In the summer of 2021 when Good Maker Tales was still under construction, I started to wonder what other people’s perspectives were on sustainable fashion.
Asking questions and gathering statistics on people’s opinions about sustainable fashion would help me know what to write about and what to talk to brands about. That was the reasoning. I hadn’t anticipated that a fair proportion of views would be contrary to sustainable fashion trends in the wider market. But that was what made it interesting, who said people were predictable?
This survey questioned 183 people about what they were interested in and how much they already knew about ethical and sustainable fashion. It split that down into people, planet and animals, the three areas heavily affected by the fashion industry.
I was also interested to find out what people’s current shopping habits were and how much they loved fashion. Did this affect their views?
My sample of 183 people was split down into 75% women and 25% men with one abstention and a split of all age groups. The two largest were 42% aged 40-49 and 21% aged 50-59 and a smaller proportion of those 17 and below and 60 and over.
They were a well-qualified bunch with 85% university educated and a good chunk, 49%, working full time. The second largest group, 30%, were self-employed. 53% lived in Europe followed by 36% in the UK, 6% in North Amercia and 4% in Asia.
So here is the first caveat. We are all aware that more than 25% of the population is male, and university education, depending on where you are in the world, can range from 7-57%. Geographically also, the survey is heavily weighted towards Europe and the UK.
That taken into account, what statistics on sustainable fashion did we find?
- 7% knew a great deal about sustainable fashion, 100% of these were women
- Those that knew more tended to be younger
- Respondents who buy clothes at least once a month are slightly younger and more interested in the environmental side
- Those who buy only when necessary are more interested in the human side of production
- 42% of people surveyed were very interested to know more about ethical and sustainable fashion
- Those that rate fashion as very important have a higher tendency to answer “not interested” to questions
- The most important topic to people overall was ensuring that child labour was never used in the supply chain, followed closely by modern slavery
- Regarding the planet, the three most interesting things to people were
- Toxic chemical use leading to water pollution
- How brands are reducing their energy use/carbon footprint, and
- Actions they are taking to reduce deforestation
- “Are their products vegan” received the second highest number of “not interested to know more” responses at 41% of people
- However only 18% gave the same response to “Are their products PeTA approved”
- 45% of respondents were not interested to know if brands offered clothing rental, the highest scoring question for “not interested to know more”
- 24% were not interested to know if brands offered their clothing second-hand
- 26% were not interested to know if brands contributed to charities nor 24% how energy efficient their offices were
- Some topics that were not rated as highly as others were how brands reduce waste from landfill and whether they made sure workers have the right to form a union
- People would particularly like to know more about the sustainability credentials of Inditex, H&M and Primark
in more detail: People’s take on ethical and sustainable fashion
Those in the know
While only 12 people (7%) said they knew a great deal about ethical and sustainable fashion, 100% of those were women. And of those that knew a lot (18), nearly 90% were women. Surprisingly though, in the two groups a slightly higher proportion than in the overall sample bought clothes at least once a month. Perhaps this is due to the high proportion of females, or perhaps these well-informed people don’t necessarily see the solution to the fashion crisis as buying less often.
more on Buying habits
At least once a month
Those who buy clothes at least once a month are a bit younger overall, especially the up to 17s and 18-29 age group, and consist more of females. They also seem to be a bit more interested in the environmental side of things and much more interested in fashion. This makes sense when they buy more regularly.
Only when necessary/try to buy second-hand
Those who only buy clothes when absolutely necessary are more likely to be self-employed. Could this be financially motivated? Or, as they may be more likely to work from home, could they be less concerned about needing new clothes for the office? Personally, I feel much less need to buy new clothes since I’ve been working from home.
Those who buy only when necessary are also more generally interested in the human side of the production, and freedom of association (the right to form a union). They’re also a bit more interested in second-hand shopping and where raw materials come from. Maybe those thinking about the real effect on people of their shopping decisions are more likely to think twice before buying.
Could thinking about another human being be a more powerful dissuader to buy than the environment, which our statistics show interests those who buy more often?
interest in knowing more
42% of the audience were “very interested” to know more about ethical and sustainable fashion. They were mostly female, buying clothes at least once a month, or more likely once every few months, aged 30-59, from Europe or the UK, with a university degree, full time or self-employed, giving a bit of importance to fashion.
What does this tell us? Caveat number two: it’s true that the survey is skewed towards these sorts of people. Are these “middle class” traits more likely to make someone answer a survey of this nature?
It’s true that ethical and sustainable fashion; using sustainable materials and practices and paying your workers a living wage, costs more than fast fashion. However luckily, with growing interest in the market and economies of scale, brands are starting to challenge that notion. Just look at Yes Friends, selling their ethical and sustainable t-shirt for £7.99 if you need more proof. Or our round up of 22 affordable ethical brands.
What about the fashionistas?
Those that rate fashion as very important in their lives are unsurprisingly predominantly female and they fall in the 18-29 and 40-49 age groups.
This group is a bit less enthusiastic to know about most topics in that they have a higher tendency to answer “not interested” to questions. Perhaps they love fashion too much to want to know the murky details of what goes on behind the scenes.
I sympathise with this set, you want to be fashionable, and it’s inconvenient to know the less than glamourous truth. After all, shouldn’t we be able to trust that fashion brands are doing their upmost to be sustainable and ethical on our behalf, and that our governments are enforcing it?
Does age matter?
My personal answer to this question is always no, but interest in certain topics tended to go up with age, although went down, for example, on vegan products.
Interestingly we found the reverse statistics regarding knowing more about sustainable fashion – the older the person, the less they tended to know about it. Is that because we’re set in our ways and don’t want to change, or is it because younger age groups naturally talk about sustainability and the environment more?
And those that don’t know much about sustainable fashion yet?
One of my favourite things about the results was seeing that those who knew nothing at all were generally “quite interested” to know more. Comments included:
What are people most interested in?
I deliberately organised the survey into three main sections: “people”, “planet” and “animals”. It makes more sense to me to think about it this way, and I wanted to know if perspectives on sustainable fashion would change dependent on the sub sector.
Overall, among the three categories, there wasn’t a marked difference in the statistics. But there were definitely some issues that people found more interesting.
People: child labour and modern slavery
Do they make sure that child labour is never used in their supply chain?
What actions are they taking against modern slavery?
The thing people were most interested to know more about was that a brand never used child labour in their supply chain. 84% were very interested to know more, followed closely by what actions they are taking against modern slavery.
And rightly so, we don’t expect these things to happen in the 21st centuary but they do. I cover this more in my articles Why is Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Important and Help End Child Labour: 22 Brands Committed to Child Labour Free Clothing. But, in summary, a staggering 152 million children are estimated to be in child labour by the ILO, and an estimated 77% of UK retailers think there could be a chance of modern slavery in their supply chains at some point.
We are justified in our need to know what the brands we buy from are doing to make sure that these breaches of human rights just don’t happen. Ever.
Planet: less toxins, carbon & deforestation
What statistics on sustainable fashion did we find when it comes to our planet?
What are they doing about toxic chemical use that leads to water pollution?
What are they doing to reduce their energy use/carbon footprint?
What actions are they taking to reduce deforestation?
Toxic chemical use leading to water pollution was the number one most interesting point with 80% very interested to know more. This was followed by 74% of respondents very interested to know what brands were doing to reduce energy use/carbon footprint and what they’re doing to reduce deforestation (73%).
The tanning process to create leather using chromium is just one area of the fashion industry that has a huge and incredibly dirty impact on the world’s waterways. No wonder it’s been banned in Europe and the US, meaning we have to source chromium tanned leather (the most common) from third world countries. It goes without saying that these toxic chemicals also affect workers, including children as young as 10, in hideous ways. And us, the end user. So it’s right that we are interested.
On carbon, the fashion industry creates 10% of the world’s overall carbon footprint, more than maritime shipping and international flights combined. So we are justified in our demands from the fashion industry to know more here too. For more on this and deforestation from the leather industry and clothing threads such as rayon and viscose, see here.
Animals: why veganism puts people off
However, the word vegan is still off-putting to many. “Are their products vegan” received the second highest number of “not interested to know more” responses at 41% of people.
You take out the word vegan however and only 18% gave the same response to “Are their products PeTA approved” meaning there has been no testing on animals anywhere in the supply chain. And reassuringly, 96% of people were either very interested or quite interested to know if a brand was against animal cruelty.
Are their products PeTA approved?
Are they against animal cruelty?
What are the least interesting points?
Clothing rental and second-hand
We’ve recently written articles on clothing rental in the form of clothing subscription boxes and on buying preloved clothing online, including brands selling their products second-hand. Clothing subscription is a growing market. In fact, in 2020 clothing subscription services made up nearly a quarter of all subscription box services in the UK.
UK charity WRAP calculated that extending the active life of a piece of clothing by just 9 months would reduce its carbon, water and waste footprint by 20-30%. Clothing rental extends the life and use of clothing and satisfies people’s desire for newness at the same time, so it’s a win win for the environment too.
What’s more, the number of brands getting in on the act of renting out in addition to selling their clothes is growing. LK Bennett recently launched their LK Borrowed service. The likes of ASOS, French Connection, Whistles, Ghost, Hobbs, Reiss, Marks & Spencer and even Zara can now be rented through rental platforms such as Hire Street, Girl Meets Dress and My Wardrobe HQ.
But the respondents to this survey weren’t generally interested in finding out if brands rented their clothes, it was the highest scoring question for “not interested to know more” at 45%. Likewise, 24% didnt want to know about whether brands sold their clothes second-hand, even though this is a new and growing market, expected to grow a whopping 11 times faster than traditional retail by 2025.
As one respondent said:
Do they offer clothing rental?
Do they sell any second-hand clothes?
Arguably, it’s a very new concept for high street brands to be offering their products for anything other than for sale. And the market for these services is often those with less money or those very interested in not buying new in order to be sustainable. But that is a small and growing group; see #nonewclothes.
It could also be said that selling second-hand or renting clothes doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think about sustainability or ethics in the fashion industry. But it absolutely is, and we will not be able to ignore these sectors in the coming years.
Things that could be seen as “greenwashing”
Do they contribute to charities?
Are you interested to know more about how energy efficient their offices are?
Finally, and in my opinion not surprisingly, 26% were not interested to know if brands contributed to charities nor 24% how energy efficient their offices were.
Whilst these are nice to haves, why would we want to know that a brand contributes some of its money to a charity for say teenagers in Africa when they are not paying a living wage to their workers in Bangladesh?
Equally, while they might have carbon neutral offices, if their power guzzling factories are not, why would we care?
Some really important ethical and sustainable issues were not rated as highly as other items, and my guess is that this stems from a lack of knowledge and public information rather than a lack of caring. These included what actions brands are taking to reduce textile waste and whether they ensure that workers have the right to Collective Bargaining and Freedom of Association (the right to form a union).
How do they reduce waste from landfill?
Do they make sure that workers have the right to Collective Bargaining and Freedom of Association (the ability to form a union)?
It’s estimated that every year the world creates a staggering 92 million tonnes of textile waste which is expected to increase to 134 million tonnes by 2030. Textile waste is a huge problem. Landfills in third world countries are overflowing.
In addition, the right for a worker to be able to form or join a union may not seem like a pressing issue. But it means the difference between being able to challenge and change the conditions they work in, or having no voice, like those who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. Organisations such as the Awaj Foundation are campaigning hard to give workers the right to speak up.
Which brands are the most interesting?
Lastly, I asked people which fashion brands, if any, they’d like to know more about. Three names cropped up repeatedly: Inditex (Zara, Bershka, Massimo Dutti etc.), H&M and Primark.
Others on the list included big names such as Levi’s, Kiabi, C&A, River Island, Mango, Uniqlo, New Look, Pretty Little Thing and Forever 21. More known for their sustainability credentials Ecoalf and MUD Jeans were also on the list.
The results of this survey, as I’ve already said, come with a number of caveats. But what has been the most inspiring has been people’s interest in the Good Maker Tales project, and more importantly what it stands for. It shows that people do care about sustainable fashion, and want to know more.
I also received some great suggestions and comments, including those below:
Yes please! A lot of people just don’t know where to recycle their clothes.
Some brands do now let you bring unwanted clothes back and some of those give you a discount on new. These include the H&M group who give a “thank you voucher” for your next purchase, Levi’s (so far only in the US) and Marks & Spencer (if you take their clothes to Oxfam you get a £5 M&S voucher).
Thanks for the comments on mulesing. Re t-shirts, see the £7.99 ethically and sustainably produed t-shirt from Yes Friends, sustainable fashion is getting a lot more affordable!
These are inspiring comments and I am truly grateful to those who took the time to write them, plus to everyone who took the time to fill in the survey.
I hope that, whilst flawed in some aspects, the survey results have shown some enlightening statistics on sustainable and ethical fashion, and show a fundamental consumer interest. Now we must keep asking questions, voting with our feet and spreading the message.
Please contact me if you would like a copy of the full results.