Are consumers willing to spend more money on a product that has been produced in a more ethical manner?

Are consumers willing to spend more money on a product that has been produced in a more ethical manner?

The fashion industry might like to think sustainability is at the top of its agenda, but fierce competition on price, a fast fashion focus on volume rather than value, and flagging consumer interest are all hindering progress. Yet industry executives remain hopeful that as issues like microplastics pollution move into the mainstream, the issue of cheap and disposable clothing may also come to the fore.

Investments in sustainability do not come cheap. From upgrading factories to ensure more eco-friendly production to using more sustainable raw materials and providing higher wages for workers – all of these costs ultimately push up the end price of a garment.

But are consumers willing to spend more money on a product that has been produced in a more ethical manner? And do they even care?

The issue ultimately comes down to price, and what consumers can actually afford to pay for a T-shirt, says Richard Benson, director of British menswear brand Guide Clothing.

"What's their priority: making sure they can provide a holiday for their child, putting food on the table, or whether they choose to pay GBP15 or GBP1.99 for the same T-shirt?" he asked during a panel discussion at the recent Fashion SVP sourcing event in London. "And that's why I worry that we will never get there because I don't know if people will be able to make that choice. Not because they don't want to, but just because of the hard facts of life."

It's all about the emotional value consumers attach to a product, Benson believes. "The difficulty is that as long as people feel it's acceptable to pay GBP1.99 for a T-shirt, then the T-shirt will be priced at GBP1.99."

For Lisa Illnis, brand director at casual wear retailer Crew Clothing, change will be helped by brands communicating the processes that go into making a garment in a more sustainable way, thereby explaining the reasons why there is a higher price point for more sustainable apparel. 

"Sometimes the retail price of a product is being driven down without clearly communicating what the value behind some of those ingredients is," she explains. "If you're savvy as a brand, you are able to tell your customer what's behind the price; the finishes and the treatments that you put on a fabric, or some of the materials that are in the buttons."

However, Illis does concede this may be difficult at supermarket or high street level where it's "much harder" to get the consumer's attention and communicate that level of detail.

Supply and demand

On top of this, Elif Yuksel, textile engineer and director at UK clothing manufacturer Creazone, says fast fashion is not helping the sustainability cause.

"If you have one T-shirt instead of three, that will help the environment. The most important thing is that brands' and consumers' demands have to change: you shouldn't have 80 T-shirts in your wardrobe...that's the point that should be considered by everyone.

"I think consumer demand will change according to what they see. Fast fashion is popular, but actually it's not really needed. It's up to brands and influencers to promote their garments in a different way – and then consumers will turn in that way because nothing starts with the consumer: what they see, what they want, what they do.

"Manufacturers are in the last part of the chain; there should be demand for something and then you produce it – there has to be a need that can you follow. Sustainability is the first core point you should take care about. Cheap production can be demanded by everyone but it's not the way that we should proceed."

Shohel Rana, marketing director at Bangladesh garment manufacturer Nassa Group, concurs.

"It is the retailers' responsibility to make customers aware what is sustainable product and what is the importance of that for the next generation," he says. "Once they [have] this kind of initiative, customer awareness will grow automatically."

While agreeing this sounds good in theory, Illnis is somewhat sceptical that any of the big retailers would be willing to make such a bold statement.

"I think that's unlikely to happen unless there was some vested interest in it, that government would subsidise it," she says. "But I think that behaviour might happen with a small brand, a local brand, an independent or a small chain, and maybe there will be a ripple effect. But I can't imagine one of the big boys taking that stance. Although I agree that's the sort of behaviour that would change customer behaviour."

Sustainable fabric challenges 

While many of the suppliers agree with Filipa Oliveria of Portugal-based nightwear manufacturer Confenix that sustainability is the future of the industry, manufacturing more sustainable apparel – and doing so in a more sustainable way – comes with a number of challenges.

For Megan Holding, sales account manager at bespoke clothing and fabric manufacturer Seven Active, a particular challenge for the company is the high minimum order quantities (MOQs) that mills set for recycled fabrics. "We don't keep stock fabrics," she tells just-style, explaining the restrictions make it difficult for the firm to deal with small businesses and independents who require smaller orders.

"It comes down to cost and whether they want to have 3,000 units as opposed to 500 units as they originally planned. Or they have to make the compromise as to whether all their garments have to be in the same fabric [and] dyed differently instead of being in different fabrics as they probably first designed. There does have to be some compromises."

Meanwhile, S Jothimanikandan, director of Indian fabric wholesaler Tirupur Pandit Hosiery Mills, says there are fewer options available when it comes to sustainable raw materials.

"In terms of regular cotton, you have lots of colours but when you go to sustainable products, the options are limited. Designers do not have that much freedom to work; they might be limited to colours, limited to fabrics; that is the reason it's not being embraced as it should be."

Microplastics pollution a turning point?

Yet change could be on the horizon, with millennials and Gen Z consumers seemingly more ethically concerned than previous generations have been.

A recent survey found millennial consumers are more likely to check up on sustainability claims made by brands on websites, in advertising, and on social media.

According to the Oeko-Tex global consumer survey – 'The Key To Confidence: What Does It Take to Build Trust with Busy, Sustainability-Minded Consumers?'  – 64% of respondents who were aware of eco-textiles said they check at least some of the time to see if sustainability claims are true. That number increased to 69% of millennials and to 74% of parents of young children who participated in the research.

"I think that maybe we are at a slight turning point now," says Illnis. "Millennials and Gen Zs are starting to challenge some of the industrial processes, some of the kind of conventional wisdoms around pricing and product.

"There is a current wave of discussion on how many items of clothing are wasted every month because people are discarding them, and that makes me think more and more people will start to actually say, 'Hang on a minute, I don't believe that the industry should work like this' and start to really challenge some of those things."

A recent inquiry launched by the UK Government is a step in this direction, and will see the Environmental Audit Committee investigate the social and environmental impact of disposable 'fast fashion' and the wider implications for the fashion supply chain. It will examine the carbon, resource use and water footprint of clothing throughout its lifecycle and will also look at how clothes can be recycled, and waste and pollution reduced.

"It might be a similar thing to what's happened with plastic, that suddenly over the course of the last month the focus and behaviour has changed," Illnis adds. "That just seems to have caught people's imaginations, so there's nothing to say that something similar cannot happen."

Andrew Carter, managing director of UK-based footwear agency Shoebridge, which has been supplying high street retailers and distributors for more than 30 years, agrees.

"Sustainability means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think it's important to the industry because it's important to the consumer and it will only grow over time. We've recently seen significant changes in the law with relation to plastic which has made the issue very mainstream and bought it right to the fore. I think anybody producing product anywhere in the world needs to consider what they're doing in terms of environmental sustainability, in terms of the way that they are engaging with workforce, because that's part of doing business."

But Benson remains to be convinced.

"Until [sustainability] is important to consumers, it won't be important to the industry," he tells just-style on the sidelines of the event.

While Benson acknowledges certain industry figures like Stella McCartney are "phenomenal flag bearers" for sustainability, he notes the average person cannot afford to buy sustainable fashion. "Until that changes, until we live in a world where people are paid a fair wage and can afford to buy the right product as opposed to cheap product, I don't see how it will change.

"Your average person in the street, by the time they pay their mortgage or rent, pay for food, pay for transport, pay for their kids school stuff, how much money do they have left? Are they then really going to make the choice of not giving their child a better meal or taking them on holiday?"