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What Consumers Really Want to See on an Eco-Label

As debate over what a consumer-facing eco-label should look like heats up, a recent survey finds not only a mixed appetite for such an instrument but also differing priorities about the type of information it should contain.

While 50 percent of 500 Americans polled by Fordham University-Gabelli School of Business’s Responsible Business Coalition and Rockbridge Associates have “some level” of interest in using eco-labels to help guide their fashion purchase, only 13.1 percent reported that they were “very interested.” Of the remaining 50 percent that indicated they were less keen on such devices, 17.8 percent said they had “no interest at all.”

Enthusiasm for eco-labels, the study found, is mostly driven by younger, college-educated and employed consumers who live in urban settings. In contrast, older, high-school educated and unemployed consumers tended to show far less interest.

The Balkanization of demographics should not be taken to mean that eco-labeling is unimportant to consumers, the report noted. Rather, it indicates that “distinct customer segments exist” regarding a desire for fashion eco-labeling.

“It’s clear that there is a lot of potential for eco-labels in the pursuit of sustainable fashion,” said Lerzan Aksoy, managing director of the Responsible Business Coalition and the study’s author. “While older generations may not find them as influential or necessary as younger generations, millennials and Gen Z will represent over half of the world’s income within the next 10 years.“

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Brands that wish to remain competitive and relevant will “need to prioritize transparency when it comes to social and environmental impact and clearly communicating their credentials to these consumers,” she added.

A product’s carbon footprint, one of the key measures of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index and the European Union’s Product Environmental Footprint, ranked only sixth in importance among those surveyed. Chief among the concerns of 45 percent of respondents was a garment’s recyclability, followed by human rights for 39 percent of them. Chemical use, animal welfare and material use were each deemed a priority by 33 percent of consumers.

Regarding the eco-label’s physical appearance, 65 percent of consumers wanted to see one attached directly to the clothing item via a brand label, price tag or both. But although QR codes can quickly unlock a garment’s sustainability credentials, it was also the least desired vehicle because few of those surveyed (12 percent) said they used them with any regularity.

“Given that QR codes are not a new technology and that there are numerous opportunities to use them in other scenarios, this may indicate difficulty getting fashion consumers to widely adopt them to access sustainability information,” Aksoy said.

For online shopping, 44 percent of those polled said they preferred an eco-label to manifest as a sustainability icon on the website, as a website filter or both. Nearly one in four (24 percent) respondents also said that they would like a designated in-store or online area that spotlights sustainable products.

Aksoy said she believes that fashion has the potential to be a powerful force for good in the world. Because the manufacture and sale of garments span an extensive supply and distribution chain, the industry “touches numerous areas of interest” to ESG-conscious consumers.

“The fashion industry has made great strides in ensuring that its products are ethically manufactured and sustainable. For this to impact consumers’ purchasing decisions, however, they need to be able to know and compare alternatives based on their sustainability criteria,” Aksoy said. “As such, eco-labels are an important and viable mechanism for eco-conscious consumers to evaluate the sustainability of the garments that they consider purchasing.”

What about ‘label creep’?

The study arrives after the American Apparel & Footwear Association urged Congress to approve legislation directing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to allow consumers to receive mandated labeling information, such as care and fiber content, through digital means, including but not limited to QR codes.

Such legislation would “modernize outdated federal regulations to the benefit of consumers,” according to the trade group, which represents companies such as Adidas, Gap Inc. and J.Crew.

“Allowing for mandated information about a garment to be delivered through a digital label would improve accessibility, give consumers the regulatory information they need plus access to more information about the product and help the industry meet its sustainability goals,” president and CEO Steve Lamar wrote in a letter dated June 9 to Representative Frank Pallone, chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee and others.

A “proliferation” of garment-labeling requirements around the world has led to “label creep,” with “pages of labels in small text in multiple languages and with confusing symbols that are hard to read and uncomfortable,” Lamar said. The possibility of additional sustainability-related labeling requirements will “only make the current situation, where there is a profusion of labels, worse,” he added.

“Replacing all of that with a digital label on the garment would mean consumers—who increasingly use the internet or their smartphones to interact with the things around them—will have a simple, convenient and easy way to access the required regulatory information,” Lamar said. “And they would also be able to access additional information they want about the product and how it was made.”

Consumers will also have ready access to the latest information about a garment— even if they’re its second or third owner—because the much smaller digital label is more likely to be left dangling than snipped off for comfort or convenience.

Visually impaired consumers will “finally have access” to care and fiber content information because digital labeling will enable them to increase the font size of the labeling information, use text to voice or other digital assistance technologies, Lamar said.

Meanwhile, companies will be able to “dramatically” reduce the use of label tape and ink. Today, federal and international regulations require the industry to produce label tape in “such copious quantities that the amount used each year could reach to the moon and back 12 times,” he added.

“We fully believe the FTC has the power in current statute to allow for the use of digital labels on garments to deliver mandated information like care and content to consumers,” Lamar said. “Regrettably, the FTC has repeatedly told us it believes it does not have the authority to do so. As such, we urge Congress to approve legislation that would require the FTC to allow for the use of digital labels. The time to act is now. Even though consumers and the technology that enables this are in the 2020s, the regulatory regime that created these labeling requirements is still locked in the 1960s.”