Sustainability has been a fashion industry buzzword for a number of seasons now, and the chatter doesn’t get much louder than on social media.
But a new study finds that drumming up discussion about environmental and social impacts has led to mixed results for brands—and it may be because they’re not doing it right. A team of researchers from the University of Liverpool, in collaboration with British e-tailer Asos, conducted analysis on Twitter to explore the discussion of sustainability and ethics in fashion taking place on the platform during July 2019.
The researchers relied on a qualitative assessment of tweets—rather than sentiment analysis and aggregated statistics—to home in on consumers’ areas of interest, as well as their greatest concerns. The team followed popular hashtags like #fastfashion, #ethicalfashion, #sustainablefashion and #slowfashion, as well as examining an Asos marketing campaign that broached these topics and generated criticism from some Twitter users. Overall, the team examined 13,178 tweets, 5,671 of which were retweets, over the course of the month.
According to researchers, the platform is indeed home to a “vibrant discussion” about sustainability, with environmental concerns being top of mind for most users, followed by supply chain labor conditions. “A deep analysis of Twitter content on ethics and sustainability suggests that engagement with other users around these topics, while not without risks, may be useful for companies in the fashion sector,” they wrote.
An analysis of hashtags shows that #sustainablefashion was by far the most popular, used in 69 percent of tweets, followed distantly by #ethicalfashion (23 percent). “Environmental issues are far more commonly discussed than social costs,” researchers wrote, with nearly half (47 percent) of tweets making generic references to sustainability. Specific eco-related issues were mentioned in about one-fifth of tweets, with textile waste and collection notably generating 16 percent of online missives. The social costs of the fashion industry were addressed in just under 6 percent of tweets throughout the month of July.
Predictably, brand marketing efforts were the most frequent fashion-focused tweets (nearly 40 percent). However, one-third of tweets were focused on sharing news with the Twittersphere. Most of these posts did not include evaluation or criticism of shared articles, suggesting that their goal was simply to disseminate information. Conversely, just one-fifth of Twitter users engaged in true debate or discussion of fashion and sustainability using the hashtags. Researchers suggested that the sharing of articles and links is often how Twitter users communicate with businesses about the topics that resonate with them, as they provide a window into what consumers are thinking about.
The second part of the study focused on an Asos campaign that launched in late July. Twitter users could enter for a chance to win an Asos voucher by following the company’s account and tweeting the items on their wish list using the hashtag #ThanksItsAsos. While the vast majority of the 8,675 tweets followed the contest’s rules, 75 “diverged from the trend,” researchers wrote, and instead raised concerns about the company’s ethics.
“Despite the relatively small number of critical posts, it was possible for journalists to weave a narrative that Asos received a ‘barrage of tweets’ criticizing the poor working conditions of staff,” they wrote, including allegations of unfair contracts and pay, monitored toilet breaks and high pollution levels associated with the company. Analysis of the arguments that took place around the #ThanksItsAsos campaign found that while nearly 80 percent expressed an opinion, only one-fifth of the tweets provided a justification for the user’s stance.
While many fashion firms, including Asos, adhere to policies that prevent them from engaging with criticism on social media, the researchers recommended reconsidering the approach in order to open up a meaningful dialogue with consumers about their practices. They should reassess the risks in taking a proactive stance on Twitter, they said, in order to “seize the opportunity to demonstrate authenticity” on social media.
Fashion brands should also rethink their roles as guides and educators when it comes to social impact and sustainability, focusing more on listening and fostering dialogue with consumers. They should move away from touting “’top-down’ or centrally driven policies,” they wrote, and move toward a “more reflective, open and deliberative mode of decision-making” that brings shoppers into the fold.
“This research challenges some of these assumptions around Twitter and the potential for conducting a productive and fruitful discussion on social media,” the researchers concluded, adding that the results show that a “vibrant and varied debate” around ethics and sustainability is actually occurring on Twitter, “and a significant proportion of this activity includes genuine attempts to spark discussion.”