Thinking fashion, thinking ethical.
Over the course of nearly six months, two things happened in a relatively short time frame.
The first was a trip down South (of Sydney) for a course over the weekend that covered all things 'incoming first baby'. For the point of this post, on this particular trip, I befriended Davyn de Bruyne (also at the time, a soon-to-be-first-time dad), Managing Director of ethical fashion marketplace Thread Harvest.
The second thing a few months after this chance introduction was when sitting on the couch one evening debating what to watch on Netflix. Given my intrigue and interest in constantly learning, I tend to get across documentaries as often as I can, and in this instance, I landed on The True Cost.
I was (naively) blindsided by the reality of the situation. And I suddenly became incredibly interested in it and what was being done to combat it. Both small and big. In doing so, my conversations and involvement with Thread Harvest evolved.
With that, I wanted to document both an overview of what I see to be the problem from a behavioural point of view, the task at hand for Thread Harvest, and an insight into how they are setting out to change the world - just simply because I find it interesting and there may be many others out there that think the same.
Purchasing ethical fashion is a behaviour change problem. For both an industry, and as independent businesses within, there’s one ultimate objective - get consumers to change their current behaviour and buy ethical products.
Now obviously, the implementation and activation of such a broad goal is nowhere near as simple. If it were, every business would be 100% successful. But humans are complex. So complex. Both our evolution and our current environment have a huge role to play in our decision making, and in more times than we wish, result in us making thousands of decisions that are both bad for us and our environment, and almost completely contradictory to what we’ve said we’d do. In the purest definition of the word, human beings are incredibly irrational. Behaviour change is complex.
But, if you start to understand what triggers human behaviour, you can begin to address how to drive human behaviour. And for me, there are two broad areas business owners, policy-makers, marketers, and alike need to be aware of.
In its simplest form, behaviour change is driven by two key triggers:
Motivation. Is it worth my time? Energy? Effort? If the pay-off (both intrinsically and extrinsically) isn’t worth the effort, you’ll struggle to deliver behaviour change.
Ability. Is it easy? Cognitively, physically. If it’s hard to do, I just won’t do it.
If I’m motivated and it’s easy to do, I’m much more likely to change behaviour. If I’m then consistently supported in both these areas (through motivation and ability), behaviour change becomes long-term as it becomes status quo / habit.
It’s early days.
As I understand it, as a trend, phenomenon, movement... ethical fashion is still very much in its infancy (both in terms of sales share and awareness), and therefore these two specific areas offer huge potential to address for both ethical fashion growth and impact:
Motivation (macro level): Ethical fashion in totality, as both a 'brand' in itself, but also as a market and movement. This is the trigger, the question, the information and the agenda that creates MOTIVATION. This is what drives an individual's understanding as to whether the behaviour change will be worth it.
Ability (micro level): Thread Harvest (and alike) the business, as both a brand and as an enabler to make ethical fashion accessible for consumers. This is the solution, the answer, the enabler that allows them to address the broader issue that they’re now motivated to address. Thread Harvest (and other authentic ethical businesses) give ABILITY. This is what makes being ethical (when it comes to purchasing fashion) easy - they exist to make purchasing ethical fashion the path of least resistance (ideally).
Unpacking the motivation to purchase ethically.
The fashion industry has altered significantly over recent years with a dramatic price deflation of products, mostly in order to satisfy consumers’ desires for fashionable items at a disposable price.
But in recent years, with the rise of this new purchase mentality, donned ‘fast fashion’, the unsustainable and unethical nature of the clothing industry has come to light, notably with an estimated 1% of the final cost of a clothing product being paid to the worker.
And so, in the last few years, some have been inundated with exposure and increasing media coverage of organisations’ unethical practices in manufacturing, notably the sourcing through sweatshops which regularly violate basic human rights, coupled with many other health and environmental impacts and concerns (tied with other social phenomena agendas including the destruction of our environment, sustainability and mass consumption).
Ethical fashion practices were put on the map.
But despite all the hype, and parts of society expressing concern and an intention to avoid unethical clothing consumption, it may be fair to say that their attitudes and intentions are not often not reflected in their purchasing behaviour. In behavioural economics, we call this the ‘attitude-behaviour’ gap, which explains the discrepancy in consumers’ ethical and moral standards, and their real life consumption behaviour.
Apathy plays a large role in the consumption of ethical fashion, with consumer behaviour expressing a ‘lack of interest or emotion’ toward the ethical nature of clothing purchases.
To conceptualise this, a recent analysis suggested that 30% of consumers in the United Kingdom identify themselves as being ethically oriented and yet, only 4% of consumers spend in ethical product categories (Davies, Lee, & Ahonhhan, 2012).
Oh, and ask these same individuals why they didn’t follow through with their intentions, and they’ll have a justifiable reason. We are, after all, not rational but rationalising creatures.
Making ethical fashion purchase easier (in more ways than just purchasing through a solid e-commerce platform).
To begin to understand how ethical clothing consumption can be encouraged, it is vital to first recognise the perceived barriers (both cognitive and physical) to the desired behaviour (consumption) and to identify and leverage the key attributes which hold most importance to the consumer to drive action and bridge the attitude-behaviour gap:
Perceived cost of ethical clothing (notably when consumers generally seek lower prices)
Lack of information on ethically produced clothing (such as COO and supply-chain info)
Lack of availability / attainability of ethical clothing options (resulting in additional time and effort for consumer)
Lack of style and fashion (and fast response to change in trend)
Unknown brands or undesirable brands
It’s no small feat. By any measure. And it varies substantially across individuals and demographics (including age, gender, income etc).
Thread Harvest are setting out to exist to address the attitude-behaviour gap by making purchase of ethical fashion easier than it’s ever been - through price, availability, reason to buy (information) and choice (style, brand).
They are a business to keep an eye on and a brilliant team to work with.