When Dr Jeff Bray started his research into ethical clothing decisions, cheap ‘disposable’ fashion lines were growing rapidly, while many other chains were introducing organic and Fairtrade cotton lines.
“It struck me that the trend towards ultra-cheap ‘disposable clothing’ was in opposition to the promotion of carefully sourced lines with ethical provenance,” he says.
His questionnaires went to 3,000 random addresses, with around 400 returned and analysed, making it the first to look at the attitudes of everyday people in the UK. “The big finding is that, although retailers are offering more ethical choices, for the majority of customers ethical considerations are not of primary concern,” he says.
The findings show consumers do not generally consider ethical issues initially. Instead, price, fit, colour and style are all more important. Ethics may still play an influencing role later down the line once they have a shortlist of a couple of items, but it’s not a primary factor.
Interestingly received wisdom into the type of people who buy ethical clothing and who care about the issues, suggests it is the preserve of relatively high earners. This was not borne out by Dr Bray’s research, which showed as household income rises, people are less concerned.
The research also found that interest in ethical issues increases with age, with younger consumers (16-24 year olds) caring little about ethical considerations. “Price, style and look are simply so important to young people that it crowds out other considerations,” Dr Bray explained. “As you get older, your moral maturity rises and your knowledge of ethical issues and conscience develops. Ethical issues then become more interesting. However, as you age further, you shop less frequently, and as a consequence you become less aware of the issues, and thus care about them less.”
The study also shows consumers find some ethical issues are more important than others. Almost half of respondents indicated that Fairtrade labelling would make them more likely to buy an item.
“People are prepared to pay more for Fairtrade, they understand it better and they believe that it is more important overall than Organic,” says Dr Bray. Retailers wishing to introduce ethical clothing ranges may therefore be more successful if they favour Fairtrade certified cotton, over organic cotton.
Linked with the positive association with Fairtrade were the findings that consumers were most concerned about sweatshop production practices – with many boycotting or avoiding stores or brands because of highlighted sweatshop production practices.
“Media attention highlighting poor ethical standards within a supply chain is absorbed by consumers and led to some boycotting of the brand,” concludes Dr Bray.
This research has implications for both retailers and campaigners. Retailers could use these findings to help them target their ethical ranges, aiming them at a more mainstream audience, and positioning them adjacent to similar products. They might also follow recommendations to focus their ethical ranges on staples, such as socks, where style and fashion are less important to people.