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26% of Americans Still Think Crude Oil Makes Sustainable Clothing. Yikes.

If the results of a new sustainability study are any indication, fashion has a long way to go in educating consumers about what actually makes clothing eco-friendly.

A new international study on consumer attitudes toward textile materials and sustainability shows 86 percent of respondents consider wood–the key raw material for cellulosic fibers–a sustainable textile raw material. But 26 percent of Americans believe crude oil, from which planet-polluting fibers like polyester are made, qualifies as a “sustainable” input for clothing, according to the study “Consumer perceptions of the sustainability of the clothing industry and textile fibers.”

Despite many respondents voting in favor of tree-based garments, only one-third are familiar with wood-fiber-based apparel. Consumers also think a brand’s sustainability image is the single-most-important sign of a conscious buying decision.

Derived from thesis work by environmental management student Fia Husu at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, the study was informed by a digital survey by Norstat in Finland, Sweden, Germany, France and the United States this past spring. The sampling gathered more than 300 responses per country for a total of 1,572 responses encompassing people aged 15 to 40 years.

Nordic respondents were most pro wood–90 percent of Finns and 91 percent of Swedes considered wood a sustainable textile raw material. Many cited environmental concerns as reasons for not finding wood-based textiles appealing, beyond disliking their qualities as a fabric.

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According to the study, harmful chemicals were seen as the textile industry’s worst environmental problem, with 64 percent considering this an issue, while 60 percent also associated excessive water consumption among the sector’s most pressuring concerns, followed by ocean microplastics, waste and CO2 emissions.

When asked what factors make up a sustainable image of a product, a brand’s sustainability image received the most replies with 54 percent. Only 29 percent of respondents thought high price was a sign of sustainability. Environmental certificates were considered an indicator of sustainability by 48 percent.

“When the Spinnova fiber is made of farmed wood, the raw material value chain is CO2 positive,” said Janne Poranen, CEO of Spinnova, a Finnish, sustainable fiber innovation company that develops ecological breakthrough technology for manufacturing cellulose-based fibers. “This means the trees are a larger carbon sink than the lumbering, pulping and logistics combined emit. Therefore, concerns over excessive lumbering and native forest use are mostly unnecessary.”

The Spinnova value chain, which sources only use certified wood or waste raw materials, features 99 percent less water and 65 percent less CO2 emissions than the cotton value chain.

Last week, wood-based fiber specialist Lenzing Group released findings from its global consumer perception survey on “Sustainable Raw Materials in Fashion and Home Textiles” that found a need for closer collaboration between the clothing and home textile industries.

Among the three top takeaways were that conscious consumers actively engage in pursuing a sustainable lifestyle and are regularly educating themselves about raw materials. It showed 86 percent of respondents believed purchasing clothes made from sustainable raw materials was a key component of living a more sustainable lifestyle and they frequently purchase products from brands that are committed to using sustainable raw materials or recycled materials in their products.

The survey also revealed that a majority of respondents actively learn about sustainability through researching a product’s production process before purchasing–76 percent in clothing and 74 percent in bedding and home textiles. They also tend to read label hangtags, 88 percent in clothing and 86 percent in bedding and home textiles, and most respondents are willing to pay an average of 40 percent more for clothing or home textile products with descriptions that reflect sustainability.