Consumers around the world are thinking more and more about sustainability, and not just where food is concerned. In fact, thanks to the sustainability efforts in the food industry, consumers are much more aware of and interested in topics like harmful chemicals, third-party certifications and understanding the environmental and social impact of the choices they make in the products they purchase, including textiles. OEKO-TEX®, in recognition of its 25-year history of empowering people to make more responsible choices, commissioned sustainability research expert Ellen Karp to explore consumer attitudes about textile sustainability and the role certification can play in sustainability strategies. Survey findings suggest that consumers are farther up the textile sustainability learning curve than expected, and that the learning curve for textiles will be much shorter than the one the food industry experienced.
The first-of-its-kind survey, “The Key to Confidence: Consumers and Textile Sustainability—Mindsets, Changing Behaviors, and Outlooks,” was fielded with more than 11,000 consumers in 10 countries around the world. Consumers were selected to create a sample that closely mirrored the census demographics for their countries, and respondents completed online questionnaires in their native languages. Questions ranged from gauging attitudes about climate change to testing awareness of the textile industry’s environmental and social shortcomings. The findings showed that consumer concerns about textile sustainability are growing and will likely accelerate as the industry comes under the intense scrutiny of provocative documentaries, NGO movements and social media campaigns.
Top consumer concerns
When researchers asked consumers around the world what worried them most, the answers were somewhat surprising. Terrorism took the number one spot, illness and disease came next, and climate change ranked third. Climate change concerns actually beat out worries about political leadership, health care and other troubling topics. More than 80 percent of global consumers considered climate change to be real and very serious. More than 70 percent of respondents said they think that climate change is attributable to human activity. On a positive note, 63 percent of those surveyed said that the actions of an individual can help reverse climate change, and 70 percent stated that they are committed to living a more sustainable and environmentally responsible lifestyle.
Harmful substances comprise a key component of the sustainability equation. Foods, personal care products and textiles that contain harmful substances cannot legitimately be considered sustainable; harmful chemicals can pose risks to consumers, to workers and to the environment. When consumers in the study were asked about harmful substances, 59 percent said they were concerned about their food, 49 percent were concerned about their personal care products, and 40 percent were concerned about their clothing and home textiles. The gap between food and textiles (59 percent to 40 percent) is much smaller than researchers had anticipated, and creates the basis for suggesting that textile companies throughout the supply chain should pay attention to sustainability—now.
From personal to planetary
Consumers evaluate sustainability through two lenses. First, how does it affect my family and me; and second, how does it affect the world at large? Some consumers, depending on their level of awareness and life stage, may come down a little more heavily on one side or the other, but textile sustainability hits home with most in both perspectives. People, particularly parents, are concerned about harmful substances in their textile products and how they might be detrimental to the family’s health. Millennials, especially, are also concerned about the industry’s impact on the environment, as well as the working conditions within the industry.
Experience with and exposure to textile industry facts is the key driver in shaping perceptions. The people in the OEKO-TEX survey who live in textile-producing regions were much more likely to be concerned about harmful substances in textiles. They were also more concerned about the environmental and social effects the industry can have, because they can observe those consequences. Those not as familiar with how clothing and home textiles are produced responded with a little less concern. However, the most interesting conclusion from the study was that consumers do not have to live in a textile-producing region in order to be sensitized to textile sustainability issues.
Documentaries, social media postings, outspoken activists and news coverage about the apparel and home textile industries are getting a lot of play these days, and these sources do a good job of educating people in many areas of the world. And, as observed in the OEKO-TEX study, the more people know, the more they care. When study respondents who live outside textile-producing regions were exposed to the facts about the textile industry, their concerns about harmful substances, environmental footprint and working conditions escalated to be on par with those who were familiar with the industry on a first-hand basis.
Doing the right thing
When it comes to sustainability in general, consumers around the world stated that they “want to do the right thing.” This proved to be true as well when it came to textiles. Consumers want to buy and use textiles that are not harmful to themselves or their families; they want those textiles to be produced with respect for the environment and the people employed in textile factories. Consumers count on manufacturers, retailers and certifiers like OEKO-TEX to help them make responsible purchasing decisions that move them small steps closer to living a more sustainable life.
Textile companies can respond to this growing demand by providing straightforward and plentiful information. According to the study, consumers want to know what companies are doing with respect to textile sustainability, even if the company isn’t perfectly “green” yet. Transparent communication about advances in chemical management; initiatives that guard water, earth, and air; programs to protect workers’ rights; and transparent supply chains that stand up to third-party scrutiny should be publicized. Consumers are looking for this information on products, on websites, in mainstream media and in social media.
Independent certifications are a useful tool in transparent communication. According to “The Key to Confidence” study, more than half of the consumers who purchase eco-friendly clothing check for certification labels to validate sustainability claims. For those who don’t bother to verify claims, a third say they trust the brand, and a third say they take a product certification label at face value. This finding suggests that manufacturers and certifiers together can give consumers easy, time-saving shortcuts to making the responsible purchase decisions they want to make.
Companies that provide verifiable sustainability information in an accessible way will attract consumers interested in making more responsible decisions. And as researchers have found in other sustainability studies, once people learn how to live more sustainably, they rarely go back. That means that textile sustainability isn’t just a fashion-of-the-day trend but a long-term shift in the way consumers think about textiles.
Companies in textile sectors across the supply chain need to get their sustainability ducks in a row. This is true even in textile industry sectors that may not traditionally be considered consumer-oriented. Consumers will extend their evolving textile sustainability awareness to other parts of their lives, just as they are transferring sustainability considerations from the grocery cart to the closet at home. At work, at play or on the road, consumers will soon think about sustainability with regard to all the textiles they encounter.
Companies that provide customers and consumers with information backed up with easy-to-understand, independent verification will be well positioned to respond to escalating calls for product safety and environmental and social responsibility. “Doing the right thing” is the sustainability battle cry, and as “The Key to Confidence” study reveals, textile businesses will want to stay on the winning side.
For more information about “The Key to Confidence: Consumers and Textile Sustainability,” visit www.OEKO-TEX.com/webinars. June 2018, Specialty Fabrics Review