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Consumers Still Ranking Fit and Comfort over Sustainability

Green is great but comfort is king when it comes to apparel, according to U.S. consumers.

Cotton Incorporated recently commissioned a survey exploring what consumers are most interested in knowing about the products they purchase, and while sustainability may be important to those in the U.S., it still didn’t outrank such traditional considerations as quality, fit, comfort, durability and price.

The company polled consumers in the U.S., Mexico, China, U.K. and Germany, and discovered that levels of priority placed on sustainability and transparency varied depending upon region. Just 26 percent of U.S. consumers reported being interested in the environmental impact of producing items vs. 53 percent in Mexico and 67 percent in China.

When clothing is broken out, 66 percent of those in the U.S. said it was important to know about a product’s environmental impact, compared with 85 percent in Mexico and 87 percent in China.

Although the study didn’t reveal explanations for the results, Melissa Bastos, Cotton Incorporated’s director of market research, shared a few theories with Sourcing Journal.

“What data over time do reveal is that consumer motivations for taking sustainable action, such as recycling or buying sustainably produced clothing, show a closer connection to environmental issues facing emerging nations,” she said. “In China, for example, 50 percent of consumers tell us they act sustainably to live a more balanced and healthier lifestyle. In the family-oriented culture of Mexico, 69 percent of consumers tell us they want to protect the world for children, grandchildren [and] future generations. By contrast, 59 percent of consumers in the U.S. and the U.K., and 57 percent of consumers in Germany, cite the more abstract motivation that sustainable action is simply the right thing to do.”

These interest levels are increasing, according to Bastos, with 57 percent of global consumers reporting their concerns about sustainability have grown in the past year.

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“We consistently see that consumers in developing countries are more interested in sustainability than those in developed countries,” she said. “This study adds a new element by revealing consumer interest in transparency, as well. Consumers want to know what is happening in the factory down the road, and, by extension, in the clothes that they buy.”

When it comes to translating sustainability and transparency at the cash register, companies able to achieve both eco-friendliness and practicality may have arrived at the magic formula. In near-unanimous responses, quality, fit and comfort each were cited by 91 percent of consumers as a purchase driver, while durability and price were each cited by 89 percent.

“Seventy-four percent of consumers say sustainability is important to their clothing decisions, but only if the primary drivers are met first,” said Bastos, surmising, “Brands and retailers that can connect their sustainability efforts to apparel that meets the higher-ranking purchase drivers may be more successful in both sales and environmental perception.”

Cotton Incorporated’s survey indicates there’s no one right way for companies to share information about their sustainability efforts—but an effort needs to be made. More than half of consumers wanted information to be available on a brand’s website (55 percent) or a garment hangtag (53 percent).

As noted during Sourcing Journal’s Transparency webinar, defining transparency and sustainability can differ depending upon whom you ask, with retailers, manufacturers and consumers each carrying their own perception.

“Interestingly, our research reveals that over half of global consumers say natural (56 percent) and 100 percent cotton (52 percent) describe sustainable clothing very well,” said Bastos. “Additional popular terms include durable (45 percent), hypoallergenic (44 percent) and high quality (44 percent).”

Also worth noting: Fifty-eight percent of U.S. consumers in Cotton Incorporated’s study said they would hold a brand, retailer or manufacturer responsible if they found out an item they had purchased was produced in a non-environmentally friendly way.

Bastos said this was the first Cotton Incorporated study in which consumers said fiber producers also had a responsibility to inform of products’ environmental impacts. She speculated it could be because of increased media attention around microplastics and textile microfibers in oceans and waterways.

Cotton Incorporated found that 27 percent of U.S. consumers were aware of the issue in 2018, up from 17 percent in 2017.