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How Much Does Sustainability Drive Consumers’ Home Textiles Choices?

Fashion and home textiles often get lumped together into a singular soft goods sector, but there are nuances between the two categories when it comes to sustainability.

For starters, home goods are typically purchased less frequently than fashion items. Ben Mead, managing director of Hohenstein Institute, says this gives shoppers more time to research fiber options and manufacturing processes before coming to a decision. The difference in buying patterns also has an impact on how sustainability is communicated to the end consumer. He’s seen home manufacturers and brands take a greater interest in making environmental and performance claims than the general apparel category, making it easier for shoppers to locate products that have these attributes featured prominently on their labels.

These claims also have a better chance to draw shoppers’ attention. Apparel choices are often heavily driven by brand affinity, but home goods are less linked to labels. “Our experience has been that on the home textile side, people are more open minded to a validated performance claim or sustainability claim rather than being totally swayed by a brand name,” said Mead.

Across categories, Google searches for sustainable goods grew 71 percent from 2016 to 2020, according to a study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit for the World Wildlife Fund. But even with the growing attention toward eco-friendliness, experts agree that home textile shoppers are frequently weighing other factors ahead of sustainability.

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Miranda Chen, marketing director of China-based man-made cellulosic fiber maker Sateri, explained that Chinese consumers’ criteria for purchases are largely the same across apparel and home textiles. Per a 2018 study conducted by Sateri with Fudan University, the top decision points were fabric type, style, quality, brand and price. “Consumers are still more interested in self-benefitting criteria such as comfort, product safety and skin-friendliness when making a purchase,” she said. “In home textiles, durability is also one of the top decision-making criteria.”

In a number of studies, consumers have self reported that they’re willing to pay more for sustainability. But what shoppers say and what they actually do might not always match up. “Anybody you talk to says, ‘Of course I would prefer to buy something that’s sustainable.’ But not everybody is willing to put their money where their mouth is,” said Michael McDonald, president of SPESA.

Robert Pearce, senior vice president of Dreamfit, a division of Homtex, has seen cost come first for customers who are “uneducated or uninspired” by sustainability, followed by aesthetics and quality. He noted that interest in sustainability varies greatly from person to person depending on factors like their age, location and budget. There are some shoppers who place sustainability highly, but generally, he describes sustainability’s current position for most shoppers as the icing atop the cake, rather than the cake itself. “That number or segment of people where it’s the cake instead of the icing is smaller than it should be,” he noted.

Although sustainability alone is not currently a top purchase driver, Chen sees the potential for this to evolve. “The Covid-19 pandemic has increased consumer awareness in sustainability over the past year,” she said. “We believe that moving forward, this area will have a greater influence on consumers’ decision-making process.”

Until sustainability comes first, one way to encourage shoppers to buy eco-friendly home goods is to combine an environmental or social impact story with a performance benefit. This has the potential to overcome cost considerations. As an example, Dreamfit’s premium sustainable enhanced bamboo sheeting, which boasts cooling and moisture wicking properties, has more unit sales than the brand’s entry-level priced bed linens. Likewise, chemical safety is a concern in both clothing and home products since apparel, sheets and towels all come into contact with users’ skin.

“When we communicate the benefits of those sustainable products in ways that touch the customer more personally, I think we accelerate new behaviors that way too,” said Pearce. “It kind of reminds me of an old proverb that you have to touch the heart to teach the brain.”

Communication and certification

In the apparel world, there are a number of brands that have built a lifestyle around sustainability. But McDonald pointed out that this historically hasn’t been the case in home goods, and that the demand for sustainability in home lagged a bit behind apparel.

According to Pearce, the fashion industry’s environmental and social impact has faced greater and earlier public attention than home textiles, in part because apparel is seen more than towels or bedding. “The things that are in the bedroom are kind of behind the curtain, and so they don’t have as much public visibility or public scrutiny,” he noted. Now, he says, the home market is catching up in addressing these issues.

Certification and point-of-sale labeling can alert consumers to a brand’s efforts. Sustainability may not be the main feature that shoppers are seeking out, but as more companies are sharing their standards, Mead sees the potential for brands and products that lack certification to be passed over. While consumer demand largely drives the push to certification, he describes it as a “chicken or the egg” situation, since having plentiful products in the market with certifications creates additional consumer demand. This in turn makes retailers follow their competitors’ lead.

Mead believes there is an opportunity for more transparency regarding why sustainable products have higher price points, including explaining the added costs of third-party validation. “I think that’s a piece of it that hasn’t really been explained to the consumer,” he said. “So maybe that’s something that helps in terms of not driving high profitability from a sustainability standpoint, but getting equitable payment for what it really costs to do some of those things.”

In addition to physical tags, companies can also use digital communication such as QR codes and apps to share content about their supply chains, enabling shoppers to see back to the factory or the farm level.

Even if consumers are not shopping with a sustainability-first mindset today, generating awareness could move the needle in the future. “Change in consumer awareness and behavior or desire for sustainability may still require some time and education,” said Chen. “However, with more awareness campaigns relating to the impact of fast fashion and personal care products now coming on stream, we see more of the younger generations starting to pay some attention to product sustainability.”

Sustainable supply chains

Despite the fact that home textiles and garments both have a cut-and-sew supply chain, the differences in the two make it easier to efficiently deliver on sustainability in home goods. For one, home textile supply chains tend to be more vertical, allowing for more visibility, oversight and easier certification of more production stages. Further simplifying the process of sustainability, there is less variation between different products, allowing new dyeing methods, raw materials or processes to be used more widely.

Finally, sustainability can be more cost-effective for home textile manufacturers since companies can take advantage of automation. Per McDonald, the standardized sizes and frequently simpler, squarer shapes make it more feasible to automate and to reduce waste.

“There needs to be a significant push from both the industry and the consumer side of demanding sustainability in their products,” said McDonald. “Home goods is catching up to apparel, [and] there’s a path for it to overtake apparel because of the manufacturing process and because the ability to implement some of these sustainable practices is a little bit easier than it is in apparel.”