Shoppers once selected products based simply on price or brand, but now attributes such as whether goods are “sustainable,” “climate-friendly,” “green,” and “eco-friendly” are readily becoming part of the consideration. The latest IAG New Zealand Ipsos poll found, for example, that while climate change is “not the top concern for the public currently, more than half [of survey respondents said that they] worry about it regularly, including about the impacts of climate change that we are already seeing at home and abroad.” At the same time, an IBM survey found that more than 2 in 3 global respondents say that “environmental issues are significantly (very or extremely) important to them personally,” and 84 percent consider “sustainability” to be important when choosing a brand.

Despite prevailing attitudes of consumers to prioritize sustainability and environmental good, research continues to show that few consumers who report positive attitudes toward eco-friendly products actually follow through with their wallets and pay more for “sustainable” goods, which may help to explain the enduring demand for fast fashion and other mass-market goods. 

Green, eco-friendly, climate-friendly products — confused?

With such sustainability concerns in mind, it is hardly surprising that a growing number of brands are flooding the market with very-specifically-marketed goods. For instance, use of the word “green” is applied broadly to almost everything related to benefiting the environment, from production and transportation to architecture and even fashion items. “Eco-friendly” – which is not quite so broad and defines products or practices that do not harm the Earth’s environment – is slapped on everything from beauty goods to dishwashing soaps. Meanwhile, “climate-friendly” is used to define products that reduce damage specifically to the climate. 

All these terms – most of which lack legal definitions and which are used interchangeably by brands – are used in labelling to make us feel good if we buy products claimed to minimize harm to the planet and the environment. Some brands are even moving beyond simply eco-friendly and now seek to claim their products are “climate-neutral.”

Who says it is up to standard?

While companies are increasingly using environmental claims to appeal to consumers, they also attract greater scrutiny. Concerned about allegations of greenwashing – i.e., claiming that a product is “sustainable” when it is not or that it is “greener” than it actually is, many brands are turning to organizations, such as Climate NeutralFoundation Myclimate, and members of the Global Ecolabelling Network, to legitimize their claims, and thereby, avoid large scale public relations scandals. 

For example, the climatop label, as developed by Myclimate, certifies products that generate significantly less greenhouse gas than comparable products. The carbon footprints of the certified products are based on international standards (ISO 14040) and verified by an independent expert. Environmental Choice New Zealand is the official environmental label body that awards certificates and lists environmentally friendly products for green homes or businesses. Products must meet similar standards (ISO 14020 and ISO 14024). Good Environmental Choice Australia is a similar organization.

Third-party certifications may help brands to navigate this space, but as indicated by the widespread pushback against the Higg Index (including a Norwegian Consumer Agency’s move to take issue with H&M’s use of the standard to rate environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain, arguing that the index was insufficient to support its environmental claims), such certifications are not without issue.

A willingness to pay more for “sustainable” products

For years, researchers have examined climate-oriented consumption to see if it actually wins consumer support. Reports, such as Nielsen Insights, suggest the majority (73 percent) of people would change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment, and almost half (46 percent) would switch to environmentally friendly products. But these results should be interpreted cautiously. As U.S. psychologist Icek Ajzen wrote, “Actions … are controlled by intentions, but not all intentions are carried out.” 

Despite environmentally-friendly sentiments from large swathes of consumers (and putting inflationary pressures aside), such concern about the environment does not readily translate into the purchase of “green” products. 

Commercial research reveals that 46 percent of consumers are more inclined to buy a product if it is “sustainable” or “eco-friendly,” but nearly 60 percent are unwilling to pay more money for that “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” product. Meanwhile, academic research has consistently identified this gap between purchase intentions and behaviors. Regardless of environmental concern and the positive attitude of customers towards sustainability and green products, it is estimated the market share of green products will reach only 25 percent of store sales by 2021. 

Ultimately, the research that evaluates consumers’ willingness to pay more for green products has been mixed. For example, one study found Spanish consumers were willing to pay 22–37 percent more for green products, but Japanese consumers were only willing to pay 8–22 percent more for green products. 

From procuring raw materials to shipping the final product, almost all steps of the manufacturing and production process of eco-friendly products cost more than traditional products. There are several reasons for this. Sustainable materials cost more to grow and manufacture, reputable third-party certifications add further costs, and using organic materials is more expensive than alternatives, such as mass-produced chemicals. Simple economies of scale also impact price. While the demand for such products remains low, the price remains high. More demand would mean more production and lower unit price costs. As economists say, as price lowers, our willingness and ability to buy an item increase. 

The nudge to change behavior

In a free market economy, it is very difficult to force people to pay more for products. But brands can “nudge” consumers towards more eco-friendly products. Nudge theory is used to understand how people think, make decisions and behave. It can be used to help people improve their thinking and decisions. 

Studies show eco-friendly logos and labels can be used to nudge consumers toward sustainable fashionfood consumption and eco-friendly offerings. So, while not all consumers will pay more for green “climate-friendly” products despite the best of intentions, we can slowly nudge them to make better choices for the planet.

Gary Mortimer is a Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behavior at Queensland University of Technology. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)

Of the world’s industries that profit from worker exploitation, the fashion industry is notorious, in part because of the sharp contrast between how fashion is made and how it is marketed, including when it comes to the notions of sustainability and ethical consumption. There are more people working in exploitative conditions than ever before. Globally, the garment industry employs millions of people, with 65 million garment sector workers in Asia alone. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates less than 1 percent of what you pay for a typical garment goes to the workers who made it.

Some working conditions are so exploitative they meet the definition of modern slavery – in which workers are trapped in situations they cannot leave due to coercion and threats. Modern slavery conditions in the apparel industry are being reported more frequently. However, to date, such conditions have largely hidden by the distance between the worker and the buyer. In other words, global supply chains have helped such exploitation to hide and thrive. 

As for information that has been brought to light, particularly as of late, it is worth asking whether consumers really care? We conducted in-depth interviews with 21 women who buy “fast,” “on-trend” clothing made and sold at very low costs – including from brands such as H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo – to find out how much they think about the conditions of the workers who make their clothes, and what effort they take to avoid slave-free clothing. What they told us highlights the inadequacy of seeking to eradicate exploitation in the fashion industry by relying on consumers to do the heavy lifting. Struggling to seek reliable information on ethical practices and “sustainability,” consumers are often overwhelmed when trying to engage in ethical consumerism. 

Out of sight, out of mind

The 21 participants in our research consisted of women between ages 18 and 55, from diverse backgrounds across Australia. We selected participants who were aware of exploitation in the fashion industry, but that had still bought fast fashion in the previous six months. This was not a survey but qualitative research involving in-depth interviews to understand the disconnect between awareness and action. 

Our key finding from such research was that clothing consumers’ physical and cultural distance from those who make the clothes makes it difficult to relate to their experience. Even if we have seen images of sweatshops, it is still difficult to comprehend what the working conditions are truly like. As Fiona,* a woman in her late 30s, put it: “I do not think people care [but] it is not in a nasty way. It is an out of sight, out of mind situation.”

This problem of geographic and cultural distance between garment workers and fashion shoppers highlights the paucity of solutions premised on driving change in the industry through consumer activism when it comes to ethical consumption. 

Who is responsible?

Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, for example, tackles the problem only by requiring large companies to report to a public register on their efforts to identify risks of modern slavery in their supply chains and what they are doing to eliminate these risks. While greater transparency is certainly a big step forward for the industry, the legislation still presumes that the threat of reputational damage is enough to get industry players to change their ways. The success of the legislation falls largely on the ability of activist organizations to sift through and publicize the performance of companies in an effort to encourage consumers to hold companies accountable.

All our interviewees told us they felt unfairly burdened with the responsibility to seek information on working conditions and ethical practices to hold retailers to account or to feel empowered to make the “correct” ethical choice. “It is too hard sometimes to actually track down the line of whether something’s made ethically,” said Zoe,* a woman in her early 20s. Given that many fashion brands and retailers – and not just those in the fast fashion space – are, themselves, ignorant about the extent and/or workings of their own globally-reaching and complex supply chains, it is asking a lot to expect the average consumer to unravel the truth and make ethical shopping choices.

Confusion + overwhelm = inaction

“We have to shop according to what we care about, what is in line with our values, family values, budget,” said Sarah,* who is in her early 40s. She said she copes with feeling overwhelmed by ignoring some issues and focusing on the ethical actions she knows can make a difference. “I’m doing so many other good things,” she said. “We cannot be perfect, and I can only do so much.” 

Other participants also talked about juggling considerations about environmental and social impacts. “It is made in Bangladesh, but it is 100% cotton, so, I do not know, is it ethical?” That is how Lauren,* a woman in her early 20s, put it. “It depends on what qualifies as ethical fashion […] and what is just marketing.”

Comparatively, participants felt their actions to mitigate environmental harm made a tangible difference. They could see the impact and felt rewarded and empowered to continue making positive change. This was not the case for modern slavery and worker rights more generally. Fashion is a lucrative market, with billions in profits made thanks to the work of the lowest paid workers in the world.

While there is no denying consumers wield a lot of power, and we should not absolve consumers of their part in creating demand for the cheapest clothes humanly – or inhumanly – possible, consumer choice, alone, is insufficient. We need a system where all our clothing choices are ethical, where we do not need to make a choice between what is right and what is affordable.

Gary Mortimer is a Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behavior at Queensland University of Technology. Alice Payne is an Associate Professor in Fashion at Queensland University of Technology. Tara Stringer is a PhD Candidate at Queensland University of Technology.  (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)