Behavioural ScienceHannah Beech

Ethical Fashion: Looking Good and Feeling Good

We all try to 'do our bit' to live in a green, ethical and socially responsible way.  We cycle or walk to work rather than taking our cars, which reduces the detrimental impact of fumes on the environment.  We buy local, organic, fair trade food which protects local producers and decreases our carbon footprint, and limit our energy consumption which lessens the drain on our natural resources.   

Ethical Fashion: Looking Good and Feeling Good

But in reality our motivations for doing these things are not usually this virtuous.  These behaviours also deliver a personal benefit: a fitter, more toned body, tastier food, a financial saving, and this is what drives us to behave in this way.  Without providing a clear benefit that is relevant to the consumer, trying to encourage people to live in a more ethical way is tough.   In these cases, new behaviours have also been made easier to adopt by the availability of products and services that support them (Boris bikes, farmers markets, apps that let you control your heating). 

So what's going on in the ethical fashion market?  There are increasing numbers of independent ethical brands such as People Tree and Reformation, as well as emerging ethical lines from well-known retailers like H&M, with their Conscious collection.  But ethical fashion is yet to go mainstream and this is because consumers do not understand what the personal benefit for wearing ethical clothing is: they are left asking 'what's in it for me?'. 

There is an emerging awareness of the negative impact of the fast fashion industry (on the environment, local producers, and factory workers - the loss of life at the Rana Plaza factory collapse shocked the nation) but unfortunately this isn't enough to encourage a mass market, sustained shift in shopping behaviours.  On top of this, if the ethical fashion choices available do not meet our needs when it comes to style, we are unlikely to compromise.  Looking good is prioritised over ethical principles.   

There are other stumbling blocks around ethical fashion purchase: it's less accessible than the fast fashion brands and retailers that dominate the high streets (supporting the ever-changing fashion trends).  It's more expensive than other clothes due to higher production costs.  And there is yet to be any significant social pressure to shop more responsibly, because we have not yet hit a tipping point around ethical clothing consumption.  So we look the other way, brush it under the carpet, and tell ourselves we're doing our bit in other ways to make a positive difference.

So how do we instigate a mass market shift in the fashion we purchase and encourage people to face this inconvenient truth?

We need to establish ethical provenance as a desirable feature of fashion; we need to make it cool to care about the origins of your clothes.  What you wear is a reflection of who you are and what you believe in; wearing ethical clothes tells people that you care about others and the planet.   The personal benefit is feeling good as well as looking good in the clothes you wear, as well as bragging rights for being ahead of the curve.

We need to raise awareness of the harmful impact of fast fashion, to pierce the bubble of inertia and challenge the delusion that everything is fine about the way we produce and distribute clothing (watch the film True Cost to be convinced).  We need to channel the influence of our opinion-leaders in the most impactful way, to normalise their behaviours more broadly in society.  

So make your next clothing purchase an ethical one.   And when you put that item on, see how it makes you feel.  Take a step in the right direction, lead the charge, and bring us closer to that tipping point of change.   


Hannah Beech

Associate Director

2CV London