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Consumers Want to Know More About Their Clothing, But Not Too Much

Consumers, more often than ever, want to play a role in making fashion more sustainable, a new study commissioned by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition noted Friday.

Conducted by research consultancy GlobeScan—and based on 12 consumer focus groups in six international cities, including Shanghai, Hamburg, London and New York City—the research found “tangible signs” of peaking awareness and interest among mainstream consumers of the social and environmental impacts of their clothing choices.

“Many are already active, or want to be, in making choices based on issues they connect to personally, such as the use of organic cotton or the protection of workers’ rights,” the authors of “Empowering Consumers through Transparency,” wrote. “The greater profile given to sustainability-focused initiatives and communications from major fashion companies, as well as the increased profile of smaller, purpose-led fashion brands, is helping to fuel this interest.”

But while many of the focus-group participants indicated an interest in the sustainability of their clothing, most admitted they were not seeking information or making informed decisions in a “proactive way.”

“This reveals a values-action gap, whereby people would like to be doing more but they aren’t yet empowered to live up to their intentions,” the authors said.

That’s not to say consumers are completely blasé about what they buy. GlobeScan noted a “strong undercurrent of negative perceptions,” driven by media coverage about unsafe work conditions and poverty pay in the global fashion supply chain. For some people, this created a “surge in guilt attached to buying new clothes.”

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As such, this “push and pull” of positive and negative information has created a tension for certain consumers who don’t know whom to believe or trust.

“On the one hand, they are keen to see brands taking action, but on the other they question the extent, authenticity and transparency of the actions taking place,” the report’s authors noted. “At the moment, people are left with too many questions and not enough concrete answers.”

What the means is brands and retailers that fail to share “meaningful sustainable information” publicly risk ceding relevance, trust and market share to companies that do, said GlobalScan, which defines transparency as “easily and publicly accessible sustainability information about the value chain and products that is clear, complete, comparable and trustworthy, with the intent to enable informed decision making and drive impact improvements.”

Brands and retailers don’t have to be perfect, GlobeScan said. Customers would rather see companies embark on a journey to becoming more sustainable by relating their current state, goals and plans for improvement. Token efforts such as short-lived capsule collections risk being viewed as a form of marketing or greenwashing, since they lack a “sense of real values and action underneath.”

At the same time, consumers want fashion companies to keep explanations simple, but not too simple, comprehensive, but not overly comprehensive. An overload of information, in fact, could wind up having the opposite effect.

“People want to know more but reject transparency that overwhelms them or is not easy to understand,” the report’s authors wrote. “Some even feel that brands are ‘dumping information’ on consumers, which results in consumers being unable to easily find the information that is most relevant to them. Counterintuitively, this can lead consumers to feel that brands are being deliberately opaque.”

Raw transparency, in and of itself, will not engage customers. Brands and retailers need to consider what is communicated, how and where it is communicated and why it is communicated. Language should be brief, precise and emotionally engaging, but also sincere and authentic. Otherwise, consumers, especially those branded by GlobeScan as “resistant” (compared with those who are “receptive” or “engaged”) will smell a rat.

“Transparency for transparency’s sake, will not help empower consumers to make sustainable choices,” the authors said. “Transparency must facilitate the sharing of meaningful and relevant information in order to engage consumers effectively.”

Arvind Limited, C&A, G-Star Raw, H&M, MAS Holdings, Nike, Pratibha Syntex, PVH Corp., Prosperity Textile and Zalando participated in the development of the report.