While there has been much achieved in the agenda around helping fashion brands and companies become sustainable, it’s worth noting that without changing consumer behaviour, we won’t achieve our greater sustainability goal – reducing fashion’s impact on the environment so that it’s no longer the world’s second-largest polluter. But this is easier stated, than done. While there is a desire for greater transparency among this generation of consumers, and shoppers report that knowledge about a garment’s lifecycle plays into their decisions, there is often disparity between what people say and what they do. When push comes to shove, the desire for novelty and a quick retail-therapy induced dopamine fix sometimes win out. And where there is a demand for throwaway fashion, there will be a supply. Here are the five ways we can use psychology to achieve sustainability in fashion.
1. MAKE THEM CARE
The challenge is to make consumers care more about sustainability and saving the planet than they care about looking good – and that’s a tall order. Life is expensive and those who can always afford to buy better are fewer than those who often can’t. We can’t sweep the class issue around sustainability under the rug - the fact that it's difficult for a significant portion of consumers to buy better. The standard thought of the average consumer goes something like “I can buy a black top for £75 from a sustainable retailer or for £35 for a good-enough black top from a less-sustainable retailer and use the remaining £40 to also buy a new mascara and attend a Pilates class while I’m at it”. Education and emotive materials will slowly change this behaviour, even if a nudge, in the right direction. As a journalist, I had been commissioned to create content around sustainability and as I understood it better, and as I increasingly came across pictures of dyed rivers and emaciated polar bears, I started becoming turned off by irresponsible purveyors of fast fashion, and that’s when my mindset and buying patterns changed. People like cheap stuff. They’re addicted to bargains. The positive emotions that consumers feel when they score a deal do loosen one's purse strings; and people spend more optimistically and freely once they begin. Engaging their emotions, without being preachy and sensationalistic, is what we need to do to make them care.
2. MAKE THEM UNDERSTAND
The eco-aware creators of fashion-sustainability content are generally eco-aware and well-versed in this language. As a result, much of the informative content ends up being long-winded, poorly summarised and full of sustainability buzzwords that make the average person tune-out. We’re not writing the sustainability content for ourselves, or preaching to the converted. Remember, we’re trying to make the average consumer care. If they don’t really understand the particulars of the impact that throwaway fashion makes on the world, they won’t care. Psychology, not to mention common sense, tells us that we retain information much better when it’s easy to digest in organized lists and written in clear language.
3. HELP THEM KNOW THEIR 'STYLE SENSE OF SELF'
Self-knowledge is the antidote to mindless consumption. Despite the (heavily marketing-driven) trend-cycle, so far my fashion psychology pilot study demonstrates that one’s aesthetic tastes are fairly steady throughout long periods of their lives. Print-lovers tend to love to wear prints and don't begin to start to wear all-black all of a sudden. Those who tend to adopt an all-black uniform, tend to avoid prints. Same goes for silhouettes. Those who prefer an A-line shape, do so consistently, even if a pencil silhouette was all of a sudden “on-trend”. Important: brand and media companies need not fear that relaxing the trend-pushing will kill consumerism, and, their businesses. Knowing one’s style sense of style will in fact, encourage better buying, brand loyalty, and the deep-seated assurance required to buy those more-expensive investment items.
4. CREATE AWARENESS AROUND MINDFUL BUYING
Shopping for clothes is a well-known emotional crutch, band-aid solution and an ineffective way of coping with feelings of acute anxiety and sharp drops in levels of confidence and self-esteem. Better coping methods include exercise, meditation and working towards a goal. There is some truth to the retail therapy cliché. While fashion, namely wearing the right outfit can help fuel confidence within the realm of enclothed cognition (dressing how you want to feel), the relief from impulse buys during acute bouts of emotional discomfort (a break-up or other notable negative event) are short-lived. These purchases are more likely to be throwaways and things out of line with one’s style sense of self.
5. FIND ALTERNATIVE REINFORCEMENT FOR ADDICTIVE PURCHASING
Neuroimaging research has consistently reported spikes in reward-circuit dopamine activity related to shopping, similar to those seen in addictive behaviors, such as drug use and overeating. Consumer buying disorder (CBD), is one of the new addictions of the era, but poorly researched. People who rely on the dopamine rush that comes with finding a bargain or something new as a way to get a bit of a high is a problematic aspect of shopping. People can become addicted to the bargain hunt. This leads to not thinking logically amid hyperarousal and stress. Consumers need to become more self-aware around this dynamic and wait 20 minutes until their body relaxes, and their mind can start taking over again before they make a purchase. They can think of other ways to get the high. Sometimes, it’s a good run, a healthy gourmet meal, or simply adding more self-care to their routine when getting ready to create that same feel-like-new effect. And, well, those things are sustainable.