Many industries, including textiles, have modernized their supply chains by implementing sustainable practices in product manufacturing that decrease the use of water, energy and chemicals. While sustainable product manufacturing is important to U.S. consumers, their concerns are still primarily focused on rising retail prices, high unemployment and uneasiness over their personal financial situations. Today, U.S. consumers exhibit less concern about global and environmental issues than they did five years ago, but are willing to adopt some environmentally friendly habits, and expect manufacturers, brands and retailers to continue social and corporate responsibility efforts.
Marketing messages about environmentally friendly apparel are still a source of confusion, and those who actively seek out and purchase these products are a niche group of consumers. The percentage of consumers who say they have purchased "environmentally friendly" clothing or home textiles in the past year is down significantly compared to five years ago. And while consumers are aware and applaud the apparel industry's ongoing movement toward being "greener," they reject having to pay more or wearing less appealing clothing to be "greener." Six out of ten consumers say the current economic situation has made them less likely to pay more for environmentally friendly clothing or home textiles, but they are willing to change some of their behaviors to become better stewards of the environment.
Consumers are making deliberate changes and expending more effort looking for environmentally friendly items in a few categories. For apparel, the largest shift in behavior has been among consumers searching for natural fibers; fifty-six percent of consumers are now looking for natural fibers, up from 45% in 2008. Easy to find reusable cloth bags, clearly labeled apparel and education about environmental practices may increase the likelihood of sustainable practices being adopted by consumers.
In 2012, one-third of consumers said that they have purchased "environmentally friendly" clothing, down from 36% in 2008. When asked how much effort they put into finding environmentally friendly clothing, fewer consumers appear to try consistently; just over one-quarter (27%) of consumers say they make an effort, down from 34% in 2008. Shoppers' unwillingness to search for green apparel may be a reflection of industry offerings. According to Cotton Incorporated's Retail Monitor™ research, only 0.6% of products offered at retail contained eco-friendly marketing claims in 2011. While a small share of shoppers actually seek out environmentally friendly products, 68% of consumers say they would be bothered if they learned that apparel was manufactured in a non-environmentally friendly way. The majority of all consumers are also decisive on the view that retailers or manufacturers should be held accountable if products are produced using non-environmentally friendly methods.
The bombardment of "green" marketing terms and products claiming to be organic, environmentally friendly, sustainable and eco-friendly has primed the consumer for disillusionment. More than six out of ten consumers (63%) are concerned about "green washing" (the intentional use of marketing messages to misrepresent a company or product as being environmentally friendly), and 37% find green marketing to be confusing. When asked to describe the word "sustainable" in regards to clothing, only a quarter of consumers provided a definition specifically related to the environment. Consumers who actively seek environmentally friendly apparel are also just as likely as their counterparts not to have a consistent understanding about the meaning of sustainable apparel. The term "environmentally friendly" yielded a myriad of responses ranging from how a product is made and what it is made from, to corporate responsibility, and no animal testing.
Fiber is an important component of consumer perceptions of the environmental friendliness of clothing. Consumers say that the fiber content label (44%) and the clothing hangtag (40%) are the most common ways they determine if a clothing item is environmentally friendly. When asked what marketing terms would influence them to acquire a new clothing item, the majority of consumers say "100% cotton" is most likely to influence their apparel purchase decision compared to terms such as "natural," "green," "sustainable," "biodegradable" and "environmentally friendly."
Consumers tend to understand the benefits they receive from cotton such as comfort and versatility, and 72% consider natural fibers, such as cotton, to be better for the environment than clothing made from synthetic fibers. For the majority of consumers (75%), cotton is the preferred fiber when buying clothing. Cotton is not only considered safe for the environment by 9 out of 10 consumers, but when compared to other natural and synthetic fibers, cotton also ranks as the safest.
Every stage of a textile product's life cycle has environmental impacts—from fiber production through manufacturing and retailing to laundering and disposal by consumers. According to the recent cradle-to-grave Cotton Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for the agricultural and textile industries, consumer laundering (i.e., washing and drying clothing) choices have a significant impact in terms of water and energy usage. Some consumers are becoming aware of their ability to decrease the environmental impact of clothing care as more than one-third (35%) of consumers have made changes in the way they wash their clothing, including using cold water more often (68%), washing larger loads (51%) and wearing clothing multiple times before washing (47%).
While consumers may not be able to articulate the importance of environmentally friendly production practices in their clothing purchase decisions, it is in the textile industry's best interest to continue adopting commercial practices that reduce water, energy and chemical use. Despite limits of consumer awareness and motivation, 47% of consumers support manufacturers that use renewable resources, and 28% say they check corporate environmental policies before making a purchase. However, implementing new environmental policies as an ethical choice for a company and the industry, and not solely as a marketing tool to win consumers over, is vital for authenticity and credibility. By leveraging industry tools, such as the current cotton Life Cycle Inventory, soon to be published in Life Cycle Inventory databases, textile companies can continue to measure their progress and improve their efforts to maximize efficient use of natural resources. When personal financial outlooks are brighter and unemployment eases for consumers, a genuine and visible commitment to sustainable practices may give more environmentally friendly retailers and brands a noticeable advantage at recapturing consumers' spending dollars.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
Cotton Incorporated's Environment Survey is a nationwide study of consumers ages 13-54, who identified themselves as their household's primary or secondary decision-maker for clothing purchases. The survey, conducted via the internet, by Bellomy Research, Inc., included a sample that was 60% female and 40% male, and was representative of the U.S. population based on ethnicity, income, education, and geography.