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Exit from High Street: Why the Quest for Engagement on Sustainable Fashion Is All About 'Style'

Image credit: Law on the Runway

How do we make sustainable fashion … fashionable?

That was the question that launched the sustainable fashion consumer research project with Mistra Future Fashion conducted by professors Lucia Reisch, Wencke Gwozdz, and me. While it sounds like a relatively straightforward question, the answer was decidedly less so. When it comes to sustainability, fashion it is out of style.

Enmeshed in fuzzy terminology and encompassing a range of behaviors from purchasing to washing to discarding, “sustainable fashion” is hardly a mainstream practice and empirical research on the topic was limited.

This was our point of departure.

We scoured blog posts, skimmed Twitter feeds, and poured through content from far-flung reaches of the web, looking for everything we could find about sustainable fashion consumption. While the discussion was scant, we uncovered a small but vocal community of consumers actively promoting and developing ways to make fashion more sustainable. We chose to study these extreme “sustainable fashion pioneers,” to glean insights that could help to bring their behaviors into the mainstream.

We spent six months immersed in online content and conducted in-depth interviews to understand the motivations, behaviors and contexts that informed our participants’ behaviors. A team of researchers then conducted a follow-up quantitative survey to dig deeper into our initial observations.

Here’s what we found:

1)   Fashion is not sustainable. Style is.

2)   Amidst the complexity, consumers develop creative approaches to sustainable fashion.

3)   Sustainable consumption facilitates style and brings consumers a sense of well-being.

Fashion is not sustainable. Style is.

Condemned for its embedded obsolescence, the participants were adamant that “fashion” is not sustainable. Style, however, can be. While the difference between fashion and style is subtle, fashion is what the industry convinces you to buy each season; style is a form of personal expression you create for yourself. As such, style is enduring and timeless and can be achieved without the ongoing consumption of new goods. This shift in mindset allowed our participants to explore new modes of consumption without feeling like they had given up the expressive aspect of fashion.

For example, the follow-up research found that the pleasure derived from buying used clothes was the same as that found in traditional fashion consumption, but much more environmentally friendly.

Complex problems, creative solutions

Amidst the paradox that is “sustainable fashion,” our participants developed creative solutions to consume sustainably: Some made all of their own clothing. Others developed minimalist, capsule wardrobes with high-quality goods. One participant organized large-scale swapping events and another shopped exclusively second-hand. One even made a pact not to purchase anything new for a year and fulfilled her need for novelty by re-configuring clothing already in her wardrobe.

Rarely, however, were sustainable offerings from traditional retailers mentioned. Participants cited complexity, distrust and confusion; these alternative routes to sustainability were less fraught with uncertainty and found to be better ways to achieve personal style.

Sustainable behaviors don’t have to mean sacrifice

Sustainable consumption has often been framed as an act of sacrifice. Our participants overwhelmingly reported that they found a sense of pleasure and well-being from their pursuits for more sustainable fashion. In fact, they found that sustainable consumption actually facilitated their quest for individual style. The follow-up research also found that consumers with style orientation experienced the same pleasure associated with fashion despite lower material consumption.

At the time of our study, these behaviors were relatively novel. We are now seeing movements such as the sharing economy, the Maker movement and research on Aspirationals that suggest there may be an exciting paradigm shift underway. In the same way that “style” offers consumers a lower-impact alternative to fashion, these movements represent exciting ways to reduce material consumption without losing the essence of why people consume.

Our full paper published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies can be found here.


Sarah Bly is a consumer researcher and strategist passionate about finding creative ways to engage consumers in more sustainable lifestyles.

[Read more about Sarah Bly]


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