Sustainable Fashion: The cost of being good

Welcome to the latest column within our broader sustainability section, which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry.

This month’s column highlights the cost of being an eco-saint and how retailers might encourage others into the fold. Brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.

It’s a truism that during a cost of living crunch sustainability or indeed any other worthy issues are always going to take a back seat. The recent Covid-19 outbreak dealt a deathblow to any thoughts of reducing plastic packaging as consumers worried less about threats to marine life and more about catching the virus off their new cardigan fibres. Similarly when the cost of food goes up banning BOGOF deals looks less like promotion of healthy eating habits and food wastage reduction and more like protecting margins.

In difficult times eco-concerns are a luxury and research from Levercliff showed just that when in April it released a survey revealing that nearly three quarters of shoppers questioned admitted that value for money was now their top priority when choosing a brand with only a meagre 8% still claiming that climate change was their major motivator when purchasing.

The top priority right now

Further proof, if we needed it, that making something sustainably always makes things more expensive in the public’s mind arrived in the form of a survey from Bazaarvoice that found 62% of UK-based fast-fashion buyers admitted that high prices were what stopped them switching to eco-focused products. Bazaarvoice concluded that fashion retailers must take the guilt out of the purchase by promoting and adhering to strict sustainability commitments. All of this might sound like a code red for the planet and have environmentalists reaching for the panic button but the picture is actually not uniformly bad.

The same survey fom Levercliff found that almost half of those surveyed still aimed to choose sustainable packaging as a priority, which gives retailers and fashion brands a small hint on how to continue addressing sustainability concerns at a time when the cost increases of switching to full on eco-production of clothing may prove almost impossible for brands to achieve and equally impossible for shoppers to buy.

Are you willing to wait for your delivery?

Similarly Blue Yonder found in its 2022 Consumer Sustainability Survey that a massive 86% of customers would be willing to wait longer to receive their e-commerce purchases for the sake of the environment – although crucially they would also like to be offered an incentive to do so! Another example of a tweak that most companies could probably achieve without too much fuss.

It may seem that changing other elements in the sale of clothing, while keeping the fundamental product unsustainable, is a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic but in reality all these tweaks boils down to the Sky cycling team’s famous dictum of ‘marginal gains’ meaning that in a time of general raw material and production cost rises across the board coupled with a general income fall across the nation then the only way to engage shoppers with environmental concerns is to aggregate very tiny improvements across every aspect of the business.

So instead of switching massively to all recycled materials or going all out for low energy usage and self-bankrupting, much better to make small incremental changes and communicate them well to the shopper. And delivery and packaging are definitely, two of those marginal gain areas.

If orders that arrive after a week can be significantly cheaper than those brought round by couriers and – this is the important bit – crucially the reason for the delay/cost difference is properly communicated then it can become a sustainable virtue in the mind of the shopper rather than a boring delay, which leaves them feeling like a second-class customer because they couldn’t afford the courier delivery. There is room for both carrot and stick in switching consumers to make sustainable choices but when the money is in short supply it makes more sense to dangle the carrot.

Consumers beware!

But, of course, all these marginal areas come with a strong greenwash warning. The Levercliff findings also highlight that, with a sizeable percentage of consumers using the sustainability of the product packaging as a kind of litmus test on how eco-friendly the product’s actual production was, it is an area ripe for empty promises. If cash-poor shoppers equate potato starch wrapping with environmental friendliness then it is not difficult to see how a clever retailer could merely cover all its very un-eco fashion items with that in order to virtue signal a false message about the product inside.

Let’s hope instead that marginal gains on elements of the supply chain lead to a virtuous circle of consumer feel-good sentiment on sustainability once again which in turn nudges brands and retailers further down that road.

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