but I only made my first purchase this year when I visited the SoHo store.

My value perception was skewed. There are two core values to consider when purchasing a product—external value (i.e. price, physical purpose) and intrinsic value (i.e. emotional purpose, personal symbolization). The MSRP on Premium Denim was roughly $200. The “traditional retail” for the Everlane pair of jeans was $145, but the Everlane’s MSRP price was $68. However, Everlane has a high intrinsic value because of its strong mission to ethically and sustainably manufacture clothing.

Interestingly enough for me, I was more willing to purchase the Everlane jeans once both the external and intrinsic values outweighed the Premium Denim.

… It’s still considered sexier to buy Premium Denim than Everlane (or most sustainable brands, for that matter). Brands like “Premium Denim” have carefully crafted alluring, seductive, aesthetically pleasing narratives for consumers to fall for. This sort of brand storytelling is the language that fashion consumers are used to—it will take time and innovation on behalf of sustainable fashion brands to reach and convert the average consumer.

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Behind the Seams

While studying in my graduate school program at Glasgow Caledonian University New York College (GCNYC), there are many discussions centered on finding ways for companies to produce sustainable products and for consumers to choose the sustainable products over their usual, presumably non-sustainable, products.

One significant finding is that consumers will exert more willingness to purchase sustainable products that can directly replace their conventional choices in terms of feel, aesthetic, and cost. When one of those factors is not at play—as well as externalities such as lack of ready availability—the consumer is more hesitant to purchase.

It’s important to note that consumer attitudes towards sustainability differ between generations.

Nielsen reports the difference between Millennial and Baby Boomer consumption:

When surveyed, Millennials are twice as likely (75% vs. 34%) than Baby Boomers to say they are definitely or probably changing their habits to reduce their impact on the environment. They’re also more willing to pay more for products that contain environmentally friendly or sustainable ingredients (90% vs. 61%), organic / natural ingredients (86% vs. 59%), or products that have social responsibility claims (80% vs. 48%).

In general, there is an upward tick for sustainability as a rising consumer trend, especially among Millennials. An important consideration is Millennials’ consumption capability as this generation grows and becomes the dominating group in the workforce—how will sustainable products and technologies be affordable among a generation burdened in student loan debt and rising costs of living? It may be a departure from this discussion of buying one pair of sustainable denim, but it’s something to think about in the greater conversation of sustainability and its scalability among the population.

Balancing Being on Trend with Cost (Price + Purpose)

For sustainable fashion consumers, it all comes down to balancing being on trend, within a budget, but also make an educated statement through choice.

There was a time when consumers were obsessed with showing off their designer brands, wearing logos head to toe. With the return of the 90s trends today, logomania has come back with a vengeance.

What if there was a way to get consumers equally as excited about wearing all sustainable and ethical fashion? I’d raise my glass of organic chardonnay to that.

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I’ve previously mentioned that sustainable fashion is a personal and professional interest that I would like to write about more freely—please let me know what you think and if you have any topics about sustainable fashion that you would like to discuss!

Photo Credit: Donna Cheung Photography

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Social Media Addict | Francophile | Fashionista

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