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Labeling for good

Sustainable branding labels stock

With the fashion industry churning out millions of tons of clothing each year, often resulting in landfill waste and unethical labor practices, the need for a shift towards sustainable consumption is obvious.

Consumers face significant obstacles to finding socially responsible choices, including limited access to sustainability information about the clothes they buy.

Professor Annie Williams sheds light on the power of sustainability labels in closing the information gap and driving positive change in her research.

Her studies show how labels provide consumers with crucial information about the production process and its impact on people and the planet.

Labels have the potential to bridge the information gap that currently plagues fashion.

From disclosing the use of child labor to detailing working conditions and materials used, sustainability labels offer a glimpse into the true cost of fashion.

“It’s clear that consumers have good intentions to purchase sustainably. But those intentions don’t translate to consumption,” says Williams. “And one barrier is that consumers just don’t know how to determine what is sustainable and what is not. And how to vet each one against the other.”

Addressing these challenges necessitates a fundamental shift in consumer behavior towards embracing sustainable practices within the fashion industry. That involves reimagining every stage of the clothing lifecycle – from design and production to distribution and disposal – to minimize adverse environmental and social impacts while maximizing positive outcomes.

Consumers are ready

A 2022 IBM study found that more than half of respondents reported sustainability as being more important to them today than it was a year ago.

Despite this strong inclination towards socially responsible purchasing, significant barriers include a lack of accessible information about product sustainability and challenges in accurately evaluating the environmental impact of various items.

As a result, while consumers are eager to adopt socially conscious fashion habits, many find themselves ill-equipped.

Could incorporating sustainability labels on apparel improve consumer awareness and consequently foster a more positive impact on socially responsible fashion consumption?

In a nutshell: Yes, according to Williams’ first study “Signaling Sustainability: Exploring Consumer Perspectives on Communicating Apparel Sustainability Information,” published in the Journal of Sustainable Marketing.

Williams enlisted 20 participants aged between 18 and 59, with an average age of 35. The group of six men and 14 women represented various ethnicities, including Hispanic (15%), Caucasian (55%), Asian (10%) and African American (20%). She carried out in-depth interviews lasting approximately 20-30 minutes with each of them.

The findings revealed the importance of making sustainability information easily accessible and understandable to consumers. Participants identified the need for clear and concise labeling that includes:

  • The impact of apparel production on both people and the planet, considering these aspects as the most crucial among the “3Ps” (people, planet and profit)
  • Specific details such as whether production involved child labor, the location of production, working conditions and materials used
  • How apparel items were produced but also why this information matters
  • Information about how consumers can enhance sustainability by reducing consumption costs – specifically, the best ways to dispose of used clothing.

Participants suggested sustainability messages would be more appealing if they came from trusted sources and favored an easy-to-understand “sustainability index” on labels representing the item’s relative sustainability level.

In a second study, Williams explores a sustainability index in more depth. “An index is worth a thousand words: Considering consumer perspectives in the development of a sustainability label” was published in the journal Cleaner and Responsible Consumption.

Her results show consumers’ preference for a single mode of communication that conveys the social and environmental responsibility of clothes, rather than brands using multiple types of labels or communication methods.

This preferred mode is the “apparel sustainability index label.”

Her findings are based on focus group discussions with 22 participants in which four key themes emerged.

  • The “Many Birds, One Seed” suggests that brands should introduce a double-sided apparel sustainability label featuring an index. Participants said the front of the label could visually depict the item’s overall sustainability using a color-coded index, making it appealing to those less interested in specific details. Meanwhile, the back of the label could delve into specific sustainability categories, like energy usage and work conditions, through a similar color-coded system, supplemented by a QR code for consumers seeking even more detailed information.
  • The “Show Me a Picture” theme underscores a consumer preference for sustainability signals through visual cues such as icons or symbols over text.
  • The “Catch My Attention” theme highlights the importance of making sustainability information easily digestible, suggesting the use of color-coded scales from green to red on the apparel sustainability index to swiftly convey sustainability levels.
  • The “Earn My Trust” theme indicates consumers would trust sustainability information more if it comes from a neutral, third-party verifier rather than from the brand itself.

Williams and her fellow researchers then crafted an apparel sustainability index label using insights gleaned from the focus groups. The result was a double-sided, color-coded clothing label featuring an apparel sustainability index, icons and a logo.

In a follow-up study she determined that apparel brands using the apparel sustainability index label to communicate their sustainable offerings benefit from more positive consumer attitudes and brand equity evaluations.

This finding should incentivize clothing brands to communicate their apparel’s sustainability, and doing so could encourage sustainable-apparel consumption because consumers would have access to the production information they need to make informed purchases.

While more work is needed in order to facilitate the adoption of the apparel sustainability index label by producers, Williams’ research suggests a potential method to encourage sustainable apparel consumption. The label offers consumers the information they need to make more sustainable purchases.

In exchange, brands with sustainable apparel stand to gain from more positive consumer evaluations by disclosing the details of how their apparel is produced. “With producers and consumers working together,” says Williams, “we can usher in a more sustainable apparel industry by way of the apparel sustainability index label.”