As environmental concern reaches new heights, sustainable fashion is gaining traction, populating online, high-street and runway collections alike. But the psychology behind a consumer’s choice to buy Green may not be as altruistic as it appears. Do we really buy sustainable fashion for the sake of the environment, or are ‘conscious’ purchases for our own conscious benefit?

The fashion industry is distressingly damaging to our environment. It accounted for 2-10% of the EU’s environmental impact, 79 billion cubic metres of water, 1,715 million tons of CO2 emissions and 92 million tons of waste in 2015 (source). Once discarded, more than 50% of all clothing was found to end up in landfills or incinerators, and of the clothes collected in, less than 1% of the materials were recycled back into new clothes. Last year alone Burberry burnt £28.6 million of unsold clothing and cosmetics (source). As information around Fashion’s impact becomes more readily accessible and transparent, it comes to no surprise that calls for sustainable and environmentally conscious fashion production have emerged. However, the motivations behind choosing sustainable fashion aren’t cut and dry. There are a number of social and individual factors that drive environmentally conscious behaviour, and they do not always place the environment as the sole beneficiary.  Is it the environment, or actually personal gain, which motivates the purchasing of sustainable fashion?

Sustainable fashion is more than just charity shop bargain hunting. It has evolved to focus on the ecological impact of the fashion industry as a whole; promoting the reuse of materials, creating timeless designs over on-trend items, reducing chemical waste and promoting the wellbeing of employees at all stages of production. Unfortunately, due care in a product’s life-cycle comes at a higher premium, which is placed upon the consumers. 

Reason 1: Selflessness

While benefiting the environment, choosing to buy ‘conscious’ collections (see H&M) comes at a financial cost. Our awareness and contentedness of this follows the environmental concern perspective (Bamberg 2003) where people engage with green behaviours because they inherently care about the wellbeing of the planet above their individual gain. An equivalent piece of clothing may exist for a lower price (visit Primark if you require an eye-opener) but deciding to purchase items from more responsible beginnings demonstrates a genuine desire to benefit the environment over personal and financial gain. 

Reason 2: Popularity

So far so selfless. But beyond inherent environmental concern, forwarding green issues and buying sustainable fashion signals to other people that one is prosocial. One can gain a reputation for being environmentally conscious and concerned about the betterment of the whole, and as such appear more cooperative, helpful and more valuable to a social group. 

Reason 3: Power

Popularity begets power. Prosocial individuals, like those who actively support sustainability ‘are desirable to have in positions of power’ and therefore ‘prosocial behaviour may be a viable strategy for attaining status’ (Griskevicius et al, 2010). Self-sacrifice and deferring one’s individual benefit for a collective benefit has been shown to increase the self-sacrificer’s status within a group of strangers (Hardy & Van Vugt, 2006). For those genuinely interested in conserving the environment, such a reputation is merely a bonus. However, for individuals more interested in status, environmentally conscious behaviour could act as a tactic to elevate their social standing. The extent to which someone actually lives sustainably may be capped at what is merely observed by the social group; the value and reputation of being prosocial hinges upon the perception of others, not on what one does away from the public eye. An individual may wax lyrical about only wearing repurposed cotton clothing, but still put their food waste in their recycling bin. 

Reason 4: Moral Identity

However can morality exist independently of ourselves, of our own benefit? It can be widely agreed that buying sustainable clothing is seen as the morally ‘right’ thing to do for the environment. But moral behaviour hinges upon a moral identity : our position on various moral scales concerning a number of ethical issues, including sustainability and conservation. In a meta-analysis, it was found that ‘moral identity strengthens individuals’ readiness to engage in prosocial and ethical behaviour’ (Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016). A strong moral identity can result in a more environmentally conscious and active individual. For shoppers with a firm moral identity or a pervasive consideration of the environment, the question ‘am I a moral person?’ may do more to inform their sustainable fashion decisions than ‘how much does it cost?’. Researchers found that individuals are more likely to experience emotions of guilt and shame when they do not act in accordance to their moral identity. And with growing concern for the environment and the increasing transparency of the fashion industry’s production practices, guilt and shame are accompanying our consumption decisions more and more. Environmentally conscious consumers may therefore act in a way that supports their perceived morality, by buying sustainable fashion, just to avoid costly emotions; nobody wants to cry over a pair of rip-off Gucci pumps, afterall. Although benefiting the environment, confirming our beliefs on who we consider ourselves to be and avoiding guilt are still acts of self-interest and personal gain. 

Reason 5: It’s Fashionable

For those whom sustainability isn’t a chief pillar of their moral identity, choosing sustainable clothing can be an inherently selfish act. Buying slow fashion can serve a moral imperative: it supports a more responsible clothing industry, one that does not depend upon speed and constantly changing styles to fuel the market. Slow fashion also offers items with a longer life, of greater value relative to other consumables, and a virtue of remaining ‘in fashion’ beyond trends and seasons . They are investment pieces with tangible pay-offs for the individual alone.

Reason 6: You’re just a good person Goddammit

It is key to recognise that the opportunity to choose sustainable fashion is a privilege for those who can financially afford it. The recent criticism of the Extinction Rebellion to ‘check its privilege’ highlights this principle. One may be environmentally conscious, with a strong moral identity and deep sense of obligation to environmental activism, but financially unable to take a day off work to protest. Yet, for those with less who still commit to sustainable consumption, activism and to embodying the change they want to see, can we plausibly consider them selfish? The constant hold financial strain has over our fiscal and notably our mental health (Selenko & Batinic, 2011; Sweet et al, 2013) may dwarf the benefits of identity validation and status of the economically disenfranchised. And yet there are still those who shoulder these economic and psychological pressures, for the sake of the environment. 

Sustainable fashion can even come at a social cost as well. Fast fashion can enable a sense of belonging within a fashion zeitgeist and wider society, particularly for those with fewer economic freedoms. The opportunity to buy into the demanding global fashion arena, to express oneself and feel a sense of belonging in our cultural climate may be a currency that some people are unwilling to lose. So given not only the costs of sustainable fashion, but the benefits of fast fashion which are passed up, it’s obvious that self-interest cannot be the only motivation for green behaviour.

Indeed, it is clear that the motivations to buy sustainable fashion are not always clear, a melting pot of each individual’s ‘moral’ self and the personal costs and benefits. Ultimately personal gain underpins many of the drivers of green behaviour, but sustainable fashion is not mainstream nor cheap enough to come without financial or mental cost. It is unreasonable to suggest that swerving the easy, cheap, behemoth fast-fashion movement – forgoing the additional disposable income and the ranging social and psychological benefits – is a selfish act. Without an inherent desire to benefit the environment, sustainable fashion wouldn’t be a consideration.

Author

Lauren is a Risk Consultant in London with degrees in Psychology and Behaviour Change. She is a professional at justifying the purchase of near-identical business casual clothes.

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