Behavioural science and sustainable fashion


The fashion and textile market is one of the world's biggest industries. Unfortunately, this sector, and the fast-fashion industry in particular, continues to be a threat to a sustainable future. Research suggests that the rapid rise of fast fashion and ultra-fast fashion culture has driven a change in consumer purchasing behaviours since the late 20th century. The constant production of new clothing ranges at cheap prices currently leads many people to engage in uncontrolled and unsustainable consumption patterns.

This over-consumption trend is contributing to many environmental problems, from water pollution due to dyes, to microplastics in the ocean, and increased CO2 emissions. According to the World Bank, the fashion industry currently accounts for 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is behavioural science can be a useful tool to counter these over-consumption trends and promote more sustainable consumption patterns. When used appropriately, it can encourage better and more sustainable decision-making and help businesses and people transition to a greener lifestyle, particularly if it considers broader cultural and social contexts. Now, what are the most effective interventions for promoting behaviour change?

Although providing information has been shown to have a limited effect on behaviour change, it is necessary to provide consumers with the knowledge and skills to make sustainable decisions. Recent research found that awareness of sustainability issues in the fashion industry is currently low among younger people. Providing environmental information, through labels and packaging, is therefore critical to help them recognize and understand the impact of their purchases.

Yet, the impact of labels and packaging also depends on the way information is framed. According to a 2021 GINTEX report, even the understanding of care symbols remains heterogeneous. Only 27% of people can recognise the bleaching symbol, 25% the drying symbol, and only 16% can identify the professional cleaning symbol.

Simplicity is therefore not enough. Information should also be presented in a clear and easily-understandable way, and the level of specificity of labels and tags, be it about production or ethical impacts, should be carefully determined.

Social influence
In addition to providing information, behavioural science also suggests highlighting social well-being to encourage pro-environmental behaviours. Pro-environmental behaviours carry the notion of preserving natural resources now and in the future, while pro-social behaviours refer to concern for the wellbeing of others and society at large. It puts more importance on maintaining a healthy relationship between people to create a more socially prosperous society.

Research suggests that the effect of interventions aimed at encouraging pro-environmental behaviours, such as education and information, could be improved by presenting environmental behaviours as pro-social behaviours contributing to the social good. To limit the growth of fast fashion, consumers could for instance be informed about the social impacts of the production of their clothes, such as the use of cheap labour and the health issues caused by water pollution near dyeing and finishing centres.

As individuals, we try to adapt and display socially-accepted behaviours to others to earn recognition and reputation. And research has shown that these more egoistic reasons — improving one's image or reputation, and being seen 'as someone who cares' — can motivate environmental purchases.

Over the years, some brands have managed to position themselves as leaders in sustainability. This is the case for Patagonia, a brand that integrated sustainability into its DNA early on, and quickly became one of the world's most sustainable clothing brands. Some of Patagonia’s advertising campaigns have notably demonstrated a commitment to sustainability, sometimes at the expense of the brand’s own profits, which has only increased its credibility in the eye of the public (see for example the ‘Don't buy this Jacket’ campaign in which Patagonia encourages people not to buy one of its jackets during Black Friday). As a result, purchasing Patagonia now offers buyers a chance to portray themselves as eco-friendly and conscious consumers.

Skinner's theory of behaviourism states that an adequately rewarded behaviour will motivate the person to repeat the same action. Rewards that create a positive reinforcement tend to be more effective than price incentives and help build customer loyalty. Rewards and loyalty programs that incorporate green features could therefore increase motivation to buy sustainable products. And creating a positive association with sustainable purchasing over time, could improve the chances of individuals repeating the behaviour in the long term.

The Way Forward
Adopting a sustainable lifestyle is not easy, and consumers around the world won't adopt new shopping habits overnight, but encouraging them to be more conscious of the social and environmental impact of their purchases is a first step in the right direction. Here are some tips to shift towards a more sustainable fashion wardrobe today:

  1. Think twice before you buy. The organisation EcoAge is famous for its 30-wear challenge. Its aim: encourage people to wonder if they will wear the item at least 30 times before buying it.

  2. Repair your clothes yourselves or with the help of a tailor to prevent unnecessary spending and consumption.

  3. Invest in quality clothes that will last.

  4. Stay informed: use apps such as ‘Good on You’ that rate fashion brands based on their sustainability efforts.

  5. Go visit your local thrift store. Don’t have one close by? Apps like ‘Vinted’ offer online shopping services for quality, second-hand clothing.


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