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Shoppers Balk at Pricey Sustainable Fashion—Here’s What Brands Can Do

Eco-friendliness may be the top factor that consumers say guides them to a particular brand, but price premiums and a lack of trust in companies’ responsibility claims may deter them from shopping sustainably.

New research from The Conference Board indicates that while consumers are increasingly interested in sustainability, attributes such as cost, quality and function are typically the top considerations. After these needs have been met, then a brand’s sustainability comes into play as a differentiator and purchase driver.

While consumers might be fine with paying a slight pricing premium for sustainability, there typically has to be something else that a product offers over its competitors to draw shoppers to a more expensive, if responsible, option. In fashion, this might mean increased fabric functionality or an appealing design, such as Allbirds’ youthful aesthetic.

“When you have two of the very same products that have no other additional benefit and one is more sustainable than the other, if you then discover this one product is more expensive, then price is an issue,” Denise Dahlhoff, senior researcher, consumer research at The Conference Board and author of the report, said.

The survey, which polled more than 30,000 consumers in 64 countries on their sustainability views, found that sustainability can provoke a positive emotion in consumers and drive loyalty. These emotional appeals can also be the key to reducing shoppers’ price sensitivity surrounding sustainable fashion.

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Price is the top barrier keeping consumers from choosing an environmentally sustainable option. The report suggests manufacturing models such as on-demand production, which lowers the cost of producing goods to put the retail price more in line with non-sustainable competitors, could ameliorate prohibitively high price points. Additionally, if governments intervene with taxes or similar measures, this also may shrink the pricing gap over time.

While consumers also cite price as a significant issue when considering buying merchandise that was manufactured with fair wages and labor conditions, a lack of awareness or education is the No. 1 reason they choose not to make the purchase. Overall, consumers say they have a lack of trust or understanding of brands’ sustainability initiatives, whether environmental or social, and that conducting their own research is too time consuming. This points to the importance of education and communication.

One of the challenges facing companies as they seek to communicate their ecological and social initiatives to consumers is the differing definition of sustainability around the world.

Globally, environmental concerns like pollution and climate change are most associated with sustainability, while North American consumers are most apt to link sustainability with recycling efforts and Europeans associate the term with a fair price.

Overall, respondents tended to rank environmental issues ahead of social ones. However, a disregard for social issues such as unfair labor practices could cause consumers to boycott a company, even more than the support of a social cause that they oppose. While environmental concerns have been in the spotlight, Dahlhoff foresees labor issues becoming the “next big thing.”

One option for companies to clarify their efforts and gain trust is to seek out certification from third parties, such as securing a fair-trade label to verify a responsible supply chain. Visualization is also key to getting a message across, translating figures into tangible ideas, such as comparing plastic saved to the size of a football field.

Brands can also choose to offer consumers unprecedented information, as Everlane does by opening the book on its costs and production. “People want more and more transparency and getting a look behind-the-scenes of their favorite brands, and I think that’s a huge opportunity to be more transparent about that and differentiate yourself that way,” Dahlhoff said.

Consumers have varying expectations for sectors when it comes to sustainability. When consumers were asked which sectors should care the most about environmental and social responsibility, clothing manufacturers came in at No. 11 and retailers placed last in the 15th spot. Despite these lower expectations, businesses that operate in the fashion sector cannot afford to ignore sustainability. While consumers expect less of fashion producers and retailers, they also give them lower grades for sustainability performance compared to sectors such as technology, food, airlines and automakers.

To improve consumer sentiment, the fashion industry has a number of opportunities to innovate. New businesses including resale, rentals, circular models and upcycling are all opportunities to raise the industry’s sustainability profile. As companies seek to develop new production methods, such as fabric recycling, there is also a benefit to collaboration, even with competitors.

“Because you have to rethink everything and shake it up, I think it’s a huge opportunity,” Dahlhoff said. “And sometimes, you should probably think that way, not just make it sustainable but think of what are the other benefits that you can add in the process.”