Some customers want the information to be able to purchase from brands that share their values. They have recognised the power they hold and are demanding transparency from businesses—in other words, they’re becoming ethical consumers.
Ethical consumerism, in the broadest sense, means buying goods or services from sources that satisfy a consumer’s definition of what is moral, good or just. Recently, the term has become strongly associated with sustainability; many consumers now think about deforestation, carbon emissions and the production of plastic and other waste materials when they buy products. The exploitation of workers, the environmental and health impacts of producing certain commodities, and the wellbeing of animals that may be involved in production are also increasingly likely to affect buying decisions.
Getting fast with fashion
Selling fashion on the high street used to involve launching clothes ranges in line with the seasons. Only the wealthy could afford to be seen in up-to-the-minute styles from luxury brand fashion shows.
However, the advent of high-street retailers means that streamlined production methods now allow trends to appear in these stores within weeks, and ranges are updated continuously. High-street chain Zara has led the way in terms of “fast fashion” since the 1990s, with garments moving from concept to store in as little as three weeks. Other high-street names such as H&M and Forever 21 have adopted the same model. Forever 21, in particular, has faced legal challenges from brands that felt some products copied their styles too closely.
In the past few years, the high street has struggled as discretionary spending has fallen and overheads have risen. Online retail has proved popular as it allows for larger inventories and stock levels can be adjusted based on sales. ASOS led the way online, but now faces competition from other brands including Boohoo and Missguided.
On the flipside, there are surprisingly few UK-relevant websites and apps that help fashion buyers make ethical purchases, perhaps because of the effort involved in gathering the data required. One of the best ones is Good On You, which urges consumers to “wear the change [they] want to see”. It rates more than 2,000 fashion brands using data from a number of sources. It includes the major certification schemes Fair Trade, OEKO-TEX and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOT), along with more than 50 other schemes and rating systems. It also considers information provided by brands themselves, preferring brands where products meet the ethical requirements of legislators and monitoring bodies.
Brands are scored out of five for good ethical practice, giving them a rating of “we avoid”, “not good enough”, “it’s a start”, “good” or “great”. When a brand scores badly, the app suggests an alternative. Clothing is split into type and can be filtered by gender, price and distance to an outlet. You can also get fashion tips, offers, news and articles relevant to ethical consumerism.
But it’s clear that change won’t happen overnight. Fast fashion may not be designed to last as long, but it meets customers’ desire to keep up with ever-changing trends. Many of these brands now employ social-media influencers to drive sales, and Instagram’s new “checkout” feature makes it even easier for consumers to “get the look”. It has become so cheap and convenient to buy new clothes that few people bother to repair damaged garments, make their own or save children’s clothing to pass down to siblings.
The problem with textiles
Charitable donations that aren’t suitable or don’t sell are now often sold on and shipped overseas. This boost to the second-hand clothing market has had a detrimental impact on local textile industries, prompting Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi to seek to ban second-hand imports.
A 2019 government report titled “Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability” revealed that 300,000 tons of textile waste ends up in UK landfill or incinerators each year, with less than 1% recycled. Charities are now looking for new solutions, including setting up their own recycling centres and burning clothes to generate energy.
Another problem is that many textiles contain polyester, nylon, acrylic or polyamide, which shed microfibres during washing, ending up as pollutants in the sea. Friends of the Earth point out that this also happens with clothes that have been made from recycled plastics.
In addition, the fashion industry adds to carbon emissions—particularly through international distribution—and consumes vast amounts of water during cotton cultivation, the dying of fabrics and other processes. Cotton cultivation also often relies on pesticides.
The issues at play within the fashion world go far beyond the materials used. There have been problems with working conditions in the textile and fashion industry for as long as factories have existed. Poor pay is common and incidences persist of child labour, forced or bonded workers and death or injury from dangerous conditions.
Of course, the best way to be an ethical fashion consumer is to buy less and wear what you already own. The Cladwell app allows you to select clothes similar to items in your wardrobe and to submit photos of anything that’s not already included in the app. It will then send you outfit ideas based on your current wardrobe and suggest purchasing fewer items that work alongside what you have. The weekly subscription of £2.99 may be a barrier to some for this US-centric app; Your Closet has many of its functions and there are a number of other similar apps to choose from.
The production of plastic has surged in the past 50 years. The National Geographic Society states the total produced reached 8.3 million tons by 2018, of which 6.3 billion tons have become waste. A July 2017 study in the journal Science Advances reported that half of all plastic becomes waste within a year of manufacture and that more than 40% of non-fibre plastic is packaging. Self-service shopping, particularly at supermarkets, has contributed to this increase.
The production and transportation of plastic also add to carbon emissions. The issue now tops current consumer concerns, helped by powerful images of plastic affecting sea life. The rise in environment-focused documentaries—such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II—has contributed to widespread awareness. Sir David Attenborough even made an appearance at Glastonbury, and the festival’s decision to ban single-use plastics from being sold onsite reflects a change in focus for retailers.
As of 2015, only 9% of all plastic waste created had been recycled. Kerbside recycling of at least two kinds of waste became mandatory under UK law in 2010. However, there are more than 50 types of plastic that need to be sorted before processing. Not all of it can be recycled in every area and some are even sent overseas. Recycling is labour and energy-intensive, and some plastics are more in demand than others. As with clothing, more efficient incinerators—which can create energy and emit less pollution—could become the best option.
Part of the process of cutting down our plastic use must come from more ethical consumerism. There has been some progress made in this way, with consumers increasingly searching for low-plastic, low-carbon options.
The Zero Waste Collective app helps you find local zero-waste businesses and includes digital loyalty cards as incentives. It was launched last year and builds on content and features as time goes on. My Little Plastic Footprint is also useful, letting you calculate your own plastic use and commit to pledges to reduce it. It also has games, articles and events.
A number of apps aim to locate businesses which refill water bottles free of charge. Coverage is far from comprehensive, but they may become more useful as time goes on. Examples include Refill and Refill my Bottle.
The impact of lifestyle choices such a transport, food and energy is the focus of several other apps. Joule Bug has similar features to a fitness app. You can earn achievements and join local challenges. Grid Carbon is a more straightforward concept that tracks national electricity usage to determine the least impactful time to use electricity.
A UK survey commissioned by the Vegan Society indicated that 600,000 people identified as vegan in 2017, up from 150,000 in 2014. Vegetarians and vegans currently make up one-eighth of the population, and this figure is predicted to rise to one in four by 2025, according to research from Sainsbury’s supermarket. The Economist declared 2019 to be “the year of the vegan”, recognising that business opportunities may arise from providing vegan alternatives or animal-free products to consumers.
A number of apps try to help those looking for animal-friendly products. Happy Cow helps you find vegan and vegetarian restaurants, cafes and food shops. Reviews are good and it’s reasonably priced at £3.99 (£3.59 for Android).
A cluster of apps let you scan product barcodes to check for vegan status. CosmEthics is another barcode-scanning app for make-up products that allows you to check ingredients using customised filters, e.g vegan or allergies. Bunny Free is similar but allows you to search for companies by name. Users are generally enthusiastic about the concept, but there is some negative feedback on functionality and UK coverage. However, both issues may be resolved with time.
Conclusion: taking responsibility
In 2015, in a study conducted by Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global, 90% of consumers who responded said they would boycott a company for “irresponsible or deceptive business practices”. Regardless of whether or not this is true in practice, it does signal consumer preference.
Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) is the usual term for the obligation businesses have for what the EU calls “their impact on society”. This includes concerns about the environment, ethics and human rights. Governance of the entire supply chain is a challenge for large companies—as is balancing ethical concerns with the need to make a profit. In the UK, all listed companies have to produce an annual report, and from 2020 this will be extended to include large private companies. As well as financial matters, these must now include engagement with stakeholders.
CSR considerations are moving from a side issue to become central to strategy. Inclusion of CSR information in reports is now standard practice for most companies, but it is unwise for any business to leave communication to a yearly publication—especially when social media also allows for direct and immediate communication between customers and companies in the public domain. The power that big business has to shape government policy on ethical issues, such as climate change, is being shaped by the platform social media gives to customers and campaigners.