Image: H&M

Consumers are confused about sustainability in the fashion sphere. A new report from clean manufacturing firm Genomatica found that while “consumers in the United States want to make more environmentally-friendly choices when it comes to shopping for clothing,” a large portion of them are unsure where exactly they can purchase sustainably-made apparel, and even more fundamentally, they are “confused about what makes something sustainable” in the first place, with one survey respondent stating that it is “difficult to make sustainable choices because I am never really sure what sustainable means, particularly with clothing.”

In an aim to understand “consumers’ awareness, perspectives and behaviors around sustainability in fashion,” San Diego-based Genomatica commissioned a survey of 2,000 U.S. teenagers and adults between March 31 and April 8, 2021, preliminarily finding that 86 percent of participants “believe sustainability is a good goal,” and that 72 percent are aware of “environmental sustainability issues” in the fashion industry, with “excess consumption, carbon emissions and water pollution from dye processes” being among the most commonly-cited issues by survey respondents. That 72 percent figure is up compared to the level of awareness among consumers before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Genomatica’s survey, as 32 percent of the individuals surveyed revealed that they only became aware of fashion’s sustainability issues over the past year.

Another COVID-centric development? 44 percent of survey respondents revealed that they purchased less clothing during the pandemic than before, a trend that may endure, as nearly half of the surveyed consumers said that they now feel “less pressure they feel to wear a different outfit every day” following a year of lockdowns.

Addressing the characteristics of “sustainably-made” clothing, 58 percent of consumers said that they “care about the materials that [go into] their clothes and want them to not be harmful to the planet,” while 47 percent ranked “clothing made with renewably-sourced or natural materials as a top sustainability characteristic” and 46 percent listed clothing made from “production processes with few to no toxic chemicals in their top three.” Beyond that, 53 percent of respondents say that they “believe that the majority of clothes are made of primarily synthetic material, slightly more than the number of consumers (47 percent) who that realize fossil fuels (crude oil, coal, etc.) are the main building blocks of synthetic clothing.” 

As for their views on brands’ claims when it comes to sustainable fashion, in addition to 42 percent not understanding what sustainable apparel entails (something that is not surprising given the influx of “clean” marketing buzzwords, most of which lack concrete definitions, and that have been used so widely that they have largely lost any meaning or differentiating ability that they may have previously had), almost 9 in 10 (88 percent) of the surveyed consumers said that they do “not immediately trust brands that say they are sustainable, and half (51 percent) believe ‘greenwashing’” – i.e., the practice of creating the false impression that products and processes are environmentally friendly when they are not, or overstating the extent to which products/practices are sustainable – is “common in the fashion industry.” 

With that in mind, more than half (55 percent) of the surveyed consumers revealed that they expect clothing brands to help them understand how certain products are “more sustainable than alternatives,” such as by way of “sustainability labels,” with 38 percent saying that “clearer information about sustainability features would make them want to purchase sustainable clothing.” And still yet, 44 percent of respondents stated that brands “are to blame for not prioritizing or providing enough convenient sustainable alternatives,” especially almost 50 percent of the surveyed consumers revealed that they “want to make more sustainable clothing choices,” but ultimately, they opt for “what is most convenient.” 

Speaking to the issue of convenience, 33 percent said that availability of sustainably-made apparel in national chain stores would positively impact their ability and willingness to buy such wares, particularly since 48 percent revealed that they do not know “how or where to find sustainable clothes.” While the survey does not discuss consumers’ views on the often-steep price hikes for clothing that is sustainable made, it did reveal that 31 percent of respondents would support a “fast fashion tax” on clothing that is “unsustainable.” 

Reflecting on the survey’s findings, Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling stated that consumers “are demanding more sustainable options, and we are seeing time and time again that it is information and availability that would help shoppers make the choices they are seeking.”