Survey suggests sustainable fashion is still a confusing concept for many consumers

·3-min read
Consumers in the US would like more reliable information about the notion of sustainable fashion.

Aware of the urgent need to switch to more environmentally respectful lifestyles, consumers are gradually turning to sustainable fashion. Yet it can be hard to know what lies behind this notion of sustainability and, crucially, how and where to find more sustainable options. New research from the US reveals that, despite their best intentions, consumers today are often lost amid confusing information on the subject.

Sustainable fashion is a vast concept that visibly isn't always clear for consumers. Still, shoppers are nevertheless in search of trustworthy information as they seek clothing options that are less harmful for the planet, contributing -- on their own level -- to reducing the environmental impact of one of the most polluting industries. The vast majority of consumers in the US (86%) believe that sustainability is a good goal, according to a survey carried out by the biotech firm Genomatica .* However, almost half of those polled (48%) didn't know how or where to find sustainable clothes, and 42% were unsure what makes clothing sustainable.

Aware of what's at stake

Consumers are aware of the urgent need to shop in a more responsible way. Almost three quarters of US consumers polled (72%) said they were aware of sustainability issues in the fashion industry, citing issues like excess consumption, carbon emissions and water pollution relating to dye processes. More than half of people polled (51%) believe that Americans' clothing purchases each year result in substantial greenhouse gas emissions.

In light of this, many consumers want to take action, on their level, with actions and choices that are better for the planet. And this awareness seems to have grown with the global pandemic. In fact, more than a third of consumers surveyed (38%) who were aware of sustainability issues in fashion only became aware of them over the past year.

Consumers are looking to make changes

While they're trying to make better choices and navigate the changing fashion industry, consumers aren't short of ideas on how they could embrace a more sustainable approach to fashion. More than a third of people polled (34%) said, for example, that "if there was a store for sustainable clothes, I'd do all my shopping there," and 33% said that availability in chain clothing stores would make them want to purchase sustainable clothing. What's more, more than three in 10 consumers polled (31%) would support a "fast fashion tax" on unsustainable clothing.

Still, the very concept of sustainability doesn't seem particularly clear among consumers. "It's somewhat difficult to make sustainable choices because I'm never really sure what sustainable means, particularly with clothing," explained one survey respondent.

Despite this lack of information, consumers are still able to make relatively savvy choices. Almost six in 10 respondents (58%) said that they care about the materials that make their clothes and want them to not be harmful to the planet. Similarly, 47% rank clothing made with renewably-sourced or natural materials as a top sustainability characteristic, while a similar number (46%) include production processes with few or no toxic chemicals in their top three.

Consumers are wary of greenwashing

Still, consumers aren't about to go all-out buying anything and everything as soon as a brand starts talking up its sustainability credentials. Consumers are wary of marketing spiel, favoring acts over words. Almost nine in 10 consumers polled (88%) said that they don't immediately trust brands that say they're sustainable, while 51% believe that greenwashing is common in the fashion industry.

Consumers would prefer to have more reliable information from brands, notably to help them understand what makes a given product more sustainable than others (55%). Many are also in favor of the idea of some kind of sustainability label to help them identify sustainable options (50%), while for others (38%), clearer information about sustainability features would make them want to purchase sustainable clothing.

* Genomatica conducted this research using an online survey prepared by Method Research and distributed by Dynata among 2,000 teenagers and adults in the United States. The sample was composed of equally sized generational age groups, and an even gender split between men and women, with a nationally representative geographic spread of respondents. Data was collected from March 31 to April 8, 2021..

Christelle Pellissier